Surf photography is, perhaps, the most idolized and core component of surf media. From its print presence on the pages of magazines and journals to its online presence on Instagram and Facebook groups, photography is so essential to surfing it often feels as if there’s no reason to stop and question its place in the surfing world.
And, in decades prior, this was the case. Surf photography emerged as a difficult and frustrating mission to capture an activity that was mysterious to society at large. In a Surf Splendor Podcast with David Lee Scales, surf photographer Aaron Chang discusses his experience with the changing state of surf photography and the shift from film to digital.
Back when film photography was the norm, and not a hipster fad, photos took weeks to send out to labs and weeks to return. For Chang, living in Hawaii for much of his career, he had to ship the film by boat to the mainland to get it developed. If a photographer got one or two successful images, it was a big success, and they would send it out to the magazines for publication. All of this happened over the course of weeks, and due to the involved process and delayed gratification, the few photos that came as a result of this documentation were precious.
Perhaps partially for this reason, names like Ron Stoner, Doc Ball, Jeff Divine, LeRoy Grannis, and Ron Perrott are held in high regards among surfers even today. In order for people to see a photographer’s work, it had to be distributed in print — there was no instantaneous social media postings of waves from a swell still pumping. And magazines were read religiously by surfers, so having a photo published in one was a high bar and something to aspire to.
There were fewer magazines, fewer photographers, and fewer photos of surfing compared to today — but what there was was quality. We look back on these photos and feel a sense of truth, freedom, deep emotional connection. Matt Warshaw says of Ron Stoner’s surf photography: “Stoner took the kind of shots that you didn’t want to look at as much as you wanted to step into. Ron’s best photos are 50 years old, but you almost don’t notice.”
Part of this, in my opinion, is because Ron Stoner was immersed in the surfing life and culture. He knew the surfers he was photographing, and they knew him. He shot surfers surfing, but he also shot surfers suiting up to paddle out, checking spots, lounging in their cars, the full spectrum of surf activity. Time spent in the tube is but a fraction of the true surfing life.
Do we find those same emotions stirred when watching drone footage? Personally, I don’t. And I have a theory as to why. Drones are so far removed from the surfing experience. In a literal sense, they may be closer: drones can fly a few feet from a surfer, practically getting barreled themselves. And they can take some incredibly clear, almost lifelike videos. But the removal is in the engagement with the power of the ocean, with the people in the lineup, with everything that humanizes the experience.
Water shots require swimming: knowledge of the currents, the tides, rips, the bathymetry of the floor below, and a respect for the power of the ocean. Flying a drone requires skill, for sure, but it does not require the same types of knowledge about the ocean that surfers and water photographers need to have a successful session. Even shooting from land, with an old-fashioned tripod, is mimicking the styles surf photographers used back in the day. People hung out on the beach and shot films.
It’s hard to get to know a drone, or even, oftentimes, the person operating it, since they’re far away and anonymous during the time surfers spend surfing. And no drone can truly capture the essence of a surfer, fully, the way a human can from spending time with a surfer in and out of the water, up close, in person.
Lastly, what drones capture is, on average, less creative than what people get with a hand-held camera. Drones are somewhat predictable. They sit in the air above the take-off zone and follow the surfer down the line. Then they fly back to their starting point and do it again and again until they land. Water photographers are forced to improvise constantly, pulled out by the current and in by the waves, getting any shot can be a battle. Photographers on land can frame their photos with elements of the landscape, giving more texture and feel to the images. Drones are machine-like, chasing perfection, whereas water and land photographers are chasing beauty. They’re not necessarily opposed.
But the real issue lies in what drones add, and not what they miss. Without even so much as a face to the little machine in the sky, drones actually make a lot of noise. High pitched, whirring, buzzing, annoying sounds. Constantly. Even at more popular breaks like Pipeline, the presence of 4-plus drones at once literally drowns out the few conversations had by those in the water below. Is this what we want? The time between sets could be a time for reflection, a stillness of mind, tranquility. Instead, it’s a time of whirring, buzzing, and hovering because even the smallest of drones simply cannot be silent. And while water photographers may not be silent either, at least you can shoot the breeze with them in between sets.
I’m realistic enough to realize that, sadly, drones aren’t going anywhere. But their presence in (or should I say, above) the lineup doesn’t need to become the norm. If someone is flying a drone at a surf break, do we really need to fly three more? And if there’s only a couple guys out with no photographers, is that a good time to fly a drone?
Foils aren’t allowed in the water at every beach. Maybe drones shouldn’t be allowed to fly at every break. There are benefits to, and a place for, drones. Technology advances, images get better, we want to see things closer and more viscerally. But let’s keep ourselves in check: there’s a time and a place. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Maybe, with surfing, those drone-flying windows should be kept to a minimum.