Sunday, February 23, 2014

Don't Buy It, Build It: My Yellow Submarine

Surfing and making photographs are two pretty defining passions of mine, and every now and then they inevitably cross over. 

But, if I’m honest, I’d always choose to be in the sea rather than stood on the beach watching it.  With the cheapest commercially available waterhousing for a decent camera costing at least a grand (I’m not talking about swimming out with a go-pro here) it would seem that water-based surf photography is a game for an ever-shrinking number of professionals or those with a hefty hobby budget.  I mean, how many jobbing photographers these days have at least a grand burning a hole in their pockets for a piece of kit that they’d be lucky to see generate a few hundred quid in sold images?  

Not me.  So I made one.

Measure twice and make a model.

I ended up making two waterhousings actually.  I have long held on to the philosophy that if you’re able to do something yourself then you should do so – not just as a way of saving money or acquiring something that you couldn’t otherwise afford, but as a means of learning new skills and challenging oneself.  Perhaps it’s just that I have a problem with writing to-do lists and not sitting still, born of an awareness that time is a precious commodity. 
I started out researching waterhousings for surf photography – commonly known as “splash” housings and different to their deep-sea diving counterparts.  I had the choice of fiberglass and resin as construction materials (the honours project for my degree involved the use of advanced composite materials for marine engineering applications, so I was comfortable with that option) or folded and welded aluminium which I'm slightly less au-fait with.  I went with the aluminium challenge.  
A photographer who runs a gallery at the end of my street, Nick Wapshott, kindly lent me his commercially bought waterhousing overnight to take a look at, and I asked a few questions of Tim Nunn (editor of Wavelength Magazine and professional surf-lensman) who gave me some advice on how to trigger the shutter mechanism.  This was the biggest issue – I had no problems making a waterproof box of some description to put my camera in, but finding a way of pressing the button without springing a leak was a challenge.  As with most of my projects, I started out with fairly modest intentions until I realised how much time and effort I was investing and then figured that I might as well do a proper job.
I measured up my cameras (I shoot with the slightly puffed-up digital version of an older analogue camera and they’re such similar sizes that I wanted to make a housing that they would both fit and function in) and made cardboard models.  Friends and acquaintances kindly rummaged in the scrap bins of their workshops and garages, and from a range of sources I ended up with some odd lengths of aluminium tubing that I could machine into lens ports, a bigger piece that might fit a camera, and some offcuts of thin-guage sheet aluminium that I could fold into a box. 
Now, I like to think that I’m fairly handy but I definitely know my limits and one of those is TIG welding aluminium and another one is precision milling.  Luckily for me, just down the raod from me on Bradfords Quay in Wadebridge are two companies who specialise in fettling metal:  Daften Die-Casting specialise in precision aluminium work and Grant and Kevin there took my crude CAD designs and machined the face plates for my housings with the incredibly fiddly grooves for the o-ring seals.  I then delivered a box of bits to Will Irons at MGC Engineering a couple of doors along for the guys there to TIG weld together for me.  Where I would undoubtably have blown holes in the thin aluminum they executed seamless joints that are not only functional, but beautiful in that functional raw metalwork sort of way.

The MGC magicians worked wonders with welding.

I now had two containers that looked a lot like camera housings.  I took them back to Daftens where they were powdercoated bright yellow because if you’re going to make a submarine then it really ought to be a yellow one, right?  I’m sure that there’s a functional reason for marine submersible equipment often being this colour but I don’t need to know about it.

The "Soucoupe" and "Jacqui" nearing completion.

I sourced some thick, clear acrylic and had it cut to fit the face plates and ports then got back at the handles of a lathe and surprised myself at my ability to actually work accurately when I turn my mind to it, turning down the tubing into lens ports to accept my 50mm prime lens.  A fisheye lens would require a domed port, something that there is no way I could produce, so I settled for the fact that I would be shooting from slightly further away from the action and capturing a realistic point of view of what the human eye would normally see.
I stayed late at Otter Surfboards one Friday and mixed up a small batch of epoxy glue to nervously assemble the faceplates and ports, horribly aware that just one tiny smudge of resin on the lens port would bin the entire project.  Finally, to solve my switch concern, I found a company that produces housings for underwater dive cameras and scientific survey equipment (Greenaway Marine) and ordered a simple mechanical switch from them that I could machine to fit my housing and camera.  I assembled everything and then, in early December, took one of the empty containers for a swim in the waves, relieved that it didn’t fill up with seawater and drag me down to the seabed like an anchor.  I then put a roll of film in my analogue camera and took that out, realising just what surf photographers would have had to go through in the days before the digital revolution – swimming back to the beach every thirty-six shots to take the whole business apart and change the film must have been hard work: Thirty-six shots really doesn’t last very long in the sea.

