Michael Clark Talks Tahiti Surfing Photography

Michael Clark: "Shooting big wave surfing in Tahiti sounds pretty stinking good, I will admit, and it was exciting to be sure. But the reality is you are on a boat going up and down like a cork on the ocean all day. I had five days where I was sitting in a boat getting blasted by the sun for twelve straight hours. There were no bathroom breaks or lunch breaks. You got on the boat at 6 a.m. with everything you needed for the day (including a ton of sunscreen) and you headed out to the wave. At 6 p.m., you headed back to the marina in the fading light. Those were some very long days, but that is just how it is—if you leave for even a few minutes you might miss the most amazing shot of your entire trip. That is surfing photography in a nutshell. It isn’t quite as glamorous as it sounds but it is quite the adventure.

"Teahupo’o (pronounced Tea-uh-oo-poh or "ch-oh-poe") is literally at the end of the road on the southwest coast of the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia. It is a small fishing village with only one 7-11 type store and a few outdoor restaurants serving quintessential Tahitian food. The village, while beautiful in its rustic way, is not nearly as exotic as you might think. There are no white sandy beaches in Teahupo’o. The coastline consists of hard black stone and a giant coral reef. The village just happens to sit in front of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders – a wave so violent that it instills fear in the heart of every surfer who attempts to ride it. On a small day, the wave--also named Teahupo’o--isn’t that alarming but when it rears up on a big swell, it is a ferocious monster that only the brave and talented even dare to ride.

"The wave breaks about one kilometer from shore out on the edge of a coral reef. While Teahupo’o is not the biggest wave in the world, it is widely considered the heaviest, meaning that there is a larger volume of water cascading over the surfer than on any other wave in the world. The lip of the wave at Teahupo’o can be anywhere from a few feet thick to fifteen feet thick or more depending on the conditions—and that is just the lip of the wave. When Teahupo’o is in full rage, the lip of the wave can snap your neck in a heartbeat. There are other reasons why the wave is terrifying:  it is moving with incredible velocity, it has a very steep wave face, and it has a wicked sharp coral reef only a few feet under the water’s surface right in front of you. Surfer’s have literally had their faces ripped off on the reef. A few days after I left this year, top female big wave surfer Maya Gabiera was held down on the inside for six waves and nearly drowned. When she was rescued, she had blood coming out of her ears, nose, and eyes and she was foaming at the mouth. Have not doubt, this is a serious wave."


Camera: Nikon D700
Lens: Nikon 70-200 mm f/2.8
Settings: ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2500th of second

(Michael quickly noted that he has embraced the new Nikons that have come out recently, the D800 and the D4, and is loving them!)


As I live in New Mexico and am not strictly a "surfing" photographer (I shoot a wide variety of adventure sports as you might have seen on my website), I do not have close relationships with all the surfers. I do know several of the pro surfers but I am just not around them that often. I have much closer friendships and relationships with the climbers, mountain bikers, kayakers and BASE jumpers that I have worked with. In terms of model releases, I have some model releases for certain surfers. It is hard to get the releases since I am shooting everyone in the water. And some of these athletes, like Kelly Slater and Bruce Irons are multi-millionaires that understandably like to control their public image. I do not have a model release for Kelly Slater. If I have a client, like Apple or Nikon, for example, that really wants to use the image of a celebrity like these guys then we can contact the surfer and get a release and also compensate the athlete for that usage. If the image is used by the athletes sponsor, then they already have that release in place. And of course for editorial usage I don't need to have a model release. For all of my other adventure sports images, I have releases for everyone I shoot. Surfing is tough on the model release front unless you know the athlete really well.

I have not found other surfing photographers to be territorial. To be honest, they are not worried about me because they know I am not looking to compete with them and their clients. I tend to license surfing images to larger clients that are outside the surfing industry. I have not run into the territorial nature of surfers, though I have been told that there are definitely places you just don't go to shoot surfing as they are very protective of some lesser known surfing spots. Also, I have to acknowledge Brian Bielmann here (www.brianbielmann.com). He has helped me gain access to many places and athletes in the short three or four years since I have added surfing to my portfolio."


"One of the keys to shooting surfing is that you have to pay constant attention to what is going on; otherwise, you will miss the shot. This is a bit harder than it sounds. After spending five 12-hour days on a boat shooting what amounts to the same shot over and over, it is easy to lose concentration. It is also difficult to get an image that stands out from the thousands of other images. In all, I shot over 11,000 images in a span of nine days. As you might imagine, trying to edit that many images is a nightmare. I am still editing them if the truth were told. You basically shoot every wave that rolls by because you never know what is going to happen. When I edited the images, I kept coming back to that wave because it had a menacing look to it that really caught my eye. It is still one of my favorite images from the trip."

Stay connected to Micheal:  Website | Blog | Workshops | Facebook | Twitter


Focus on Photographers - Trevor Clark
Outdoor Adventure Photography Workshops - 2012
Great Combinations - Canon for Travel Photography

Adventure photographyApril 2012Big wave surfingJoel addamsMichael clarkPicturelineSurfSurfing photographyTahitiTeahupo’oWaves

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