A Call To Arms
SURFING staff photographer Brent Bielmann and his weapons of mass seduction
In 2004, Brian Bielmann was one of the first surf photographers to make the switch from film to digital. He shot the first-ever digital photo used on the cover of a surf magazine (Dane Reynolds for Transworld Surf) and the rest is history. Today, Brian’s nephew, SURFING senior photographer Brent Bielmann, finds himself at a similar crossroads. Brent decided to invest in a 6K RED Dragon camera, giving him the ability to swim at waves like Pipe and Teahupo’o and shoot production-quality video and print-sharp photos at the same time — a clear advantage in an increasingly video-driven industry. With a price tag in the neighborhood of $100K, however, the decision wasn’t exactly a no-brainer. But as Brent explains, in the rapidly evolving game of surf photography, the choice is clear: Evolve or go extinct.
SURFING: I hear you invested in a new RED Dragon camera just in time for winter. What made you go that route?
BRENT BIELMANN: I feel like there are so many kids these days swimming out with 1DXs and top of the line lenses. And unless you’re always in the deepest spot at the biggest waves — which I constantly try to do to stay on top — you’re pretty much getting the same photos as everyone else. So in that sense, I’d like to take one of these new video cameras and see if I can get something unique. There’s a long line of great water cinematographers — from the old guard like Don King and Larry Haynes, to Mike Prickett and Darren Crawford, and Chris Bryan and Daniel Russo, who’ve been taking Phantom and RED cams into some crazy places — that have inspired me to get into video and see where I can go with it.
What do you have in mind? I could go to Teahupo’o when it’s 10 to 12 feet and try to get some crazy footage from underneath-the-rail angles or looking out the barrel. I still have a lot to learn about video, but there are fewer guys shooting with RED in the water than there are shooting with still cameras and 1Ds. The way I see it, that means less competition.
Are you familiar with the workflow with RED? [Laughs] Look, I don’t even have my RED yet. I haven’t taken a shot with one yet. I don’t know the workflow. I’m a total newb. Yeah, I can get in some crazy water angles, but I don’t shoot RED and I don’t shoot a lot of video. So it’s going to be a whole new world for me. But I’m excited for it.
How do you see your RED clips being used and for how many different purposes? It all depends how many frames you can pull from the video. I don’t know if it’s going to be good enough for print. But I think the frames will be good enough for Web. And everything is so Web-driven these days, I envision using a frame for a still photo on SURFING Magazine’s Instagram, and then you can go to their website and watch the full video. A lot of the footage will probably wind up as teaser clips on social media as well.
Is there any drawback to making the switch to RED video? To be able to pull a still from a video camera, you have to be shooting pretty fast motion. You need a pretty high frame rate to be able to pull a still that is sharp enough to run in print. The flip side of that is the video is going to look a little fast and skippy. Not to say it’s bad, but people aren’t used to the way it looks. Your average person might not notice, but your film school student might be critical of it. They’re shooting more movies these days in a high frame rate — Saving Private Ryan was one of the first big ones — so I think if more filmmakers start shooting that way, it’s something people will get used to.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about photography? Shoot what everybody else isn’t. My uncle told me that when I was first starting out. There were so many guys standing on the beach at Rockies and Off-The-Wall, I could stand there all day and get the same shot as 10 other staff photographers and mine would never see the light of day because I was a nobody. Even for an established surf photographer, it’s always going to take something really creative and really different that the other guys don’t have in order to get published.
So how’d you try to be different? I started doing a lot of hikes up in the mountains behind Pipe. One of my first published shots was a pulled-back shot of Andy [Irons] during the Pipe contest, one of the years that he won, with all the palm trees in the foreground. And it would have never got published if not for the fact that no one had anything like that. So I learned that rather than shoot something where you can get a million pretty good shots, try doing something where you might be able to walk away with one incredible shot.
