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Action sport photography

We catch a wave with surf photographer Jason Murray and learn a thing or two about surf photography.

|  Sports and Action
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Jason Murray surf photographer portrait
© Jason Murray
Photographer Jason Murray.
From an early age, Jason Murray was an avid fan of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing and it didn't take him long to add photography to the list. Him and his friends would take it in turns to produce the kind of point and shoot  pictures kids take. This soon progressed into a more in-depth passion and shortly after graduating High School, Jason moved to California to go to college in Santa Cruz where he found the surf to be phenomenal.
It was a big change from where I grew up. I went from getting 50-60 days of good surf a year to around 300 which gave me the opportunity to surf and shoot surf imagery. My passions started to run parallel. Board sports were, and still are close to my heart. Photography was too so it was a natural progression to keep shooting the sport I did the most.
Half way through his University degree, Jason decided to go travelling and met the senior staff photographer and head of photo services for Surfer Magazine – the Holy Grail of surf photography publications. After a lot of begging and pleading, Jason got a business card from him and, in the summer of 95, it led to an internship with the magazine.
It was the first action sports publication. It started in 1960 so it was a great opportunity for me. It opened up the door and I thought maybe I can make a career from action photography.”
So Jason finished his internship, went back to school to finish his studies in economics and the day after he finished, he flew back down to Surfer Magazine where he was offered the job of Assistant Photo Editor. He did that for six years and from there went into freelancing, the job he's still doing today.
In the beginning he was a much better athlete than he was a photographer. He struggled with the technicalities of photography but with his extensive knowledge of the sport and what actions would be worth photographing, learning how to take pictures soon turned into quite a simple lesson.
As my photographic skill caught up to my athletic knowledge of the sport it became this perfect synergy. The hardest part was coping with the economics of action sports photography.”
When you're starting out in surf photography it's tough. It's hard to get access to the talent so you have to get creative and make images which don't always have a moving subject. For this reason, many of Jason's early work wasn't really action photography but a mixture of the other peripheral elements that go along with the experience of surfing. Waves, line ups, paddling out and waxing the board are all moments that happen in between the fleeting time of riding a wave. But to take true dynamic images you need to be in the water.
Raimana Van-Bastolaer, Tahiti, June 2009
© Jason Murray
Raimana Van-Bastolaer, Tahiti, June 2009.
Anybody could sit on the beach with a 600mm and get photos but for me, the best images are the ones where you are in the environment with them. That doesn't mean you can't produce a beautiful image from the beach with a telephoto lens, I just don't think it requires the understanding of the surfing art as a water shot does.
Water shots vary in difficulty. You could be swimming with a 15mm fisheye lens where you have to be 2-3ft away from your subject or swimming with a 70-200mm longer lens where you're basically doing all the things you'd do in a static environment just in a very dynamic one. For the most part, Jason can be found in the water, fins on and his camera in waterproof Aquatech housing. Waterproof housing is a box that goes around your camera to protect it from water. The disadvantage of this is that you lose some of the controls of the camera.
Clay Marzo, Julian Wilson - Hawaii, Dec. 2008
© Jason Murray
Clay Marzo, Julian Wilson - Hawaii, December. 2008.
The more controls you have the more chance you have of the housing going down because of leakage so you have to pick and choose the functions you want and pre-set everything else.”
Jason likes Canons. He also uses a couple of flashes, a pro photo system and a couple of Canon 580 speed lights. As for lenses, for wide angle shots, on a less than full frame camera, he uses the Tokina 10-17mm wide angle lens and then from there he has a 15mm fisheye, 16-35mm, a 50mm, 70-200mm, 300mm and a 600mm lens.
As previously mentioned, the internet is a very important tool and before it was widely available Jason would go somewhere and sit for three weeks waiting for the surf to come to him but surf forecasting has become an incredible business. With the help of naval weather forecasting and meteorology models you can now pinpoint when, where and what size a swell will arrive almost anywhere on the planet. However, there's still always going to be the X factor variable as there's a lot of things that need to come together to make the right conditions for a perfect photograph.
For a good surf photo you need the right wind, the right tide, the ride swell direction, the right interval of wave period, you need the talent and you need the light. Surf photography is very different to any other type of photography that I've practised. There's so many variables and you're doing it in an environment you have very little control over. So you do study a lot of weather models, study the waves around the world, where and how they break and the best time of year to see them. Things are a lot more calculated now than they were in the past.”
Surf photography can be done at any time of the day but, like with all photography, the beauty light is best. Strobes have always played an important part in action photography but  when trying to capture surf Jason's found they're not that easy to use. As far as the action is concerned it is almost impossible to recreate the same shot/experience because a wave rider is never in the same place twice so you get different looks and the lighting is always changing.
Kelly Slater, Lowers, June 2008
© Jason Murray
Kelly Slater, Lowers, June 2008.
If you're trying to create an image that will sell it needs to jump off the table at you and convey the essence or the feel of what it's like to surf on a wave. It must capture the energy, the elation, the experience and then there's the physical side which doesn't have as much to do with the technicalities of the photo more of what the surfer is doing. Is the move something ground breaking or high performance? We look at the composition, we look at the technical aspects, we look at what the surfer is doing, we look at the wave quality, the conditions and together, all those things make for the total subjective value of the image.
One thing Jason looks for in his own work as well as in that of others is sharpness. It's a really important quality and is always one of the first things he checks.
When you looked at film you could take a loupe, look at it and know then if it was sharp. But with digital photography it's getting a little tricky to tell if the photographer did a little bit of post-production work on it before sending in the low resolution JPEG for us to review. It's challenging to identify and is very important as you want your images to be crisp and sharp.
If you want to freeze the action the land based stuff has to be shot at a minimum of 1/1000sec. Of course, you can pan, do shutter drags and other shots which, depending on the abstract desire, are shot at slower speeds but for most part, Jason captures the action shots at a higher speed of anything well above 1/1000sec-1/2000sec. This is because of variables such as the wave moving, the surfer and you moving in the water.
Mark Healey, The Yeti, Nov, 2008. The XXL Monster Tube of the Year Award for the biggest barrel.
© Jason Murray
Mark Healey, The Yeti, Nov, 2008. The XXL Monster Tube of the Year Award for the biggest barrel.

For more information about Jason Murray visit his website: Jason Murray.

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lgc 16 62 England
18 Aug 2009 11:42AM
Great article, would like to see more interviews with sports/action photographers....
foxtolbot 11 8 3 United Kingdom
9 Sep 2009 10:32PM
hey great article, my ambition is to become a sports photographer with the press, so this publication thing has helped me out,

can people please look at my motorsport images please comment or even just vote thanks it helps me improve.


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