One of my favorite things about Charleston, South Carolina is being close to the ocean. I love being in and around the water and, although I’m not very good at it, I do enjoy wakeboarding. Charleston has become a pretty big hub for sports like kiteboarding and wakeboarding over the last few years, and this city is not short on talented athletes. I took an interest in wakeboard photography a couple years ago and I always enjoyed shooting images from extreme angles. Although I’ve gotten some cool images, I never felt like I really had much control over my images with just daylight. I’ve tried to bring strobes outside to create something “different,” but even those shots have been done a million times. I decided I wanted a way to shoot a rider flying through the air with interesting, studio quality lighting and the photos and video at the end of this article show what I came up with.
When planning this photoshoot I wanted to create great looking photographs, but I also wanted to make the video footage of the wakeboarders as interesting as possible. One of the downfalls of taking still photos of extreme sports is you don’t always get the full experience. So below I am going to tackle the ins and outs of my photo shoot on the water and in the studio, while Lee Morris is going to discuss the challenges we faced filming and editing everything. Hopefully this encourages you to push not only your photography, but also your film making.
Shooting Position and Gear Recommendations
Most wakeboarding images today are shot either from the stern of a chase boat or from an inner tube. Every once in a while you see images taken from land or possibly even from a stationary spot floating in the water. If you shoot from land or a chase boat you will probably want to shoot telephoto and compress the image, which helps separate the rider by blurring the background. When shooting from an inner tube, you are going to have to shoot wide angle. This allows you to really capture the scenery and help put the rider directly in the viewers face. What I am going to discuss below is relevant no matter where you are, but most of it relates to my favorite angle, which is very close on an inner tube.
Here are my favorite lenses to use when shooting wakeboarders depending on where I am located and why I like them:
Tokina 11-16mm 2.8 Wide Angle Lens – This lens is definitely my go-to lens for wakeboarding and is crucial when shooting from a tube. I’ve owned the Nikkor 12-24mm and not only is it not as sharp, but it’s also not 2.8 for when you need low light capabilities. The reason I am not shooting full frame with the Nikkor 14-24mm is because that lens does not take filters for my underwater casing and the lens would have to rub against the housing’s front element. So for wakeboarding, I still shoot on DX instead of full frame. If you are a Canon shooter, you probably want to shoot with the Canon 10-20mm lens.
Nikkor 70-200 2.8 Telephoto Lens – All of the shots I took for this video outside were shot on the Tokina, but I did use this lens for the studio part of the shoot. If you don’t want to invest in an underwater housing you could easily shoot from the boat or land with this lens. It’s also 2.8, which allows for a lot of separation between the background and the wakeboarder, and it also gives you faster shutter speeds at lower ISOs. The Vibration Reduction can be useful on a boat at times too, especially for video. Of course, you can use any telephoto lens and if you are shooting with adequate sunlight, you could probably get away with a cheaper lens like the Nikkor 70-300.
Ewa-Marine U-BXP100 Underwater Housing – When shooting from the inner tube, I would highly recommend using the Ewa-Marine U-BXP100 underwater housing bag to keep everything nice and dry. The reason I like this particular housing over a standard housing is because the U-BXP100 allows you to use any camera and also connect flashes or pocket wizards to your hotshoe. I’ll admit, it isn’t as easy to use as other housings that have dedicated buttons, but I like knowing I don’t have to upgrade it every year or two when I buy another camera or new lens. This fits up to 82mm lenses, so make sure you buy the correct adapter for your particular lens.
Camera Settings and Challenges On The Water
Photographing wakeboarders from a moving inner tube is not exactly easy. There are a lot of challenges that you will face that are not found when shooting telephoto from a boat or from the shore. Here are some tips that I can share that might make it easier for any photographer looking to take similar images.
The first issue you want to tackle is overall exposure. I shoot jpeg 80% of the time, but because you can’t easily change your settings on the fly, I would recommend switching over to RAW. This will give you the most flexibility in your editing if something is just a little off. I would also recommend setting your camera to shutter priority mode because the most important variable in your exposure is going to be your shutter speed. A shutter speed of around 1/1600th – 1/3200th of a second should be a good starting point.
