It’s not twilight or late afternoon, yet. Just, that 5 pm sun dropping like-a-lead-balloon into the clouds blocking Kauai from Rocky Point. Bobby Owens makes his way out to the point at Rockies, his favored spot just where the line-up splits visually, then he digs in for his 2 hour shoot. Hard to believe it, but he’s here when most shooters come down slightly after dawn, or have already packed up their SD cards and screens and gotten the hell out of here for home, cold water and laptop to preview their day’s images. For Bobby, this 5 pm hour is just the beginning of his day of shooting. He scanned everyone out on the split peak, then adjusted to a higher range of ISO on the camera’s dial than anyone cares to shoot images at. Literally, there’s no one shooting. The few who are still on retainer sit it out till the person they’re shooting tells them with a hand wave they can now leave. And this is his time. For Bobby, “no tripod for me” he possibly reads the dropping light through the clouds, hand cradles the long zoom, then tucks down in his floppy hat and just lets ‘er rip on the card.
It’s now at this moment, the few seconds before the last beams light up the top third of the wave, it’s when Bobby is in deep concentration in his shooting. He’s not focused on anyone in particular, the dying light is giving him half-shadow images at best, silhouettes more than likely and for sure nothing else. But, if there’s that gouge, an air into barely any light, or speed blurs (or anything else an ISO ?00 will afford him) he’s on it like rotten fish to a feral cat. Half the line-up has already had their last wave in or crawled over the reef for home. Bobby’s hanging in there, painting the way any serious shooter does, grabbing a split second of this or that, or it doesn’t matter. Just put it onto the card and gage it against all the other earlier shots tonight after dinner. Editing time.
The sun’s now gone, a second afterglow smoking across the horizon and he’s still sitting, in position on the dry reef, looking around. It’s as though he’s gauging his reason to bail from here by what’s around him, or who’s not around him. NO ONE. Just a few by the head of the walk-way, the odd couple or a dog walker or someone like big Mike getting out of the water super late and headed up for home. That’s Bobby’s signal to pack it up and shuffle his way back past the dog walker.Time to walk down to the highway for home and dinner. It’s a wrap, Every other camera’s downloaded from all the early afternoon action in child proof, safely packaged lighting. Blues are blue, speeds are up at 2000th and the sky was bright. For Bobby, it’s a shallow depth of field, dark shadows blending in with inky blue-to black images – the total opposite of perfect contrast and color balance. Right now you can’t even see your hand in front of your face, but If you go up to him and ask how he thinks he did he’ll crack that half smile and just answer “Ohhh, I think I got a few tonight, after everyone left…”
The Early Days
Going way back in time to the late 60s, there was no internet, there was no social media, and there weren’t that many families back then taking their kids to the beach and shooting Super 8 of them. Let alone, still photos from the water with a really specialized camera like the Nikonos. But, luckily from the get go, when we first started surfing in 1966 – 1967, my dad started taking photos of us in a way that was really memorable. And, to have your dad out in the water, swimming around with you, shooting photos back then was really special. From that point on, going forward into my high school years in the mid-70s, I really got into photography, taking General Photography 101 in high school, and I was always around surf photography.
Later on, around 1975, we all started hanging out at Bernie Baker’s old house when it was right on the beach at Sunset. It used to be nicknamed The Embassy because everybody showed up there. You had photographers showing up from California, or from Australia, and of course you had Bernie Baker himself. So, I was always around those guys, seeing them set up their equipment. It was always in my peripheral, since I had camera equipment of my own. I was always observant of what they were doing.
Everything was manual focused back then. And, I really have a lot of respect for those guys, because they had to compose the photo, they had to have really good timing, they’re multitasking, and they’re manually focusing as a surfer is moving along their focal plane. If you could do that back then and get sharp photos and, and have them published in a surfing magazine, you were one of a handful of guys that really had that talent. I guess maybe the surfing equivalent of that could be if you surfed large waves, pre-leash, and you had to swim in for your board at Sunset, and it kind of taught you a lot of things about sunset. Autofocus opened up a lot of doors for people, but probably more than anything, it made their keeper rate really high. Just like when the leash came about, it made things easier.
