We talk to Steve Wall, Director of upcoming film Undone, about the gear needed to capture big waves and huge talent.
How did this shoot come about?
This image was taken during a shoot for the film Undone - a project I’m currently directing showing professional surfer Laura Enever diving into the deep end of big wave surfing. Our process with the film is to identify possibilities - alignment of swell/wind/tide - and get ourselves to the right place at the right time. Over the course of the winter just past, every time we saw an opportunity we would drop everything and get ourselves to whatever corner of Australia this was happening.
Our photographer on the project, Matty Dunbar, would accompany us on most trips covering images for the film, editorial, press and advertising. His mission is to chronicle the journey of Laura from start to finish as the Undone journey unfolds. With the motion side there’s always a bit more of a plan, but more often than not Matt would be shooting in the same place as us but making his own calls on lenses/positioning. So often he’ll nail something completely unique.
Who was on your team for the day and had you discussed an approach in advance?
On this day we had Laura and Scott ‘Whip’ Dennis surfing, taking turns towing each other into waves. Matt was shooting stills from the water, myself and Guy Dixon shooting motion from the camera jetski.
Unlike regular surfing, towing in big waves is a team effort. You’ll often hear calls like “98% driver” after somebody gets a good wave - it’s mostly true.
There’s no better guy than Scott to be teamed up with at this spot. The judgement and perception required to drive the ski into position takes many, many years of dedication. We’d been doing this for a few months, and the team was working together really well, so on this day when the conditions came together we all knew exactly what had to be done.
This day Matt shot with the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II in an Aquatech housing with a 50mm lens. Shooting surfing from the water you need the best autofocus and FPS you can get, so the 1D is a logical choice.
When you swim, a physically compact 50mm lens also helps. A bigger zoom and bigger lens port adds to more bulk in the water and more chance of being sucked over the falls. If you’re shooting from the jetski, you normally use a 70-200mm or telephoto lens as you’re further away from the action. So if you’re on a wider lens you have to get the ski as close as you can to the wave to get a dynamic perspective.
On the motion side, our approach for this shoot consisted of a water camera, telephoto land angle and documentary camera rigged for run and gun coverage of the peripheral moments around the shoot. We used the Canon C200 and C300 Mark II for this - this is a fast paced environment that requires quick boot up, efficient but high quality 4K recording and a compact form factor. When working with a small, often only one or two people team - this is especially important. You can’t ask the subjects here to just stop what they’re doing for 15 while you change a camera setup. The challenge is keeping pace and still shooting it without compromise.
We used the 15.5-47 CN-E cine zoom as our go-to for documentary coverage, with the Super35 crop factor this is a perfect range. I’ve often used stills lenses like the Canon 24mm-70mm for this kind of work, and the cine zoom is such a big step up in both functionality and aesthetic. The cinematic look even on a handheld, run and gun shot really shines through.
How did the shoot go on the day?
This day was amazing. It was a relief actually - I think we’d probably spent like 50 hours in the car driving to and from this spot through July/August, maybe more. Each time we’d come down, something wasn’t quite right and it just wasn’t falling into place. We had injuries, tech mishaps and more sleepless nights spent on the highway than ever before - often in the same week. I’d tell my friends what would happen and they’d usually just laugh and shake their head in disbelief at our latest mishap. It’s the nature of what we’re doing though. The chase is brutal sometimes but if you can persevere it will eventually pay off.
On this morning Laura was surfing incredibly, the waves were firing and all the team were nailing it behind the lens. This is what I’ll remember most when I see that cover photo - a hard-won team victory after many months of slogging away.
What were the moments and conditions leading up to this capture? Any challenges or gifts from your environment? Did you know you had something special straight away or only later on reflection?
We’d actually run out of power on the main water camera, after six hours in the water. The morning session was wrapping up and we were all ready to make a run for the bakery down the road any minute. Realising that we were out of action on the motion front, Matty jumped on the camera ski and we figured we’d try nail a photo of the last wave before we packed it up.
What makes this location unique is that there is no channel, no real safe zone where you can sit alongside the waves.
If you want to get the classic high angle up on the shoulder of the wave image it requires a cat-and-mouse game of ducking and weaving between a separate break to the side. If you’re too far out, the surfer will be hidden from view, too far in and you’ll risk swamping and losing the ski to the waves, pushing into 2-3 foot of water over a shallow reef. I knew Matt was on a 50mm too so we had to be right in there or we wouldn’t get the shot.
Within one minute of Matt getting on the ski we heard the guys out the back start up. The horizon disappeared and we could tell there was a big set coming. As the wave drew out the reef, Laura positioned herself perfectly in the barrel, flying past us. She probably could see us up in the top corner of the barrel looking down from above, myself screaming and arms in the air, Matt focused on nailing the shot as we precariously hang over the edge.
I was so focused on trying to get us in the spot that I didn’t know exactly what the photo was going to look like, but I felt like we were in a pretty crazy position and that Laura nailed her side of it.
Half an hour later, over a tableful of bakery treats we knew we had something special.
Any reflections on the shots from that day now you’ve had time to process? Any response since publication?
It’s been really cool to see this image make a splash online. What Laura is doing is pretty special, and I’m glad to see people coming to appreciate that more and more. It’s super exciting to think about where she’s going to go from here and can’t wait to share the next steps of the adventure.
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