August 13, 2021 10 min read
Behind the Lens 1: In the first instalment of this series we catch up with Sam Howard, an amazing photographer who’s passionate about capturing images of Scotland’s surf scene. Stay tuned for more conversations with talented photographers from a number of disciplines, discovering the ins and outs of day to day life in the world of photography.
Based in Scotland, surf and lifestyle photographer Sam Howard loves nothing more than getting in the ocean to shoot some waves. In this episode of behind the lens we caught up with Sam to chat over his surf and photography journey. Sam tells us how he’s carved out a name for himself in the little known, but vibrant, Scottish surf community.
It seems like you’re usually found on your surfboard or behind your camera. What came first, surfing or your love of photography?
I’ve always done little bits of photography here and there, but when I was younger I found my brain was far too active and I’d much rather be outside than spending time at a computer, editing pictures and video (I’m still quite like that these days to be honest). Growing up I had a natural attraction to sport, which started with more traditional sports like swimming and rugby. As I got older and went to university, I got really involved in freestyle skiing. It was during this time that I met a group of guys who also surfed, so naturally (given my love of extreme sports) I thought I’d tag along for a session. I felt at ease in the water, probably given my swimming background, and picked it up quite naturally. As time went on, I was fighting for my life a bit less (waves have a habit of thrashing you about) and the surf bug took hold.
After university I went on a big surf trip through South Africa and Mozambique and I made sure to pick up a camera for the trip. I have terrible memory for these things and so I hoped the camera would help me document the experience.
When you began shooting, were you straight into the water or learning the ropes from land first?
I shot on land first, during that trip to South Africa I injured my foot quite badly and I couldn't surf for a while. So, I just started shooting surf, which continued when I returned home. I’d make the effort to travel and shoot storms and waves and that's what drew me in. The more I shot from the land and then surfed the more I wanted to capture those water angles. I think the dawn days project was another big inspiration - these guys were heading out before sunrise, during the blue hour and shooting in the ocean as the sun came up. The photos they were taking were just insane! The angle from the water can be tenfold better, it's a different world once you submerge yourself.
What are the biggest differences between land and water surf photography?
I'd say that the biggest difference when you're shooting in the water is that everything's fast moving and unpredictable, it’s quite like shooting wildlife in that way. If you're shooting towards a wave, with the sun behind, as that wave comes up or the water depth changes it's going to change the light, which will affect your camera settings. If, like me, you shoot in manual, you need to predict what your shot’s going to be before you take it.
Shooting in the water also requires an understanding of the ocean, and how the currents and waves are going to work. Surfing makes this far easier to understand, because you have that surfer’s mindset that will enable you to be in the right spot, without getting in the way.
On land, things are a lot more predictable. For starters, you’re on stable ground, so not dealing with the currents washing you about. You can just sit, point your camera where a wave is going to break, and take that shot repeatedly until you get the perfect image.
That sounds really complex. With all the action going on, have you had any close calls in the water?
I’d say my biggest fear is getting stuck in a current or rip but over time as my knowledge has developed, I feel much more confident. I also study spots before I go in or go with friends who are surfing.
Once when I was shooting someone in a barrel and the barrel closed over which meant I lost sight of the surfer. I assumed he had fallen, so I relaxed for a second and was getting ready to reposition for another shot and that’s when he came firing out through the wave! Luckily, I managed to duck under just in time. He clipped my fin on the way past.
Other that the camera, whatequipment are you using out on the water to get your shots?
This one depends on the goal of the shot and conditions. If I'm shooting big waves, I'll have a set of small flippers - it’s the same flippers that people use for bodyboarding. I'll swim out to the break and depending on the type of wave, I'll either sit in the channel or sit close into the surf action. If there's no waves, and I'm just out for a dawny session, taking more artsy detailed photos such as close ups of the water and the environment around the ocean, I’ll quite often just go in without fins. On these mornings I’ll just sit at shoulder/waist level and shoot from that angle.
Recently, I’ve been considering using a bodyboard for really big days, it means you can swim a lot quicker and sit in the channel. On the flip side, that’s just another thing that could get in the way, I'm still experimenting and figuring out the best means. I also have a few different lenses and ports I use for different style shots.
We’ve loved scrolling through your images. Can you tell us in your view, what makes the perfect image?
I’m not going to say perfect image but I can say what I like for a good image. Surfing is a difficult one as a lot rides on how the elements align. I like to shoot in the mornings, you just get insane light – it’s absolutely beautiful. Even if there's nothing going on, you can still get stunning shots. Even if the wave is a foot big, the lighting can play on the glassy face and being able to freeze that in an image shows another level of detail you don’t usually see as the water moves. But then again, the conditions might not be great at that time. I really like big waves and good light and if someone is there shredding, it’s a bonus.
If I’m honest, what really makes a great image is being ready, reading the ocean and understanding what's going on around. That’s the situation where you’ll capture something unexpected and those are always the best photos. When something happens that's like whoa, I wasn't expecting that, and you manage to capture it, in my opinion those images will be the ones to come out on top! Ocean photography is beautiful as you capture a moment that only happens once. If you miss the shot, you might not get the chance again.
You work part time and shoot part time. Has your ambition always been to take your photography full time?
I’m quite enjoying the balance I have at the moment. I never really went into this and thought ‘oh, I'm going to be a professional photographer’, I just enjoyed taking pictures and took joy from the creative aspect. I work in a technical job, so it’s a nice outlet. I get the same kick out of shooting as I do surfing. That's another reason for shooting in the water, you get the balance of being in the water and taking pictures. I was just shooting and posting pictures with no real intention until I began to gain a bit of momentum. Around that time a friend's company approached me to shoot for them and it’s just kind of built from there.
