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Capturing the Surf: an Interview with Photographer Seth Migdail

Photographers

Seth Migdail is a surf photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A regular at Mavericks, his work has been featured in a number of outlets, including Surfline.com and theinertia.com. I sat down with Seth to talk about his work, his process, and what it takes to break into the insular surfing community.

How did you get started in photography?

I grew up as an artist, doing drawing and painting. I found photography in college, and ended up dumping two years worth of art school and pursued that. I have a fine art background, a BFA in photography, so I came up in the analog world. I shot a lot of large format, medium format – that’s how I got started.

Back then, in fine-art school, you take a lot of time to try and find your identity. It took me a while, but I eventually did. I did a lot of documentary photography, what I’d call “social landscapes.” I got a solid foundation in the craft that way. I also did a lot of work in the studio.

What is your favorite subject, and why?

Definitely surfing. I found surfing when I moved out to California. Growing up in New York, I hadn’t surfed at all, and I only discovered it when I moved up to San Luis Obispo. I’d actually put photography aside for a few years and kinda became a surf bum down there. When I moved up to the Bay Area, I suffered an injury that kept me out of the water, and I started shooting again.

At the time, Mavericks was just re-forming as a contest back in 2004, and I just immersed myself back in it. I couldn’t surf because of the injury, and I lived vicariously through the lens. For me, it’s all about the connection with the water, with the ocean, and with the people that I’m photographing. It’s a community up here of surfers – that’s why I like it.

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Mavericks is a hard place to break into, isn’t it?

It is! The start of Mavericks is an amazing story. I’m friends with many of the photographers who have a history with Mavericks going back all the way to the beginning. I’ve been very lucky; just going out there year after year, I’ve gotten to know the surfers, and I can call a lot of the big wave surfers my friends, which is pretty cool. That’s really what drew me, and spoke to who I am as a surf photographer.

It was not easy to get into that community. It’s a matter of building the trust; more importantly, it’s respecting your peer photographers. You can’t just walk in there like you own the place. There are people who’ve put in 20 years before you. It took a lot of time to build that trust, to get to know the people. I worked with the organizers of the early contests, and worked my way up to the point where I had the respect of everyone out there, including the surfers.

It’s an interesting dynamic. You’re there photographing, which is good for you, but they also need you there. That’s why there has to be this mutual respect. We hang out now, we’re friends. It’s all about respect.

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Looking at some of these images, you’re very clearly right out on the water. Talk me through that process. How do you prep for that, how do you get your gear ready for that?

It starts the day before. The first thing is, you gotta prepare for the swell. Look at the forecast. I’m a photographer, but you also have to be a forecaster. It’s a little easier, thanks to the tools out there. We look at the models, for example, and see a swell brewing out by Japan. We follow it across the Pacific Ocean. That’s when you start determining, okay, it looks like it’s for real.

You pack your gear, charge your batteries, check your cards, keeping an eye on the forecast.

Then you wait, and the day before, you start to see the numbers on the outside buoys which are 24 hours out. The next morning you check the inside buoy (NOAA 46012) to see just how much energy the swell has at that time.

As the swell gets bigger, your heart starts to beat a little faster. Even though we’re not surfing it, it’s still very dangerous out there. You have to go through two breaks in the reef, so you could be facing 10, 15, 20-foot breaking walls of water.

As far as equipment out there, I shoot with a 7D, with no water housing…

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Wait. Hold on. Hold on! You shoot with a Canon 7D that is NOT in a water housing?

Heh. Yeah. The housing is too bulky to be on a jetski. We’re all out there without water housings. Knock on wood, I haven’t lost equipment yet, but they tell me it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. That’s why I shoot with the 7D, because I consider that my disposable camera. I’m not going to bring out a $6000 camera out there on the surf. For what I’m doing, it’s the perfect camera; it’s all about framerate and image quality, and the 7D has it.

Everything is packed in a waterproof backpack, but once I’m out there, I just have a stash of dry towels. When I’m driving the ski, I just keep it over my shoulder, with the lens facing backwards. I take two cameras out, because changing lenses out there on the water isn’t an option; any salt water and corrosion will set in quickly. I’ve got a 7D with the 70-200, and a 1D Mark II with a wider angle, which I hardly use out there.

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Photo Courtesy Seth Migdail

Okay. You’ve survived the day without giving your camera a saltwater bath. What’s your workflow like when you come home?

One of the sources I supply images to is the site Surfline. They are the main forecasters for surfing and they publish stories too. They’re the first asking for images, so I do first round edits when I get home. I start through, doing quick ratings of the images, and then usually do a second round edit to narrow it down. I come back with anywhere from 1500 to 3000 images, so it’s down and dirty.

When you get down to your final edits – usually about 20 or 30 selects – I’ll do a quick color correction, then format it down to their size, and then it’s off.

It’s a long day. I’ve fallen asleep at the computer a few times.

I shoot in RAW, and do all my post work in Capture One Pro 7 and Photoshop.

Let’s talk about this personal project of yours – the sea foam photos. I have to admit – when you first mentioned it, my reaction was, “huh?” Walk me through this – how did it come about?

Ha! Well, I was at Ocean Beach, hoping to shoot some surfing, but it was windy and flat and kinda sucky. I was walking the beach, just photographing stuff. I had my dog with me, so I was shooting the dog, shooting rocks, really whatever I saw. Looking out over at the water, watching the waves come in, I noticed these rocks the water was hitting as it came in. I thought, “There’s gotta be more going on there.” I had my 70-200, so I set it up to shoot as fast as I could – around 1/4000th of a second, and started firing off exposures at a high framerate. The very first shot I got was mesmerizing, and I knew I needed more. I spent three hours shooting there. I moved around, looking for different rocks, placing them differently, trying a lot of things.

The biggest challenge I found was that you can’t predict the angle the surf was going to come in at. So you had to watch it come in, rush to get into a position you’d want to be in, all in a few seconds. It was almost like shooting surfing, in terms of speed. You don’t have a lot of time to think.

I’m still developing the process of shooting these things. I’m even trying to shoot with my GoPro, but the timing on that is a lot more difficult. There are a lot of other things I’m trying, and I’m pretty excited about this project – it’s going to be a long-term thing.

Do you know how you’ll show this project?

It’s too early for me to think about that for now. I can see it getting to a point where I can do a whole show with these images. Each one has its own personality; the light, the foam, the rocks, each one is different.

So, to wrap this up: is there any other type of photography you’d be interested in doing?

Honestly, it’s not something I’ve thought a lot about. I like actions sports, and I’ve been doing a lot of landscapes more recently, but ultimately, I’m so drawn to surfing that it’s hard to think about doing any other type of photography.

What do you derive your inspiration from?

My peers, definitely. I’m always aspiring to create the best image I can, and my peers are a big influence. I get inspired when I’m looking at other surf photographers’ work.

What is your favorite piece of gear, and why?

For me, it’s my 70-200 f/2.8 lens. For what I do, it’s the most versatile, especially out at Mavericks. It’s the perfect focal length for pulling back and getting tight. Plus, it’s a fast lens, which you need.

Where can people find you, follow you, etc.?

My Facebook page has been great for my career, and most of my stuff is posted there. https://www.facebook.com/seth.migdail/. I’m also on Instagram at @migdailphoto.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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