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How dropping your telephoto lens off a cliff may improve its performance

The angle that nearly ended one surf photographer's career. Photo: Gilley
The angle that nearly ended one surf photographer’s career. Photo: Gilley

I think it was the mid-'90s, but the memory has been repressed for so long that I can't pin down the exact year. But during a chance encounter this past summer, the particulars of the event came flooding back.

Years ago, I found myself on the North Shore of Oahu amongst the hordes of aspiring photographers trying to make their mark. At that particular time in history, the surf industry was on the rise, retained staff photographer positions at surf magazines were opening up, but they were also fiercely sought after, highly coveted, and pit bull-guarded by the best shooters in the surf world.

Ambitious photographers would do anything to outshine the rest and prove they belonged. Some lensmen even went as far as risking their own mortality shooting fisheye perspectives in the shallow gladiator pits of Pipe, Backdoor, and Off The Wall.

Me? Not so much. I found a sneakier, more skull-friendly route—a methodology later referred to as, "climb and shoot."

For some reason, almost no one at the time had bothered much to focus on overviews and lineup shots, and that's where I saw an opportunity. A quick rent-a-car drive up Comsat Hill one day boosted my confidence in the strategy: As I gazed at the arresting view of the entire Sunset Beach playing field, I imagined an even more stunning perspective of the Banzai Pipeline. I reasoned that if I could find a hiking route above Pipe and could shoot it on a big day, I could become a photographic conqueror. A modern day Hannibal. With such a conquest, a retained staff position would be a fait accompli—all I needed were the right conditions and the right lens. And I knew exactly which lens.

The Canon 600mm f4.0L was, and still might be, the penultimate action photography super performer. Not only does it automatically focus from great distances, it works in harmony with the camera to focus on moving, high-speed objects by predicting where they are going to be at any given moment. In essence, it's a Kalashnikov and a white Porsche Carrera rolled into one beautiful glass and metal phallus. An $8,000 piece of equipment that young Jimmy Olsens the world over dream of.

And it just so happened that SURFER Magazine had a loaner available. Jeff Divine had just finished his own Hawaiian stint and had gone back to California, leaving the magazine's 600mm behind for contributors to use. Contributors like myself.

A few days before the end of my trip, everything came together. A solid 10-to 12-foot west swell arrived in conjunction with medium trades, so I borrowed the lens from the SURFER house and set out.

I planned my route and found a starting point behind the Rocky Point Chevron. I began my ascent. With a lens like that, you also need a solid tripod, so now my load was a good 20 to 30 pounds heavier than usual—to say that the climb was challenging would be an understatement. Without a machete, the thorny brush and medusa-tangled vines made progress snail-like, and the stifling heat, sharp lava rocks, and mosquito clouds didn't help much. Within a matter of minutes I was sweaty, bleeding, and bug-bitten. I felt like Rodrigo Mendoza in The Mission, carrying all my material possessions up a mountain in penance for past transgressions. Only in this narrative, Jeremy Irons wasn't waiting with a hug at the top—just the most ass-kicking view on the North Shore: A detonating Pipe lineup with a tropical foliage foreground and a corduroy-to-the-horizon background. A previously unseen, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, make-your-career kind of shot.

With such a sight in front of me, I quickly forgot about the past hour and got to work. I set up the tripod and pulled the 600 out of its protective bag. I attached the lens to the tripod and reached into my bag for the camera body. That's when I noticed something.

In my haste, I had forgotten to lock the tripod handle, and watched as the 600 began to slowly tilt forward on its own. I didn't panic, as this actually happens quite often on the beach. Normally the lens simply tilts all the way forward, and comes to a halt on the tripod. This time, however, the quick-release plate was askew, and to my complete stupefication, the 600mm unattached itself from its three-legged perch and fell. And when I say "fell" I mean "fell."

After one loud doink about 20 yards down the cliff face, it tumbled hundreds of feet into a lava rock-lined abyss. Hundreds. It was like a movie scene where a desert wanderer throws a pebble into a dry well and never hears it land.

I stared into the abyss for a moment and then let out a four-letter expletive so loud and with such red-faced, jugular-bursting intent, that I'm pretty sure they heard it on Molokai. I was by turns horrified, angry, stupefied, and crestfallen in a series of 10-second spurts. I had just been told the lens was uninsured and to be careful with it. Worse yet, I saw my chances of securing a retained staff position at SURFER tumble into the abyss with the lens.

Morbidly depressed, I trudged back down the hill thinking of other professions I could pursue. None came to mind. Finally I reached the point where I thought the lens could have landed. It took a few minutes, but then I spotted its unmistakable white outline—it was still in one piece. Although I tried, I couldn't imagine a scenario whereby every glass element and internal motor wasn't completely destroyed.

Getting closer, I could see that the plastic rear lens cap was severely cracked and broken—that's where it must have struck the cliff face on the way down. Even closer, I was shocked to see no other major dings on the lens other than a small triangular piece of the lens hood rim that had cracked off.

I picked up the lens and cradled it like a newborn. I gathered my strength, lifted the lens up, and peered into its bowels. There was no discernable internal damage. "Impossible," I thought. On a cosmetic basis alone, it was a miracle. There's no way a heavy glass object could have fallen that far and not be severely damaged. Surely the internal mechanisms were destroyed. I attached it to a camera body, though, and it seemed to be working. “Holy shit,” I thought.

I exited the jungle, and, like a sweaty, guilt-ridden Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, kept my secret hidden from the world. I avoided all normal pedestrian routes, took the lens to the beach, shot a test roll with it, and then drove the next morning to Honolulu to have the roll of film rush processed. And that's when things went a little cuckoo.

I had shot with this lens a few times before in California, and now, looking at the test roll at the lab, couldn't believe what I was seeing: Not only was the 600 still working, but it seemed sharper than it was before. My eyes began to well up. In an eye blink I went from complete agnostic to firm believer.

I replaced the rear lens cap, patched the triangular crack, and returned the lens to the SURFER house. For weeks, I expected a call from the magazine asking why the lens had stopped working, but none came.

Eventually, I buried the events deep in the recesses of my memory. Within a couple of seasons, I bought my own 600 and returned to the Pipe overview and shot some of the best images of my career. Even though I became a retained staff photographer for SURFER for the next decade and beyond, I never told a soul. As far as I was concerned, it never happened.

But then the past revisited me. Last summer I ran into Bryce Lowe-White, the young Assistant Photo Editor at SURFER, on the beach at Malibu. We compared notes, and after a brief look at the equipment I was using, Bryce told me to let him know if I ever wanted to borrow SURFER's super telephoto lens.

I looked down at the lens he was referring to as he pulled it out of his bag: a severely scratched, beaten up Canon 600mm f4.0L with a patched, triangular crack on the lens hood rim.

"No thanks," I responded. "I'm good."