I still think there's always the gamble with outdoor photography, it's not exactly the most stable income when you’re starting out. I've got a solid job as a contract engineer, which gives me the flexibility to also carry out professional photography work as well. Then again, sometimes I wonder what would happen if I took the jump, dedicating 100% of my time developing my skill. Maybe at some point down the line. I’m taking it as it comes.
From your experience, do you have any advice on making your voice heard and growing your profile?
I was never too vocal about my photography. I’d swim out in a line up and take some photos, maybe chat to some people out there, but I was never really marketing myself, like standing in the parking lot being like, ‘yo, hit me up, I'll give you photos’. I was shooting for my enjoyment and for my love of photography.
Then, when I felt ready, I started putting pictures out there on my Instagram and the response was positive. As I said earlier, I started shooting for my friends’ surf companies which led onto work with surfing. I also made the effort to get involved with projects like Dawn Days and similar passion projects which are a good way to network and meet other creatives. So over time, by just saying yes to opportunities and getting outside my comfort zone I’ve been able to grow my profile and gain work. If it was something I completely relied on for income I would probably push harder to meet more clients, but I enjoy the laid back approach. It also gives me a lot of time to work with clients and understand their needs.
I think as your photography develops, opportunities will come forward. I like to connect and work with lots of different people for projects for fun and paid work.
It's interesting you talk about getting out your comfort zone, why is this important?
Scotland is a very niche market. If you were in California or Australia, there's major surf brands based there, so I feel there is clearer path to success. In Scotland, I have to be flexible with the work I’m taking on and try to shoot for a range of companies and in a range of styles.
Recently I’ve been shooting a project called In Scotland We Surf, where I’ve been travelling around and shooting portraits of the people that make up the Scottish surf community. It's documentary photography, and I’m learning how to make people who don't usually like being in front of a camera feel comfortable. This enables me to get a true representation of who they are. It's a steep learning curve I find more challenging than going out and shooting clothing or products with a model that's totally comfortable being in front of the camera. It’s been so positive for developing my skillset whilst enabling me to build my network and make a connection with the surfers throughout Scotland.
Going outside your comfort zone and shooting a variety of shots teaches you a lot about photography and develops your skills. It also helps you cover lots of different styles aiding you in professional shoots.
You spoke about the necessity of being flexible with your portfolio whilst working in Scotland in order to create further opportunities for yourself. This sounds like a real learning curve; can you tell us how you’ve been able to manoeuvre away from purely surf content?
Surf photography provides the perfect environment for developing your technical ability because you have to learn how to shoot all these different environments, light and constant changing surroundings. It makes you learn your camera. This for sure gives you the ability to progress into other fields. One of the larger challenges has been the bottleneck I’ve created for myself; people take one look at my Instagram and assume I’m just purely a surf photographer. It’s a bit of a curse of Instagram as well, people like to see a flow in your feed. If I was shooting lots of surfing, and then chucked in a random photo of a fashion shoot, for example, people would think ‘what's going on here?’. It probably wouldn't work as well with my following, so going forward, as I develop my website this is something I’ll look to address. Instagram will show my passion shots, whilst my website will highlight my full portfolio.
What’s the most fun you've had with a commercial shoot?
I did quite a fun one recently with a Coffee Company. They like the outdoor lifestyle and wanted to reflect that in some product shots. They were awesome and gave me the creative freedom to do what I wanted with the shoot. So, I took the products on a surf trip and shot the coffee in the sea whilst we were out in the surf line-up. It was a great shoot and really rewarding being given the trust to go off and shoot the product how I wanted.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get started with surf photography?
Start shooting from land first, just with any camera and see if you enjoy it, see if it's your thing. There's no point in investing loads of money into water housings and good cameras if you're going to decide that actually, I’d rather just be out there surfing. The equipment is expensive, first of all you have your camera, then you need to buy a housing for that camera, and then any lenses you use each require a housing of their own also, so make sure you love it before committing to spending lots.
When you move to shoot in the water, shoot waves away from the surfers to begin with. This will help you develop your ability to deal with the constant variables that are presented when shooting in the ocean. As you progress onto shooting surfers, it can be really helpful to shoot your friends first on a small wave before moving to a busy line-up.
Another thing, if you're starting out with surf photography, you should get an understanding of your local community, how they feel towards surf photography, and the etiquette around it. Surfing in Scotland is quite a secretive sport, as people spend years searching for these spots and figuring out when it’s best to surf them. If someone is nice enough to show you, you need to gauge if people will be ok with you shooting the spot and how you should shoot that spot. The last thing you want is to map every image you post and completely expose these locations. That would take away from the adventure that is Scottish cold water surfing. I really recommend this point to people. This is something you develop and learn after spending time surfing. I guess just respect but also enjoy what you are doing. Sometimes shots don’t need to go online.
One final question. There are perfect waves forecast. What excites you more, getting our shooting or going surfing?
It’s a constant battle, I'm not gonna lie. I usually try and do both. If there's going to be good light and waves, then I usually go out in the morning or the evening with the camera to get the shots when the light is at its best. Then, come back grab my board, change out my flippers and go surfing. Unless I’m on location shooting for a specific project, I’ll just do what I feel like. There’s no easy way to answer that question!
A massive thank you to Sam for sharing his knowledge with us - keep an eye out for more from him in the future! Check out more of Sam’s work on his Instagramhere.
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