Legendary surf photographer Brian Bielmann on how he captures magic at sea

Some of the best surf photographers in the world have a gift to transform the sport into an immortal and mystical experience.

Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the wave, the break, the swell, or the surfers’ euphoric expressions, surf photography has always been something special to behold. If you had to pick one of those photographers that best defines the spirit of the sport, chances are the name Brian Bielmann would come to mind.

As a surf photographer for nearly four decades, Bielmann has earned the respect of the surfing community, from circuit pros to amateurs at his local hangouts in Hawaii. He has, so far, photographed more than 150 magazine covers, and shot what many feel is the most iconic surf image ever captured.

Brian also has the respect and love of just about everyone in the surfing community from the pros on the circuit and amateurs at his local hangouts in Hawaii.

Digital Trends recently chatted with Bielmann to find out more about his passion for surfing, his workflow, and his love for music.

Digital Trends: When did you get into surf photography?

“Sucked out to sea, had jet skis land on top of me, you name it – I’ve had my fair share of scrapes.”

Brian Bielmann: When I was 21 and got tired of working construction, or being a shoe salesman or a janitor, or whatever else I could do to make enough money to fuel my surfing habit.  I realized I had to pick a career and being a surf photographer seemed like the best plan.

Since you have to be in the water, have you had any close calls on any of your shoots?

Sure, I’ve almost been sucked out to sea in Indonesia in a really bad current, out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve had jet skis land on top of me. I’ve also been thrown onto the reef and held under so long I lost consciousness. You name it – I’ve had my fair share of scrapes.

Where is your favorite spot in the world to shoot?

I love shooting Tahiti. It’s either big or beautiful and death defying, all at once. The water is super clear and I can shoot underwater images of surfers and waves breaking. It’s just a magical place.

When you work, what are the key photographic elements you take into consideration?

It’s really all about reading the situation. What will make the best photo at the location that you are at, with the conditions that are happening?  It might be perfect for a lineup with a wider lens or maybe the action is hard to be close enough in the water because of currents or size of the wave, then you go for the beach shots with a long lens.

I love 1/15 and 1/40 [slow shutter speeds] for that really dreamy look, but be careful, it takes a lot of [shots] to get a few good ones. Try 1/125 or 1/160 for a similar look but a far better percentage of usable shots.

We want to try our hand at surf photography. Where do you suggest we start?

Get yourself an [underwater housing] and start experimenting. Try shooting at slow shutter speeds. Try different lenses and see what works best for your location, whether in the surf or on the beach. Always try to work with great surfers as well. And, if you are really interested in making this a career, I’d say start shooting videos. There seems to be more opportunities for videos than stills on the internet. As far as underwater, just start out with a fisheye [lens] and look for the clearest water for best visibility.

In addition, look for clean conditions, good winds, and sizable swell. See who the great surfers are in your area and follow them. Look for good light in the early morning or later evenings. Don’t be afraid to shoot in the interesting midday light, but that’s really hit or miss so figure out what type of waves you can shoot in that light.

Outside of surfing, you are also a big music fan.

I’m all about the music. I have over 4,000 vinyl albums and probably 200 CD box sets. I try to listen to it all-day while I’m working in the office editing and on the computer, on location if I’m shooting from the beach. I’ve got my headphones, it makes all the difference in the world.

After I shoot a project and go back to see the photos on my computer I’ll always put on music. I love when I hear a great song that I know will be a great track for a slideshow. I’m also proud to say some of my images have also graced the covers of some rock albums including Midnight Oil’s Scream in Blue, with my shot of the Waimea Bay shore break.

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