I could generate a laundry list of thoughts as to why the Mavericks surf contest is one of the more amazing events to cover, but in the end it comes down to the sheer spectacle of man vs. nature. Having photographed every Mavericks Surf Contest since 2005 I’ve covered most every angle except from a jetski and the water itself. This year I was very fortunate stay dry on the media boat to get some killer photos.
Canon 7D Pros & Cons:
Start to the Day & Camera Gear
Covering the event is as fast paced as the action itself. The day started early at 4:30am gathering my gear and driving to the Pillar Point Harbor. Still dark outside at this hour there is no way to see what conditions look like other than reading the surf & weather report. Talking with friends and event staff the night before, while picking up my media credentials, I heard it was going to be big… as in bigger than any year prior. While waiting on the dock to board the media boat I could take in the beautiful sunrise. The coastal mountains were shrouded in fog and golden light was beaming through revealing a hint of the day’s surf conditions. Surf was certainly up, but how much compared to years past it wasn’t clear.
The call came to board the boat, I grabbed my gear and I did my best to carve out a place to take position for the event. After the safety briefing on the boat it was all business. As the boat was leaving the harbor I made sure all my gear was in order including a Canon 7D provided courtesy of BorrowLenses.com and my Canon 1Ds Mark III. Also set up was a hot-shoe mounted Sony HXR-MC1 HD video camera on the 7D. By the time I adjusted camera settings, checked/cleaned lenses, and hunkered down for the long haul we cleared the breakwater and headed out into very choppy water.
Conditions & Challenges
Conditions at the surf break, roughly 1/2 a mile from shore, were picture perfect with amazing golden hour light, clear visibility and GIANT waves. Everything that had been hoped for seemed to be coming into place. Unfortunately for those on shore looking to get a glimmer of the action from the cliffs the large surf was generating tons of mist hindering the view in combination with the slow to dissipate low lying coastal fog. Eventually the fog lifted for those viewing the contest from shore, but for the 20-25 media photographers/videographers on the boat there was nothing holding us back
The blessing of huge surf created the curse of rough shooting conditions. It wasn’t uncommon for the boat to bob up and down from 6-12 feet. In many regards I felt like a rodeo cowboy with one hand on the rail and the other keeping my cameras from hitting the boat and near-by photographers. I carried onto the boat only what I planned to use, so no camera bag was necessary. Others took bags and monopods to lay on the deck that were constantly sliding into others and getting under foot. To get a solid photo I had to jam my foot against the edge of the deck/railing and pin my back to the cabin of the boat. This served two purposes… 1. To keep from going overboard when shooting and 2. To enable me the ability to use both hands to stabilize my camera as best as I could. It was a very physical day.
Surf & Surfers
Mavericks is a unique surf event in that once they determine that conditions are right they announce the contest date to take place in 2-3 days. Contest participants are pre-selected and expected to arrive in Half Moon Bay, California with in 24 hours no matter where they happen to be. This year’s Mavericks Surf Contest winner, Chris Bertish of South Africa, flew 30-plus hours on Thursday to arrive in time Saturday morning for the start of the event. Bertish and the other participants are hand selected world class athletes. The 50-58°F water requires all northern California surfers to wear 5mm wet suits hiding much of their athletic stature.
All the effort to make the event is paid off with giant waves rivaled only in a few places world-wide (Hawaii, Indonesia and South Africa). On this day the surf was reaching epic heights of 40-50 feet. Note that a rough rule of thumb is multiplying the wave height by ~2 to get the range of height of the face of the wave. A 40 foot wave can have an 80 foot face. Unlike past events the waves just kept getting bigger throughout the day. The tides were working in the favor of the contest. The only downside to the day was that as the day progressed the intervals of the swells seemed to extend creating larger lulls between sets. By the time the final heat rolled around there was more waiting than surfing, but when the waves arrived they were epic by any standard.
More Camera Gear Info
I can’t thank BorrowLenses.com enough for the use of the Canon 7D. It was the primary camera that I used. In the past I’ve used my Canon 1D Mark II with great success. I had but 45 minutes to spare after preparing my gear to learn how to configure and use the Canon 7D. Canon has continued to make it simple to configure its dSLR settings. The use of the Quick Control screen to easily access all basic camera settings was of great value throughout the day. In reviewing the camera’s feature settings, the night before the event, I disabled the on camera flash & Live View, set the AF mode to Quick, set the color space to AdobeRGB and specified centered focus points to be used. I checked for dust spots in a few test shots and found the camera to be in great working order.
Why did I chose to shoot with the Canon 7D? Three things come into play when I photograph sports subjects (or wildlife for that matter) from a boat: shutter speed, resolution and frame rate.
Capturing my subject at a high shutter speed is essential to offset movement of the boat. This is especially true when you’re fighting a substantial pitch due to high surf. In addition to water conditions facing unpredictable coastal weather where the lighting can become dark can also negatively impact ones ability to keep a high shutter speed. Noise free high ISO functionality is key to adjusting to weather conditions. I prefer to shoot in Aperture priority mode (occasionally in Shutter priority) while manually fine tuning the aperture settings to strike a balance between needed depth of field and shutter speed.
The higher the resolution of the camera sensor the greater flexibility I’ll have to fine tune my composition in post-production by cropping photos. Higher resolution photographs allow me to correct poorly composed photos resulting from unpredictable movements of the boat. While I can line up a composition in a split second I can’t predict how the boat will move due to the surf. It’s not uncommon to look at photos in post-production and notice substantial movement or in extreme cases lost shots.
For many it might seem that the 5fps of a camera like the 1Ds Mark III or other body would suffice for a sports event, but this is not the case. 3 to 5 extra frames per second can make the difference between getting the shot and not. This is particularly true when photographing an extreme sport such as surfing, let alone dealing with unpredictable movement of your shooting platform.
On all fronts the 7D handled the job nicely. Is the camera up to snuff for landscape work? I couldn’t tell you at this point, but for sports photography I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again.
Throughout the week I’ll post some of my favorite photos from the 2010 Mavericks Surf Contest to the blog, but in the meantime I’ve embedded a larger set of images below for you to enjoy. Let me know if you find a favorite and feel free to embed this slideshow elsewhere.
[tags]Photography, Mavericks, Maverick’s, surfing, surf, sports, extreme sport, Mavericks Surf Contest, 2010[/tags]