A DAY at SCHOOL
It was not an easy day. It was a long, at times cold, other time scary and constantly challenging day. Furthermore there was no reason to put myself through this ordeal. After all I was skipping out on my responsibilities of work, you know the kind that puts food on one’s table and furthers a career. Instead I was working on self-indulging my physical and mental senses, not to mention copping an adrenaline rush. The payoff? A day of rejuvenation, of feeling alive, and maybe a bit of creative reward.
The alarm sounded at 6 a.m. A check of the wind and outdoor temperature revealed a light off-shore breeze and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The conditions were perfect for what could be an epic day of surf. The day before a large swell, as predicted, started pulsing into shore and I jumped on the opportunity to catch some waves knowing that my plans for the following day may not allow the time or energy to surf. Having satisfied my surf craving the prior day I now set my mind on photographing. I loaded my truck with cameras, tripod, water housing, swim fins, wetsuit, an assortment of snacks and fruit and water. Class was in session!
While I usually head out with no definite agenda as to where I’m going to shoot (too many variables involved with surfing) this time I left with a set curriculum in hand. The advantage to not being rigid is that you can follow where you think the best waves and photo opportunities are and let conditions dictate your moves. The problem with that is you can end up chasing your tail and miss out on the best moments. Anyway, deciding to buck my past trends I made plans to photograph at three known surf spots—one in the morning, one at midday, and one in the evening. It didn’t matter if the best waves or surfers were happening or not at these locations and/or times. I was challenging myself to come up with the most excellent photos I could under the circumstances I put myself in. Call it a day at school.
First period was at the pier in Lake Worth, Florida. If the swell was huge it could be quite impressive to see waves crashing against the pier with the accent of dramatic morning light. The contrast and graphics of the pier pilings juxtaposed against powerful, blue ocean swells with surfers taking steep, late drops on pier high waves was the vision I had in mind. When I arrived, though, I was greeted by the unexpected. The swell was not huge, the waves were not crashing against the pilings and few surfers were out. The light, however, was good and I was determined to tackle the challenge.
Reluctantly I decided to walk out on the pier; it’s too common of a spot to shoot from and once there you’re limited to one vantage point. Nevertheless little else was happening and I didn’t feel like chasing a tail. It took a long time to find my eye and I found myself becoming frustrated. Slowly, however, I started to see things: Texture, shadows, close-ups, action, contrast, long-view scenes and special moments. And while the early morning light wasn’t spectacular it was nevertheless beautiful and made for a post card look of the blue/green ocean water.
Knowing the likelihood of better surf and surfing elsewhere I halfheartedly stayed longer than I normally would have for no reason other than my personal challenge. As I finally made my way back to the truck I took a last glance at the pier and, with eyes now in tune, discovered more striking imagery. I barely had to move two feet from the truck to capture what are some of the best scenic photographs of the day. I drove away pleased with my effort and headed to my second planed destination. Still, I couldn’t help but think of what I could possibly be missing!
Another unexpected surprise greeted me at my second destination. Palm Beach, for the uninitiated, has very limited beach access and available parking. This particular locale, being no different, did allow for a quick check of the surf without much worry of a hefty fine. Yes, you parked illegally and crossed an empty lot but you were hidden from the main road. Well to my surprise the empty lot was now under construction and blocked from access to the beach!
Regardless, I had a goal and was determined to stick to it. I will admit, though, at this point I was tempted to go where I knew the surf stars and star photographers were, a spot called Pump House on the north side of Lake Worth Inlet. Instead, I prepped my camera and water housing, donned a wetsuit and grabbed a pair of fins with waves unseen. Finding a legal parking spot I hiked five blocks to an empty ocean lot where I hurriedly trespassed across it and, walking through a tunnel of sea oats, arrived in time for my second class. There, to my surprise, I discovered much bigger and powerful surf than I had seen at the pier. The conditions for surfing and photography could not have been better but the waves were a definite challenge to surfers, let alone to someone wanting to swim and take pictures!
Back when I was several decades younger swimming out in waves of consequence was hard but doable. Many times I swam out at some of the largest surf in the world to capture close up perspectives of the surfers and waves. My training then was free diving and youth. Now it is yoga and wisdom. Two commendable qualities but neither one can compensate for youth. The point being is that I was nervous as hell and could not get my heart to stop racing, especially as I watched bomb after bomb detonate in front of me. Patiently waiting for a slight lull in the sets I managed to swim out past the breakers where ten minutes later I caught my breath and calmed my fears.
The results of stressing the heart and mind were in the end worth it. It was not easy, constantly fighting a strong current and swimming under huge close out sets. More difficult though was the fact that only four surfers were in the water. Yes they were good and I give them kudos for putting themselves on the line when so many didn’t. But the arena is large and many times I was not where they were or sets of waves went un-ridden because they weren’t in position, were paddling back out or were washed in by a rouge wave.
An hour and half later I had enough and as one last bomb came at me I succumbed to its force and let it tumble me in. I was cold, hungry and needed a short pause in ‘child’s pose.’
Final class was held at the famous Reef Road on the north end of Palm Beach Island. By now the late afternoon light was shinning in all its glory. What surfers were left where either still at Pump House or surfing a mushy sand bar about 300 yards off shore. I noticed, though, that near the shoreline the waves were mostly unmakeable but had wide open barrels. Quickly finding a place to park I ran to the beach with gear in hand.
The current was swift, way too fast to swim against, so I stayed in the impact zone photographing the breaking waves as I drifted southward. I drifted well over a quarter mile before the characteristics of the waves changed (no more heaving curls) and the sun started to set. The long day of school had ended. It was now time to turn in the home work.
Seeing the pictures that evening I felt good about the work; on a grade scale maybe I earned an A-. In the morning I had been greeted with less than expected drama but after an early struggle was able to stimulate my creative juices and find those special moments. The second stop became a physical and nerve racking struggle but I persevered not only in the water but in getting to my destination in the first place. The results are about as good as I could have done and for a short period of time I felt invigorated and youthful again.
The minus in the A comes from the final assignment. The reason, in part, is that honestly I could have done better, but mostly because I heard afterwards that the waves at the second location went Richter in the late afternoon. Bigger waves than earlier with golden light, ahhh, the images that could have been! I should have checked it after my recess but sticking to my set plan I didn’t. Hey, at least I didn’t chase a tail that day and, who knows, it might have saved this photographer’s neck from a severe beating or worse.
Photography can be frustrating but surprising. It can challenge and reward. And in the end, no matter how well you may have done, it will always tell you that it could have been done better! Class dismissed.