“God, the pressure is on now. It used to be you could wait until after the trip to tell the surfers how the shots are. Now it’s like, ‘Alright, Brian, let’s see what you got.’ It’s great, but kind of scary.”
What photographer Brian Bielmann was talking about was the 2004 Mentawais boat trip he did, a project dubbed “Modernism” during which he and Dustin Humphrey shot a superstar crew (Andy Irons, Shane Dorian, CJ Hobgood, and Dane Reynolds) using a superstar load of new, high-tech digital camera gear. It was the world’s first all-digital editorial surf trip, eventually consuming 18 pages in the February 2005 issue of TransWorld SURF.
“We bought three cameras for that trip right away,” said Peter Taras, TransWorld's then-photo editor (he's now at Surfing). “It was like bam—we’re going all-in with this technology.”
Reynolds, who made the cover of that “Modernism” issue, quickly embraced this new instant-gratification technology while on the trip. “Being able to see the photos after the session helps so much,” Reynolds said. “It’s a way better system. It helped me so much to see how the airs and turns looked.”
Suddenly, the world of surf photography had changed, and for whoever didn’t have one, it wasn’t long before Bielmann’s contemporaries threw down credit cards for $4,500 Canon Mark II cameras and stacks of compact flash memory cards. And why not? While traveling you could view your work instantaneously, show everyone what you shot, edit and email fresh image samples to editors while on-location, and never again worry about running out of film or whether or not you nailed the shot.
“When you go on a trip now,” Hobgood said, “you know what’s in the bag, which is pretty huge.”
Still, despite the surf media’s rapid leap from film to digital, with all new technology there were inevitable pitfalls.
“I was excited because I knew the long-term possibilities would benefit the magazine,” Taras said. “But at the same time, I was scared for my photographers. I anticipated a huge growth in surf photography that would flood our industry and eventually drop the price of everything having to do with sale of a photo—which has happened.”
Warming up to the changes in image quality was another obstacle. Hobgood: “I remember looking at the first couple of digital photos that magazines were running, and I thought that some of them looked really bad, like two-dimensional or something.”
Taras agreed. “The photo reproduction surpassed film years ago, but the color management is the true fight for us—a fight I think we’re winning.”
But most surfers, photographers, and photo editors agree that the positives far outweigh the negatives of digital surf photography, and that we’ve been on the right track since that first fateful “Modernism” trip, when, for the first time, millions of megapixels captured the world’s hottest surfing.
“Digital photography is a devil with a blue dress on,” Taras said. “She can be stubborn and ruthless one second, and, at the same time, she can be your best friend and totally forgiving. Ever since that first ‘Modernism’ trip, we have been like, ‘Okay, what now? How can we maximize this?’ And that’s where we are today.”