Now some people might disagree with me here, but I would then set your ISO as high as your camera will let you while still maintaining good image quality. The reason I suggest this is because you want your camera to stop down the aperture as much as possible so you can have a lot of depth of field. This gives the rider the most space to perform while still being in focus. If you can shoot at a lower ISO and a wider aperture and still nail your focus, then go for it, but I’ve found that your camera’s auto focus really struggles with fast action and water drops on the lens. Because auto focus is often useless in this situation, I find it best to prefocus the closest distance the rider will be and shoot maybe around f/5.6 – f/10 to create a nice large depth of field. I have found that my images still look pretty clean even at ISO 1600-3200 since the light is pretty bright when shooting wakeboarding. Finally, set your camera to the fastest burst rate you can get. Once you get your timing down, you will not need to fire off eight frames a second, but initially it does help.
The next question you want to address is where will you be located in relation to the boat and the rider. You really have two choices: between the boat and the rider or behind both the rider and the boat. The first position will allow you to fill the frame with the rider facing you while the second position lets you capture both the rider and the boat in photo. I’d recommend shooting from both positions if the wakeboarder is comfortable with crossing your tow line. Just a note about safety here: placing yourself in harm’s way often produces some stunning images, but don’t put more responsibility on youself, the rider or the boat captain than what you know everyone can handle. If the rider is clearing the wake and crashes, usually they will not hit the photographer. If they don’t clear the wake, there may be trouble.
Here are a few tips that might make your life easier that I have found while on the water. Make sure you are close enough to the wakeboarder that you can get dramatic shots with them filling the frame, but not too close that you aren’t also able to capture the horizon and scenery. Most wakeboarders do not like images of them in the air with no reference point. Also, don’t place yourself too far from the rider or else your images will start to look like they were taken from the boat, which defeats the whole point of shooting close on a tube. Also be prepared to have a lot of spray hitting your face and the camera. My approach to keeping the lens clean is to use spit on the lens, which helps repel water. Rain-X and other chemicals will actually create beads of water which will ruin your shots. It also helps to keep little Silca Packages in your housing to prevent moisture build up and fogging. I have found that a thin coat of Rain-X antifog solution works pretty good but I’d only use it if you run into fogging problems.
Also you really need to hit the water at the right time of day. Usually, the best sunlight is going to be from the side when everything has nice modeling and warm tones. I’ve found the best time of day to shoot is the first three hours of morning and the last three hours before sunset. Anytime outside of that is going to be too bright and too contrasty. Plus, the water is usually full of chop around mid day, which isn’t good for the riders. If you want to shoot in lower light, you will have to use flash, which can be very difficult because you need an assistant with you on another tube and you have to deal with syncing around water. Also, sometimes syncing at the traditional 1/250th of a second can cause a lot of unexposed blur from the riders moving so fast through lower ambient light. My recommendation if you want to get into strobing on the water is to use a power pack up high from the boat or sync smaller flashes very close to the rider with the new Pocket Wizard Flex Units that allow for wireless Focal Plane high speed sync.
Finally, the biggest thing you can do to help yourself get good wakeboard photos from an inner tube is to buy the most stable tube you can afford. We used about three tubes for this video and some of them were definitely better than others. The best inner tubes are ones that are completely covered with nylon, have a low profile, and are wide and stable. My favorite tubes are the Kwik Tek G-Force, Kwik Tek Matrix V-3 and the Hyperlite Extreme XL. Unfortunately these tubes come and go with the seasons, so they may be tough to find.
The Indoor Studio Shoot
Shooting wakeboarders behind a boat is a lot of fun and most of the images you will see in magazines are taken as previously described. However, I wanted to do something that was really different and would bring a commercial element to this sport I love. I wanted to capture a similar look to what I've done before with other sports such as soccer, basketball and track. This was not an attempt to pass off "staged" wakeboarding photos as real, rather a way to be creative and produce images that give wakeboarding a glossy look that can't be captured out on the water.
My idea was to suspend the wakeboarders using climbing gear so I could position them into traditional wakeboard poses while lighting them with studio strobes. The final element that would bring these photos to life was intense water splashing against a high contrast background.
The setup for this shoot was pretty complex. The first thing I had to test and experiment with was the suspension of the riders. I was able to use a simple climbing harness fitted backwards and a few climbing ropes to hoist each rider up off the ground. Most of the harness was hidden under the riders’ swim trunks, which greatly minimized the amount of Photoshop I had to do in post-production. I also had a second rope attached to the wakeboard itself to help maintain the riders in a balanced horizontal position. Holding these poses requires a lot of strength and is actually more tiring than doing the jumps in real time behind a boat.
For lighting I used two Photoflex Halfdome Stripboxes behind the wakeboarders firing back towards the camera. These two lights allowed me to light the water and also the side of each rider. I also used a gridded Dynalite with reflector behind and above the black backdrop to add even more back lighting and allow for some separation of the riders' board and hair. The main key light was a small beauty dish on a boom stand camera right and I used a large Photoflex Octabox almost on camera axis for just the slightest amount of fill. I used all Dynalite strobes and heads on each of these light modifiers.