I was learning about photography, in high school, my dad bought me a Nikkormat, which was one of Nikon’s less-expensive cameras. It was more of a basic camera, but a perfect camera to learn photography. It’s the old match needle style exposure metering. A really durable camera, that was like combat ready.
And, our program was, you go surfing with your high school friends, which for me was generally Mark Foo and Chris Gardner, we’re all in one car, and we used to take turns shooting pictures of each other at Rocky Point and Off the Wall. That’s kind of, kind of how it began. We kind of had a working knowledge of the equipment because we were using it on ourselves. We already knew our way around a camera during that time, going into 1975- 1976.
Capturing the Moment
I started competing and traveling in 1976, that was the first year there was an organized pro tour. Randy Rarick got everybody here from Hawaii organized and we all went down to Bells Beach for the inaugural contest that year. I landed in Sydney and stayed with Steve Jones, a surfer about my age at the time. And, then Mark Warren who lived up in Avoca, which was just a little ways North came down and picked us all up. He had a van and we drove from Sydney down to Bell’s Beach, which is an all-night drive. I had brought my camera over from Hawaii, with maybe one or two lenses. And, Bells had really good surf that year. Jeff Hackman won the event and I just documented my trip. That was the beginning, after that point, my camera was pretty much with me everywhere. I always felt that something special was going on, and I just knew that these were occasions that I should document. It would help me remember my career. And, I was pretty fortunate that I started doing that from day one.
That was my first pro contest and I placed seventh between Mark Warren and Reno Abellira. And, I just didn’t expect that. I thought if I made it through a couple of the elimination rounds, I would be doing pretty good and to have finished seventh in that contest, I called home and everybody was really excited. So, that first contest was sort of an indicator to my parents that he’s kind of proved himself in the first contest. They looked at it and said, “Okay, Bobby’s gonna want to do this. We’re going to need to support him in this.” And back then, there was really no money in the sport. You were virtually bankrolled by your parents. They were your sponsors.
I got really serious about competition at that time. And, every year we would come back to Australia for that leg of the tour. One of the publications down there was a newspaper surfing publication, called Breakaway. They wanted me to be an affiliate of theirs in Hawai’i. One of the first opportunities I had with them was in the summertime over here when the Hokulea made its first roundtrip to Tahiti and back. The maiden voyage, it was a really huge deal over here. I took all kinds of photos of the Hokule’a as it was coming around Waikiki and into the harbor. Ala Moana was like 4-5ft that day, so I got shots of the surf and the Hokule’a and everybody’s standing on it, there were a million boats, it was crazy. I covered that for them and that was probably one of the first things that I ever got published.
Following the Light
I started shooting spots like Rockies quite a lot, and I love the low angle. I love being closer to the water. I think that helps me feel connected to what’s going on. What I started noticing was that the position of Rockies in relation to the sun, there was just this really cool stuff going on with the wave in the sky in the background. And, you have a concentration of really good surfers there. And I thought with what the cameras are capable of now, and taking what I’ve learned as a surfer, I’m able to track guys and intuitively know what they’re going to do on a wave.
I just found it starting to work in my favor. And I started getting these kinds of results that I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. That’s, something I haven’t really seen”. And it’s really fun to do, I’m really getting a kick out of doing it and at the same time getting to know the surfers and they’re just really good. These kids are fun to be around and you get to know their parents and people in the community. But, I think just being able to combine my talents as a surfer with what the camera can do has allowed me to develop a look and I’m just kind of honing my craft over the last couple of years.
I really enjoy shooting surf photos and I like shooting close up and tight because I really feel it pushes the camera. It pushes the autofocusing, it will really challenge the camera as far as the auto-focus tracking, to do the best that it’s capable of doing. From my end, it’s hard to do because keeping a guide that’s moving along, the focal plane in the center is hard to do. That was something that challenged me. And, I like to put a lot of light on the subject and a lot of color on it. There’s just all this contrast. So to me, getting the results back from that, it’s very rewarding.
It’s funny, I bumped into a photographer a while back and he goes, “Yeah, we used to do that back in the 90s, the surfing magazines for a while had all the photographers shooting really tight. All the action photos were just up with the surfer and their colorful wetsuits.” And, in a way, I’m kind of doing a modern day version of that, but with a different lighting situation. But, I love pushing the camera hard and seeing what it can do.