In the latest installment of our extreme photographer series, Red Bull Illume talks to legendary surf photographer Brian Bielmann about how the game has changed and what the future holds…
How have things changed since you started?
Well, there are lots more places to sell your photos now. With digital you can send a single image to as many outlets as you want – but it’s also brought in thousands of new surf photographers. Here in Hawaii, we used to swim out to Pipeline with 36 photos in our camera. Now I swim out with 2,000 photos. There used to be zero to about eight other photographers out. Now there are usually 30 to 40 photographers at any time!
How do you plan for shoots?
You learn to be prepared for any conditions; with surfing you can’t predict what you will get. You get what you get on surf trips, so make the best of it!
What is your advice to anyone starting out in surf photography?
Better love what you do.... and find places to shoot by yourself and try to do things no one else is doing already.
What's your typical equipment on a shoot?
Canon equipment... Mark 4 and Mark 3 as well as 5D bodies, 35 and 85 prime lenses for portraits, 70-200 f4 and the 8 to 15 to shoot in the water, 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200 for all-purpose action and lifestyle, 400 and 500 for action from the beach. I use all SPL water housings for above and underwater. I have Hensel 1200 strobe equipment but just bought the Erlinchrom Ranger 400 pack for travel because of its weight – it’s much easier to travel with.
What’s the main challenge of shooting underwater?
You just need really clear water – that’s the main thing. If you are shooting people, you need good swimmers, people who look and feel comfortable underwater.
Is it dangerous work?
Sure, it’s dangerous! I was just on a trip in Fiji and a surfer came close to running over my head with his surfboard fins – I realized I should have had my helmet on. I have shot so much underwater that it’s second nature, but you have to be close to the wave without getting in the way of the surfer – getting caught by the waves is a no-no.
What projects are you currently working on?
I really want to do a book and I am finally ready. People have approached me before but I felt my best work was still ahead of me. Now I feel I have a good enough body of work to represent myself properly. Other than that, I have great trips ahead: going to Peru and helping with a surf trip / Operation Smile project (for kids with cleft palate) through Sanuk then on to Fiji to shoot the Volcom Pro (I work for Volcom). Then in August I go back to Tahiti for the Billabong Pro for the magazine I work with Trans-World Surf. Other than those plans, I wait for big swells.
Does surf photography still inspire you?
More than ever, there is such a variety of styles out there with all the photographers shooting surfing around the world that I am always getting inspired.
What's your own favorite shot?
I would have to say a shot of Nathan Fletcher (above) from last August in Tahiti, the biggest swell to ever hit Teahupoo and Nathan got towed into the most radical wave ever ridden by a human being. It is in the Billabong XXL contest for the biggest tube and they used it as their main shot for this year’s contest.
And lastly... your favorite break?
I would have to say Teahupoo, I was there in the beginning and have shot it for the last 20 years with a lot of my favorite shots are from there, so yeah, Teahupoo!