Share the Gift: AquaTech Housing and Surf Photography, with Zak Noyle

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To celebrate the release of his new signature series of AquaTech EDGE Sports Housing for the Canon R5 and R6 Mirrorless Cameras, we spoke with noted surf photographer Zak Noyle about timing, maneuvering, and the critical need for experience in the water. We also talked about his input on the new housing design, the lessons his father imparts, and the time he photographed for 8 hours straight in 20' waves.

Photographs © Zak Noyle

John Harris: When you are in the water—treading, waiting, preparing—what are you thinking? Do you let your thoughts wander? Are there tranquil moments? Are you more focused on swimming and safety concerns or photographic prep? How physically exhausting is staying afloat, then diving, and pushing under waves while holding a camera and housing?

Zak Noyle: I come from a different place than a lot of surf and water photographers, many of whom come from professional body board backgrounds, I come from a swim and water polo background, was a high school state champ, and I still swim twice a week as my cross-train because when you’re shooting you’re only swimming with fins, so to maneuver, it’s your physical ability and it’s your experience which allow you to stay calm and that is the key. The longest I stayed in the water was at the 2016 Eddie Aikua Surf Invitational, which only happens in waves that are 20' or above; the previous happened in 2009, so I was not going to get out of the water and miss the greatest wave of 7 years. But after, I was emotionally and physically drained. I was diving under waves that were 60' high, and had been so filled with adrenaline, I couldn’t even look at the photos for days.

Did you have “eyes on you” at all times though?

There were three or four jet skis around and I had an emergency inflatable vest but with waves that big, the jet skiers had to scurry to the beach sometimes and I would be out there by myself for 10 minutes thinking, “Okay. This is real raw.” I even put my hand toward the string on the emergency vest a couple times under the water, but never needed it.

But in a more normal circumstance…?

In all seriousness, I would never go out there, even in small waves, if I weren’t both mentally and physically prepared for the situation. Experience helps, of course, but I know when I will be out there that I will be comfortable enough to focus on the photography, on composition, settings, and getting into position.

Are the camera and housings buoyant or do they pull you down?

They’re neutral buoyancy.

But in a less life-threatening situation, do you have time to relax and enjoy your time in the water, even when working?

Of course, and even in the bigger waves, I’m enjoying it. It’s a gift and that’s why I do it. I really capture photos to convey and share with the 99.9% of the world who won’t see this with their own eyes, people like my mother, who will never go in the water.

And your father (photographer Ric Noyle), does he get into the ocean? Do you guys share that?

I get him there on Mondays and Fridays to work out with me.

Do you work with specific surfers and is there a collaborative experience when working with some while others are just there and you are working the scene while they surf?

I’ve built myself to a point where the surfers trust me and my vision, and the important part is being able to convey it to them, and ultimately deliver so they know I’m not wasting their time or getting in their way. When the waves are good and big, I’ll be shooting anyone and everyone, but there are other moments when I might say, “Let go of your rail on the next one” or “Stand straight, don’t just swing by.” It depends; if its just a good pipeline, it might be random guys out there; a lot of them are friends, too. But if we go on a surf trip, then it’s a little more focused and I’ll tell them the shots I have in mind.

Anyone with whom you collaborate particularly well?

Many folks, but I work with Danny Fuller a lot. He’s a professional surfer and a great photographer and we get along well, so when we travel, we have a lot to talk about.

Regarding AquaTech, they’ve been around since the late 1990s; I used one of their housings as a sound blimp to deaden camera noise while on film sets. It was such a step up from the traditional blimps. What do you think sets them apart from other housings you have used?

Basically, they are forward thinking in their technology, they don’t rest on the status quo, and they advanced as cameras advanced. I want my housing to be an extension of my camera, seamless, not a hindrance, but something that will help me flow from shot to shot. They are open to design innovations and I worked with them a lot on this new housing. I had samples from the very get-go in August 2020 and it went through many design changes with ease of use and this idea of “extension of the camera” as the goal.

Any specific examples?

Well, personal ergonomics for one. Of course, everyone’s hands are different, but I took sample housings into the water, and you’re not going to know if a button you need at the moment is just a millimeter too far. Things like that. Also, things that worked with the specifics of the Canon R5, which frankly, has changed the way I shoot. I was a Canon 1DX guy, still kind of am, but when I started with the R series, I really couldn’t go back. So, some of the concept for the housing was to match with the technological evolution of the R5. I think AquaTech delivered on that, but this signature series is a Limited Edition for the R5 and the R6.