Then the “weather” arrived, and the sea was near enough off-limits for any sane attempts at water photography for weeks on end.  Until this week.  Torn between making up for a lot of lost wave-riding opportunities and testing my handiwork, I tried my best to strike a balance in between actually doing some work.  Having surfed on one day with great waves and beautiful flat, grey, wintery light that looked as cold as it was, I returned to the following spot with my housemate Ben the following day with my digital camera nervously ensconced in it’s (hopefully) waterproof yellow case.  With more than thirty-six exposures to play with, I think that in between swimming against a rip like a river, wearing some monstrously thick wedges on my head and getting bounced off the seabed a lot, I got some alright shots for a trial run.

Here below are some of the results:

Under a pitching lip.

Foam textures.

Scratching over a lump.

Difficult conditions for surfing and shooting.

Benny dodged this barrel and tore into a massive turn just as the whitewater engulfed me.  He's been kicking himself ever since for not tucking himself in there.

The lefts here are normally not much good.  
Not on this day though.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Numb: A Glimpse Through The Lens of Tim Nunn

Late one afternoon in December of 2012 I met surf photographer and cold-water explorer Tim Nunn in a lay-by in front of a pub in Cornwall.  It was the run up to Christmas and Tim was spending the weekend driving around the South West delivering signed copies of his new book in person to save people money on postage.  We caught up briefly before he headed off for his next delivery, and I headed home to take a look at the new photography book that would be weighing down my coffee table.

What I found contained between the covers of Numb was incredible - 208 pages of straight-up heavy, cold, slabby, back-of-beyond, remote and beautiful waves.  Over the course of six years Tim and his friend, surfer and hell-man Ian Battrick, explored the frontiers of surfing in the Northern Hemisphere.  They spent inordinate amounts of time in Scotland, drove thousands of miles around Norway's crinkled coastline, slept in tents, tunnels and under lorries in Iceland and fended off bears in the Canadian wilderness.  They had adventures.  They also scored some incredible waves and came away with hundreds of stunning images.

As winter rolled around again and my own thoughts turned to boots and gloves, ice-cream headaches and heavy lips, I sent a few questions across to Tim to find out just what made him and Ian look to the high latitudes for their cold water kicks:

Where does your preference for cold-water surf spots over warm ones come from?  Is it an indifference to temperature or a desire to escape the crowds without having to cut through jungle?
I think it was partially crowds and partially just wanting to go to places that others hadn't been. Warm water exploration had been done, and I had a fascination with the colder regions so it grew from that really. Growing up on the North Sea also meant that the cold really didn't bother me too much.

Have you seen the remote, cold, surf spots that you favour get increasingly crowded as they gain more and more attention in the surf media and become more “fashionable”?
Yes and no. Some of the more accessible areas have for sure, but these became more crowded pre the latest wave of cold water surf popularity. I think it was more down to improved wetsuit technology and the general rise in surfing popularity than the focus on the cold.

Is the camping and wilderness element a necessary result of the high prices in many of the countries that happen to be cold and have waves, or a deliberate choice in the search for adventure?
It's a combination, one is definitely price, in places like Canada it is the only choice, and in general it is the best thing to do as you need to be really mobile, able to respond to the conditions quickly.

What do you get from cold-water trips that temperate or tropical ones don’t deliver?
There is definitely a certain rawness to the environment which only these areas deliver, the weather, the swell, the people all have a certain something that just makes the whole experience more exciting.

What impact does the temperature and resultant drop in flexibility and comfort have on the performance of the surfers who you photograph?
When I started it had a big influence on performance, but now not so much and it is all down to wetsuit tech. The most recent trip to Iceland Ian and myself were both in 4mm suits which are light and flexible, in temps that three years ago would have demanded a 6 mm. Ian had designed them himself, so he knows what he needs and it makes a huge difference to performance.

What do you find the hardest on these trips, the logistics, sleeping out, motivation or getting warm after surfing?
Logistics are probably the toughest, we are always under very tight financial constraints, so getting the most out of a place on a tiny budget is by far the most challenging aspect, the rest is just fun! 

Numb is available to buy here and is thoroughly worth it.  Go on, get yourself some inspiration.

All images copyright Tim Nunn.  My thanks to him for letting me post them here.