The typical exposure for these shots was around f/11-14 @ 1/250th and ISO 125. During Noah’s session I started to drag the shutter around 1/60th since we had really strong modeling lamps for the video crew. This allowed the water to blur just a little, but I’m not sure if I like it one way or the other. One little note here, lately I have been shooting tethered to the Apple iPad, which is great for seeing details in your photos. If you want to learn more about how you can do this, check our Fstoppers video How To Tether Your Camera To The iPad.
The only other tricky element to this photoshoot was anticipating how the water would look when thrown at the rider. We used water hoses, small buckets, large buckets, mist and different types of spray nozzles. Some of them had a more realistic look like you might see when wakeboarding and others were more dramatic. You really have to get your timing down to grab the water at its peak and careful enough not to have your assistants throwing water directly into the rider’s face (which happened a lot...sorry Dale).
All in all, this photoshoot was a blast and everyone involved really came together to help produce a fun video. If you are a photographer living near water, I hope you can take some of these tips to produce your own images. If you are ever around the Charleston area, head over to Trophy Lakes where you can catch some of the best riders in the Southeast riding the rails. You can also check out more of my work at Patrickhallphotography.com.
Filming The Video by Lee Morris
Behind The Boat
Shooting the video on this project was a blast. For the boat footage we filmed with three Nikon D300s cameras, a Canon 7D and two GoPro HDs. The intro to the video was filmed with the Canon 7D at 60fps and then slowed down to 40% to match our 24fps video. I then used software called Twixtor to slow that video down another 50% so the video you are seeing is actually 20% speed. We used the same model Ewa Marine bag to film video from the tube that Patrick used to shoot his stills, and that in itself is a huge selling feature. We could grab any camera with any lens and it fit perfectly in the bag. If we had used a real underwater housing, we would have had more control, but we would have needed a different housing for every piece of gear and I don’t have that kind of money.
We had three chase boats and video guys on each of them shooting from different angles. All of the slomo stuff came from the 7D and all of the standard video came from Nikon D300s cameras. Editing Canon and Nikon footage together was a big eye opener for me. Canon’s video quality is far superior to our Nikon cameras and I wish we had been able to film the whole thing on Canon. Hopefully Nikon will have a new camera out that shoots 60fps at 720 (hint hint).
The shots at :11 and :56-1:02 are all from a GoPro on a monopod shot at 60fps and also slowed down to 20% speed with Twixtor. The scary thing is that we were constantly falling off of the tube and, although the Ewa Marine bags we were using floated our cameras, the GoPros on metal monopods would have sunk like a stone. Luckily we never dropped them. For a few of the shots, like at 1:30, we used the GoPro suction cup to stick the camera to the wakeboard. We used a bit of string to tie the camera to the boot in case the suction cup came off, but surprisingly it never did even with them flipping 20 feet in the air. Looking back, I wish that we had used the GoPro more because that is some of my favorite footage.
In The Studio
For the studio shoot I knew that we needed more slomo footage from multiple angles, so I called a few more of my Canon owning friends to help out. I believe this part of the video was filmed with three Canon 7Ds and a single Nikon D300s. The 7Ds shot at 60fps and I shot all of the interviews on my D300s at 24fps. We used Twixtor in a few places to slow the water splashes down again to 20% speed. We needed extra lighting to get clean video, so we lit up the studio with Photoflex Starlites. And for you tech guys wondering what that jib was on the set, it was custom made by Keith Bradshaw.
I was in charge of editing the boating section of the video and Patrick was in charge of editing the studio section. Before I started editing I randomly ran across the song “Remember Execute Forget” by Nine Leaves and I loved it. I knew it was a long shot, but I emailed the band and they agreed to let us use their music in our video. If you love their music as much as I do, please support them by purchasing their music. We interviewed Patrick months later in my studio once we had already finished most of the editing. By doing this, we knew what we needed him to say to tie the whole video together. We recorded the audio for the intro with our Olympus Field Recorder. I have also really fallen in love with the software from Plural Eyes, which makes it super simple to sync your external audio with your video footage, especially when you have multiple camera angles and long interviews.
Once we had both finished our sections I simply sent him my Adobe Premiere file (he had all of the raw footage) and he was able to import it into his session. Patrick put the finishing touches on the video and after months of work, this video is finally done. If you like what we did with this or have any other questions about the video or photography involved with this shoot, leave us a comment below and we will be happy to answer.