Russell Ord is a world-renowned surf photographer who has produced more than 25 magazine covers and won numerous awards for his work shooting unique and spectacular views of the ocean.
Russell fell in love with water sports at the age of 10, and has surfed for more than 30 years. Having achieved a level of comfort in this environment has been a huge contributor to his success from the time he picked up his first camera.
“As a photographer, I’m used to swimming in huge waves. It can be raw, rugged, cold, with big currents and great white sharks.”
The playing field
“A lot of people tell me they want to be a surf photographer and then tell me they’ve never been in the water. All I can say is, ‘it’s going to be a slow process due to the lack of ocean knowledge.’ You can shoot from land, and many people do, but surf photography is one of the only forms of sport photography where you can be right in the middle of the play -- it’s like shooting football from inside the huddle. The beach is the sidelines.
Russell came to photography following some surfing injuries that sidelined him for a bit. He started out shooting with friends, and, as he explains it, I learned film photography the “hard way,” through trial and error, eventually migrating to digital about ten years ago.
The move to medium format
“My goal is to bring quality back into the surfing world for billboards and shop window advertising. Sometimes what I see makes me think that people have become immune to the concept of quality. I’ll look at a shot and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. The quality is terrible.’ So I’m trying to educate people on what quality is by producing images and showing the difference -- especially when the images go to print. Better resolution and finer details. I like to look closely at images; it’s a bit like art work. What I want is to look closely and see the ripples in the water, to see it’s all pin sharp and perfect. That’s why I moved to medium format.”
“In a sense, you could say that shooting these waves is analogous to the feeling I have as a surfer catching a good wave.”
“Purchasing my first medium format system, the Phase One IQ160, was a huge investment. I took the plunge because I want to make my prints as lifelike as possible, and with the 35mm, you start losing that at a certain size. Aquatech informed me they were producing a waterhousing tailored for the Phase One camera so I decided to sell a lot of my gear and move up to the IQ160, which is best suited for the end result I’m after. It’s also taking me back to the film days, where you’d basically focus on getting that one great shot. You aren’t just shooting everything you see. It’s made me start really enjoying photography again.
Whereas some photographers set up in a highly controlled environment, Russell puts on flippers and swims out to sea. “I barely do any studio work at all,” he says. When he’s not shooting surfers, he is capturing powerful enormous waves in action. He can spend a lot of time finding the best locations, “The other day, I must have driven 7 or 8 hours one way just to shoot empty waves.”
And the prints that Russell is now making are enormous -- limited only by the print width of 60 inches. They are magnificent wall-sized images, designed for exhibitions and fine art collectors. All his shots are taken from the water.
“In a sense, you could say that shooting these waves is analogous to the feeling I have as a surfer catching a good wave. It’s virtually the same thing and probably better. I’m semi-buoyant most of the time, except for when you go over the falls -- which I would describe as being in the worst cycle of a washing machine. That’s the time when a surfer gets wiped out. That’s when the weight becomes a problem and so I’m always careful to have the camera strapped to my arms.
“Years ago, when I first went from film to digital, I was told to get Capture One, and I wish that I had. ”
“As a photographer, I’m used to swimming in huge waves. It can be raw, rugged, cold, with big currents and great white sharks. I’ve had a couple of small sharks circle me once, and been bumped once by a Great White while I was on a jet ski, but usually the sharks don’t bother us.
“I’ve had the Phase One for less than a year, and have been very happy with the support I’ve gotten from Team Digital. Trevor Donetta has been really great. I was able to pick up the system, put it together and just start shooting. It’s really a basic camera to use, less buttons than the DSLRs. I barely use the touch screen since you can’t touch it in the water because of the housing. I shoot everything manually which is fine; you just need to know what you’re doing. I have customized some settings so it will back focus to suit the Aquatech housing. And Phase One provides all the support that I need.
“Years ago, when I first went from film to digital, I was told to get Capture One, and I wish that I had. Back then, I felt that I didn’t have the time to learn it correctly. But then I was ‘forced to learn it’ after I bought the Phase One IQ160 system. Now I see just how great Capture One Pro 7 really is -- especially the cataloging feature and how I can work with files from other DSLRs, like my Nikon cameras.
“I’m still using 35mm for weddings and using the IQ160 for location shots, so I can take my time. If I had two Phase One cameras I’d use just those because I just love the quality. But I’m seeing a big difference in quality too just from processing everything using Capture One Pro. It supports both medium format and 35mm systems brilliantly.
“I find that its rendering of skin tones is very good and I like the local adjustments, being able to simply adjust parts of the photo in the raw file, so that for example if the sky is blown out you can adjust it, paint the sky, drop the exposure a bit and you’re done. I’m not one of those who fuss too much. Most of the shots go quite well, and I only need to do a touch up here and there. Once I learned the workflow for Capture One Pro 7 it has been quite easy.
“I also use the black and white conversion. Before, when I was working with other programs, I would have to create a few thousand different presets. Now I can make a small adjustment and be done. I shoot a combination of images -- usually about 75 percent color and 25 percent black and white. And I also use the high dynamic range settings -- especially with surfing images, it works well because when you’re shooting deep dark blues and then you have extreme whites, you need to find the medium in between.
What advice would Russell give to aspiring photographers?
“I get asked these questions every day, because surf photography is so popular. I say, start with Capture One Pro 7 right away, get used to it. Besides the great raw rendering quality out of the box, it’s great for cataloging, renaming, makes it easy to find your shots again. Some guys when they start out don’t rename their shots and a year or two down the road they can’t find them.
“The other thing I’d say is, “don’t let anyone tell you you won’t’ succeed. Do your own thing and follow your passion; ask questions; some people will give you advice and some will say, ‘beat it’ because they see you as competition. Just keep going.”