AquaTech EDGE Sports Housing Zak Noyle Limited Edition for Canon R5
AquaTech EDGE Sports Housing Zak Noyle Limited Edition for Canon R5

Can you use the LCD to compose when the housing is on the camera?

Absolutely. In bright, bright sun you may have some glare, but I’ve been using it with little problem. One of the new features on this housing is an on/off switch, which I’ve never had on a housing. I have had no problems with batteries dying. And about the R5, because video is so integrated, I find myself making videos more.

What about lenses?

I love my primes. I mean I do use zooms; on the Eddie Aikua when I was in the water for hours, I had a 24-105mm f/4, but I can tell the difference between that and my 50mm. You just move, and that is what I love about what I’m doing—in the water and on land—because when you move, you find something new. Zooming is not the same in that sense.

You know, at that Eddie Aikua, I was using the Canon 80D because it had Wi-Fi, so not only am I ducking 30' waves, I’m sending images to my phone for them to be immediately uploaded to social media for the sponsor. At one point, a jet skier brought me my phone so I could FaceTime with my mom, whom I know was worried, and I hear a voice behind me and it’s Kelly Slater saying, “What are you doin’, dude?”

But my 50mm f/1.2 is my usual favorite. I like to shoot it closer up than normal, I like to get right inside the barrel with it, which is a different perspective; I think I can show how wide the wave is. Most guys, I think, are with a fish-eye and I call it the “fish-lie”; it distorts too much. It has its place: underwater or in very unique and interesting angles, but in waves—we’ve seen that. For me, the fifty can show how big it really is and details of the water.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM Lens

On a physical level, you have to be almost in that barrel, so when that wave crashes, where do you push yourself?

Well, I kick (with fins) and use my free arm to pull myself under and through that wave. You never want to get sucked up the face of the wave too high.

Fins are a must? And a mask? Any other gear that we might not expect?

I don’t often wear a mask, but I use “DaFiN”; it’s more of a swim fin that a dive fin and the reason is you want to be able to tread water and maneuver quicker. A dive fin can get you going faster, but it’s not as quick to start. I also wear a helmet—there’s the reef, loose surfboards, your camera, other surfers; all can pose a threat. And truthfully, I lost a mentor about 10 years ago. Jon Mozo was working in just 4' waves and hit his head. You don’t want to have to think about this when you’re out there; there’s already too much going on. It’s a Gath helmet, made for surfing and water sports.

Can I ask about a couple of your more incredible photos, just to hear how you did them? Let’s start with “High Five” —you’re underwater and the surfer is right above you and his outstretched hand breaks the water’s surface…

That was in Tahiti and the water was so clear, I wanted to show that, so when I saw a surfer take off, I dove down sooner than normal and positioned myself behind the wave and waited for him to come by. A mask would have helped in this situation, but I didn’t have one. Going down to the bottom and “shooting it back” as you come up allows you to position yourself and gives you that depth you need.

And “The Perfect Day”? I can see why you named it that, with the full rainbow in the distance and the surfer on the right. Had you seen that scenario before, or was it just a fleeting moment you captured?

Again, that was Tahiti and its something I have definitely seen before. In this case, it had been raining and I anticipated the rainbow so I moved way back, away from the scene, in order to show people what the whole scene looked like, not just the power of the wave.

Your photos of waves, without surfers, are detailed and gorgeous and the color is crucial, but these moments, even the color of the water, is subjective. How do you edit and correct your images in post-production? Are you trying to match your memory?

Yes, I need to edit based on what I saw, it is so subjective, but I need to bring it back to the moment as I remember it because I shoot to transport me back to a memory. I look at some surf mags back in the day, they said they needed the RAW and then their color was terrible and it was such a bummer because it was so cool to have your work in print.

As we mentioned, your father is a professional photographer, but you entered photography shooting the surf world around you, a scene you knew well, but it wasn’t necessarily as a career path when you started. Did your father advise you one way or the other, especially regarding the business side of the craft?

My father supported my photography the way he supported everything I did, whether it was sports or swimming or school. He was always there but never pushing me to do what I didn’t want to do. He never made me carry his bags, but when he saw my love for the ocean and that I wanted to capture that, he just loaned me his camera. I’m so grateful that he took that approach.

Check out Zak Noyle’s new limited edition signature housing from AquaTech and all the great AquaTech gear on the B&H website and let us hear your thoughts on surf and underwater photography in the Comments section, below.

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