What makes an incredible shot? I think a great surf photo gives the viewer the feeling that they are there in that moment with you, especially when it comes to water shots. It’s an image that captivates someone enough to stop turning the pages and pause and say, “Wow.” There’s a flood of images these days. It’s oversaturated, but I think that’s actually helped push photography. It takes something really unique and special to be able to captivate someone and wow them. You can’t just shoot the same old fisheye shot anymore (I call it the catcher’s mitt shot, where you’re staring straight into the barrel). Everyone’s seen that countless times these days. You have to go sit beneath the lip or looking out the barrel. You need a unique angle. Not just the same old pulled-tight, surf-porn angle.
What does your day look like when Pipe is 8 feet and perfect? I try to be up at 5 a.m. First thing I do when I get up is make a fresh veggie juice, do a quick stretch and make sure I have all my camera gear and water housings loaded up for the day. Then I’ll drive from my house in Pupukea down the hill to Pipe. Park by the elementary school and walk across the road and check in with JOB, see if he’s up yet. He usually has a good idea of what Pipe’s doing. Then I’ll make my way over to the Volcom house and say hi to all the boys. Nathan Fletcher’s usually there having his morning coffee.
How many hours will you be out swimming? If the waves have some morning sickness, I’ll hang out and talk to everybody. When it does get good I’m out there. If it’s perfect 8-foot Pipe I’ll probably shoot fisheye and pretty much stay out as long as I can, like all day, and just come in once for some water and a quick bite of fruit, then go back out till dark. After dark, I go straight back to my house because I have to get the photos to the SURFING office to get them up on the Web. I sit down and download everything I shot all day and I decide which ones are best and worth sending in. Once I get my 30 or so favorite shots, I FTP them over to Jimmy [Wilson] and Pete [Taras]. Then conk out and sleep like a rock.
How do you avoid being sucked over the falls on some of these waves? I try to position myself so I’m near the bottom of the wave, where it’s dredging out. When the surfer goes past you in the barrel, you try to streamline yourself in the wave and push forward with your shoulder that’s not loaded with your water housing. And as you knife through the face of the wave and you push your shoulder through, the wave passes you by. Usually you come out the back of the wave. Every once in a while you get sucked over if you’re in a bad position, like near the top of the wave, or you were swimming really hard to get into position and you weren’t already there when the wave broke. But if you’re already set up in a good position, generally you’re not going to get sucked over. There’s always a small chance though.
How do you earn a spot shooting out at Pipe? When I started swimming at Pipe there was a full pecking order. There was [Scott] Aichner and Jeff Flindt and my uncle and Tom Carey. There was a system of who you had to sit behind. I sat behind them for years and you knew you probably weren’t going to get a perfect shot because you weren’t in the prime position and guys might be in your shot. Just like surfing out there, shooting Pipe means putting in your time and paying your dues and working your way up the pecking order. It’s important to remember that there are photographers who have been swimming out there 10-plus years and have to get a shot of a Jamie O’Brien or whoever because that’s how they earn a paycheck every month and companies and athletes are depending on them. They’re not just out there to get a thousand likes on Instagram.
How do you make a living as a surf photographer? You mean you can make a living as a surf photographer? That’s possible?
Uh, I think so… right? [laughs] People don’t understand: You don’t make a lot of money doing this. If you want to be able to just shoot surf, you have to work full-time for a surf company and a magazine to be able to pull it off. Guys like Clark Little and Zak Noyle have branded themselves well with a unique look. They’ve been able to create their own enterprise through coffee-table books and galleries. I just did a commercial shoot for a mainstream brand and it probably paid more than I’ll make all year shooting surf photos. Even if you’re at the top of the surf photography game, the companies are nickel-and-diming you really hard for the amount of money you put into your equipment.
If you could only bring one camera and one lens on a trip, what would you bring? You really think I’m going to tell you all my secrets? [laughs] I would bring a camera that has a fast motor drive and a 24 to 70mm. I actually don’t own a 24-70, but I shoot a lot with fisheye and a 50mm, and it would be really nice to have something right in between if I could only have one lens.
Are drones the future? Like I said, it’s important to do something unique that no one else is doing. Guys have been doing a lot of stuff with drones lately and people are loving it because it’s something they haven’t seen as much of as the other angles. And I’m sure that will die out soon and it will be a hunt for the next new thing.
What do you think it’s going to be? Sorry, that’s for a later interview.
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