Behind the Salty Lens with Photographer Paige Laverty
Being in the ocean is daunting enough. Now add fins, camera gear, and humans on 9 foot long fiberglass boards skimming by your head as waves crash and curl around you. Did we mention you have to capture the action while trying to stay afloat, focus your camera, and avoid hazards like currents and kelp? This is just a typical day for SmugMug customer and surf photographer Paige Laverty (often found at the famous Mavericks in Half Moon Bay); so we followed her and a few incredible surfers to Santa Cruz, California to see how she does it.
Still Water: Images by Paige
How did you get started with surf photography? It’s not exactly the most common hobby. PL: I’m originally from Chicago. I’ve always loved the water and swimming but obviously didn’t grow up around the ocean. I remember my dad taking me to Huntington Beach when I was 16 thinking, “by the ocean is where I belong.” It took me 20 more years to get there but here I am. I moved to San Francisco and have been here for 8 years. This week I am moving to San Diego. I started surfing as soon as I got to San Francisco and fell in love with it. I quit my 9 to 5 job to do odd jobs — babysitting, driving for Lyft, etc.— so that I could be free to surf when conditions were good. Surfing is my first true love. So it just made sense to start shooting it. I’m a bit bored shooting anything that doesn’t have moving water in it now! My favorite days are when I shoot in the water for 30 minutes then jump out to swap my camera for my board.
“Longboard Days” by Paige (In frame: Emily Flannagan)
Most challenging thing about shooting in the water? PL: Oh it’s humbling. You are no one out there. She is queen. You get beat up even on small days, but I love it so much I don’t even mind. I’ve gotten a concussion and put a hole through my lip. But I’d say the most challenging thing is that your camera is in a water housing. You could have a fleck of dust on your port (the casing that goes over the lens) and then most of your shots will be out of focus. You must be very, very anal. If ONE little setting is wrong, you usually have to swim back in, dry your hands, open it up, fix it, close it up, and swim back out. It’s a process that can take a half hour. And buttons and knobs are easily knocked as you put your camera into the housing.
Mavericks, shot by Paige
You mentioned needing to be really comfortable in the water to do this — has there ever been a time when you weren’t as confident out there as you are now? Should people expect to be pushed around by the ocean if they decide to take on this kind of work? PL: I am becoming more and more confident with the hours I put in to ocean swimming. Surfers must be comfortable in the water, but surf photographers must be absolutely rock-solid confident. Surfers are attached to a board at the ankle so they have a floating life line and know which way is up. When you are out in the open ocean with just a heavy camera (you are limited to one arm), and the fins on your feet, you’d better be able to read the ocean, read the oncoming surfers and not fear being held underwater for 15+ seconds when the sets roll in.
Candra Jordan & Daniel having fun in Santa Cruz
Craziest story that’s happened while shooting? PL: Well I could tell you some horror stories of very large waves and ensuing panic, but I’ll tell you about whales. Maybe 2 years ago I was shooting the dog surfing championships in Pacifica just for fun. I was in my wetsuit swimming around shooting the 4 legged surfers, when I saw 3 whales in the bay feeding. I ditched the dogs and swam out to be amongst them. I know they are super smart and understand their surroundings and know I’m not food, but once you are out there totally by yourself you feel very vulnerable. Your body is dangling under the surface and you have no idea where they are. They approached me a couple times surfacing about 30 feet from me while stopping for a breath and exhaling a unique scent of rotten fish. I just froze in awe bc they are such a huge presence. I didn’t even get a photo!
Mavericks, from a Jet Ski, Image by Paige
Written by Emily Truesdell
July 16, 2019 · 4 min read