APS interviews professional surfing photographer Jeff Flindt. We get his take on in-water photography, tips for starting out, and his favorite location to shoot in the world plus much more.
Located at: Helsenberg, Sweden with family
Photography Travel: 6 Months out of the year.
How are the waves in Sweden?
The waves can be good when there are storms coming through and the winds at like 30 knots.
What got you into photography?
Back in the 90’s, my father bought a couple one-hour photo labs that I would work at which gave me access to almost unlimited film for my Canon Elan. I started taking pictures of some of my friends I grew up with and they started getting sponsors. They got their foot in the door with surf companies, and I kind of followed along with them. Then I went to college but only did a year and a half because I was getting opportunities for traveling and needed to pay off equipment debt. I started working more for my dad to save money and have a flexible schedule. It took me 5 years before I was actually making enough money to support myself and had enough contacts in the industry.
Do you ever get trapped in a wave when you are shooting in water?
Yeah, it depends on the circumstances. I feel completely comfortable on anything under 15 foot face, if I get caught in it for me it’s not life or death. Over that height it starts to get a little more serious. Based on the break you can usually know where to shoot, but some break randomly. This is where training and ocean experience comes in handy.
What’s your next shoot?
I’m going to France on Friday actually for a 10 day Patagonia shoot with some girls. I’ll be shooting some longboard stuff and shoot products like some of their backpacks and wetsuits. Then in October I’ll be shooting a surf contest for QuikSilver in New Jersey.
What’s your favorite spot to shoot in the world?
Teahupoo in Tahiti. I would say it’s the most photogenic wave in the world. When it’s very small it’s beautiful for taking very cool underwater photos. When it’s super big the wave is just really photogenic and the lighting is beautiful in the mornings and afternoons there. There are no hotels there to stay so it’s pretty much just a hostel community on that side of the island.
Is it better to shoot underwater if the waves are smaller?
Yes, when the waves are smaller the water is moving slower and there’s less whitewater and sediment which makes images hazy. When you are shooting underwater you want to be maybe 3-5 feet from the subject so you don’t have that much water between you and the subject so you get very clear photos. This means you pretty much have to shoot wide angle and want to get as close as you can to your subject.
What lens do you use for shooting in the water?
I shoot wide in the water so when I was using the Canon fisheye I would typically go at f/4 so that the images would come out sharp. Now I’m shooting a Tokina fisheye on a cropped sensor and it’s not as sharp. I have to step it down to about f/5.6. If I shoot it at f/4, it’s not that sharp on the edges, I would love to shoot it at f/8 but then the aperture get’s a little too closed up for my shutter speed.
What’s your approach to scouting locations from the beach before you shoot?
The waves are changing like every 4-6 hours, so I choose a location based on the size of the waves and the way the light looks. You just have to go down there and adapt to it.
Do you get good access to all the controls on your camera with the water housing you use?
My housings are completely custom-made, so I can say this is where I want my dial to be and how I want it to feel. This way I have great access to my camera.
Did switching to digital make a big difference for your in-water shooting?
With film I’d load up 36 frames and it would take me 20-30 minutes to swim out to take the shots. Then I’d have to swim back to change to a new roll and would be super picky with the shots I’d take because I didn’t want to waste film. Nowadays, you just put in a 16gb card and your golden all day. But with film I’d actually get a break to drink water after swimming back. Instead I now will stay in sometimes for 8-9 hours without a break, food, or water.
Is a 70-200mm lens long enough to get good shots from the beach?
It depends on the wave, if the waves are breaking really close to the beach than you can get away with using the 70-200, especially if you have a cropped sensor. With a full-frame you’ll typically need more reach but can capture more of the wave and scenery.
How do you focus when you’re in the water?
When I use the 70-200mm I actually use the autofocus, and set the focus point to the middle (the bullseye). The bullseye is actually the most accurate focus tracking, if you use one of the side ones then it won’t be quite as accurate. With my fisheye I usually set it at about 5 feet and everything from 5 feet on should be sharp.
How did you make your contacts with the magazines?
It goes back to living in Southern California where much of the surfing industry is centered. Some of my friends growing up became pro surfers and were friends with the editors of surfing magazines. They introduced me to the editors and as soon as I got a foot in the door I would listen to everything the editors said and take all their advice to heart. I let them know that I was serious about this and stayed loyal to their magazine.
One piece of advice you would offer to upcoming surf photographers?
Get to know your camera gear and how the lens works. Get to know all your custom functions and every single dial. Know how to change your exposure without even looking at the camera. It’s like a computer where you know how to type without looking at the keyboard.