How hard is it to be a surfing photographer?

May 3, 2021

IN THE shot, Philmar Alipayo — professional surfer and husband of Andi Eigenmann — is crouched down, a low-slung profile framed by an oval of water. The front of his surfboard looks like the edge of a knife, cutting through the hollow of a Cloud 9 wave. On the right of the frame is a deep, sea-green arc of water. A curtain of spray, the inward-turning crest of the tide, occupies the rest of the shot; a stunning, beautiful photograph.

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How in the world do you get jaw-dropping shots like this?

“I take them while swimming,” said Oli Bayer, the 31-year-old German photographer who took Alipayo’s photo last February 13. “I just have little fins that help me [to swim]. My favorite lens to use is a fisheye. So you have to get really close and ride into the barrel sometimes with the surfers.”

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With a wide-angle lens like that, just how close is close? Just centimeters sometimes, says Bayer. With the danger of surfboard fins clipping into his head before he can swim out of the way, he needs to wear a helmet when he goes out to take photos.

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So far, “knock on wood,” Bayer said, he’s had no major accidents beyond cuts on the reef break under the swirling Siargao waters.

But still, “it's physically challenging,” he continued. “You have to swim, and when the waves are bigger [or] there are stronger currents, [or] sometimes there's a slightly bigger set coming in the back [and] you can't escape. You get cleaned up in the shallow reef.”

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    Bayer first moved to Siargao in 2016. Before that, he was a surfer and surf guide in Bali, eager to get a feel of the waves he would never have been able to find in his home country of Germany. It was there that he met his future wife Elaine Abonal. When they relocated to Siargao, Bayer began snapping surf photos with a GoPro.

    “What helped me get started a little faster with surf photography was that I surfed before already. So the wave knowledge and how to read them was there already. Just knowledge of the ocean and the waves and how they break. I mean, it's different from wave to wave,” he said.

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    While Bayer started taking shots with a GoPro, he bought a mirrorless Sony a6000. It’s been his trusty shooter ever since.

    “I’ve had this camera [for] five years now,” he said, laughing. “We'll see how [long] it will last okay.”

    Before he hits the water, he decides on what lens he’ll take with him. For barrel shots, of course, he takes the fisheye for the up-close, wide-angle drama. But for other spots, “I choose something a bit narrow, like 50mm lens or something,” he explained. “You see the size of the wave better. It always look a little small on the fisheye. Smaller than it actually is.”

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    Bayer is a fixture in Siargao, and with the breathtaking quality of the photos he takes, he’s quite popular there. Through his lens, he’s tracked the career of some of the best, brightest names in the Siargao scene.

    A young surfer he’s keeping an eye on now is Eduardo Alciso.

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    “He's just getting better and better. Really strong, good surfer,” he said. “But there will be a lot of more good surfers [coming] out of Siargao, for sure.”

    If you’re thinking of getting into surf photography, Bayer has this piece of advice.

    “Surfing helps. Try to understand the waves. If you have a surfboard and a flotation device with you, just sit out and watch the surf and watch the waves. Get the knowledge of the ocean. Don’t just don't jump in the water,” he said.

    Bayer added: “Be aware of the ocean being really much stronger than you. You have no control over the ocean.”

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