All images are taken by and used with expressed permission from Ryan Williams.
Most passionate photographers will do anything for a shot. They will climb fences, trespass, spend days in the wild, even brave large predator encounters just to get that one perfect shot. Australian surf photographer, surfer, and globetrotter Ryan Williams, who has spent most of his life riding as well as photographing the waves, is no different… well, except that he mostly deals with powerful waves and strong underwater surges to get his perfect shots.
And perfect shots, they are. If you travel or surf, you’re probably bound to come across and be impressed one of his awesome photographs (many of which are of towering emerald waves, surfers in action, and life underwater) as they regularly grace the pages of many travel and surf magazines.
Today, let’s take time to get to know the man behind these photographs.
Phoblographer: So Ryan, you’re a surf photographer we want to know, what came first for you – photography or surfing?
Ryan: Surfing came first for sure. I think that if I didn’t surf I would have never started shooting…. I shoot more than I surf these days but I still prefer surfing to shooting.
Phoblographer: I’m sure a lot of our readers would like to know how one gets from picking up the camera and taking amateur photos to being an award-winning professional photographer whose work has been featured in many magazines. Will you tell us about your own journey?
Ryan: Well I grew up surfing in the little beach town of Sunshine Beach, Queensland, Australia. I left school at 14 years old and basically just surfed most days. When I was around 17, I moved to a party/backpacker town called Airlie Beach in North Queensland that has no waves at all. I lost myself to the whole party scene for about 7 years and had a few run-ins with the law, and came very close to being locked up for long time which helped me decide to stop partying and start surfing again, so I moved to the Gold Coast, and got back into surfing.
A few of my old friends were sponsored for surfing, one of them had a decent camera and asked me to shoot him surfing, and from there I invested in my own camera and was shooting most weekends; but I never really took it seriously until I invested in my first water housing and managed to land my first magazine cover shot soon after that. I’m a self-taught photographer and I don’t really have the ability to learn through reading/studying. Trial and error works best for me!
Phoblographer: Tell us about your most dangerous experience while out there in the water.
Ryan: I’d have to say that was in Indonesia when I was on an island called Nia. It was a decent size swell but not really life threatening. To get out into the waves you have to swim out through a usually pretty mellow 2-meter-wide keyhole/channel in the sharp exposed reef. This day was a bit different though, as there was a very high tide with a decent swell running and the exposed reef that you usually walk across to jump into the channel was now covered with surging whitewater.
I was keen to get out into the line up as the guy I was supposed to be shooting was already out surfing and I ended up jumping in the water before the surge of water coming into the reef had finished. So I got dragged back into the channel a bit further than expected and then as the water was drawing back out, I headed out towards the mouth of the channel to safety only to get caught by the next surge of water right when I was at the mouth of the channel and I got pushed into an exposed reef cliff/cave that was sticking out of the water.
As the surge was coming in, it was trying to pull me under the reef even further while the water level was quickly rising. I ended up trapped underwater with the reef shelf directly above my head while holding onto a chunk of reef with one hand and my camera and water housing in the other hand and the surge was trying to pull me deeper underneath the now completely submerged reef. After what feels like an eternity, the pull of the surge slowed and started to draw back out again. I let go of the reef and tried to find my way out, which ended up being quite hard as the water was very dark and murky and I couldn’t even see my own hands in front of me. I couldn’t just simply swim straight up as the reef was above my head…
Anyway, I managed to make it to the surface and clear of the mouth of the channel only to get mowed down by one of the bigger set of waves that day and get my flippers ripped off while enduring three long hold downs in a row. I swam back out to the guys and had a little rest leaning on the nose of one of their boards. It started raining quite heavily so I took the excuse of having a camera that was bad for low light fast action shooting with poor ISO performance (shooting with a canon 40D at the time) and swam in and grabbed myself a beer.
Phoblographer: You have some amazing surf action photos. What entails taking a shot like those? What kind of preparation do you do and how much effort does it take?
Ryan: Thanks! In the way of preparation, when I first get to the location I would usually keep an eye on the waves for short time and consider whether to shoot from the water or from the land. If the waves are shifting around and not breaking in the same place most of the time with bad lighting, I will shoot from the land and whip out the trusty Tamron 150-600mm. If I’m shooting from the water, I will need to decide if I want to shoot wide-angle or with a longer lens, choose a lens port to suit the lens, then put the water housing together and do a quick check of the rubber O’rings to make sure there isn’t any sand or a stray hair interrupting the seal for the lens port or back control plate.
As I’m heading down to the water, I’ll be looking for a deep water patch with a riptide running out so that I can get out to the waves with minimal effort and quickly. When I enter the water, I’ll be dunking the camera in and out and checking for leaks. Once I swim out, I’ll be checking the camera every 5 minutes or so for leaks and trying to position myself in order to get the best shot – if I’m shooting wide-angle or fisheye, I have to be right in the mix of things and getting as close as possible, sometimes within 2-3 inches of the action, which can be dangerous not just for me but for the surfer as well. The main thing is you don’t want to be in the way of the surfer or affecting what he/she wants to do on the wave. Being a surfer as well helps me to be able to read what the wave is going to do and where the surfer is going to be positioned on the wave.
Phoblographer: We can only imagine how difficult it is when trying to get the perfect shot while balancing on your board at the same time. Do you still shoot on manual, aperture- or shutter-priority mode, or auto?
Ryan: Actually I rarely shoot from a board. I’m usually swimming with my camera in one hand and swim fins on my feet. The only time I’ll shoot from a board is there is a super strong current that I can’t swim against and I can’t get a good angle from a boat or have no access to a jet ski. And definitely shooting in manual most of the time, the only time I use any other mode is when I’m being lazy!
Phoblographer: What type of gear do you use for your shots?
Ryan: I use Canon camera bodies, the CMT water housing system, and just recently Tamron Australia have kindly supplied me with their range of lenses! (Thanks guys!!!!!!!!)
Phoblographer: In your professional and artistic opinion, what makes a great surf photo?
Ryan: As always with photography, lighting is the most important aspect of a good photo. With water being my medium, I get to see light do some pretty crazy things. A great surfing photo for me has a good mix of action and scenery ie: an action shot with an interesting foreground or background or both.
Here are a few of my recent favorites:
Phoblographer: You travel a lot for work. How has travelling to different places influenced your photography? Which place has the best waves?
Ryan: Travelling has actually opened up my eyes to how good we have it back home in Australia when it comes to waves! But I’d have to say my favorite wave in the world to surf is Nias and my favorite wave in the world to shoot is on an uninhabited remote little island in North Sumatra, Indonesia. I won’t name the island as there are not many people that know where it is and I hope it stays that way forever!
Phoblographer: Recently, you’ve been spending a few months in a year in Indonesia. What are you up to over there?
Ryan: Throughout the year, I spend about 1-2 months at a time based at different surf resorts and shoot the guests that stay there. It’s a nice change of pace compared to shooting for online/magazine content and I get to surf uncrowded waves a lot too!
Phoblographer: What’s next for Ryan Williams? Any new projects you’re working on these days?
Ryan: I sell canvas prints online so that keeps me pretty busy when I’m not surfing or shooting. There are a few other ideas that I’m working on, but I’ve learnt that its better to keep them to myself these days until the finished product is ready as the photography industry is pretty damn cutthroat these days and there are plenty of photographers around that will steal your ideas without a second thought.