How Bodysurfing can help Surf Photography

Jon from Thunderbomb Surf Camp stoked on bodysurfing with his home made handplane.

          Before I had started shooting in the water I had been an avid bodysurfer for a few years. Bodysurfing will help you to get comfortable in the water in several different ways. First, it can help you build your swimming strength, as swimming with a camera is vastly different from surfing. When paddling on a board you are using all arm strength where as bodysurfing you are using both arms and legs. Swimming with a camera is almost all leg strength as you aren’t able to push much water around with only one free hand. Even body boarding where you are using pretty much only your legs to kick is a bit different than swimming with a camera because you are sitting on top of the water instead of in it. Bodysurfing can help bridge the gap to swimming one armed with a camera.

          It will also help your ability to read waves much better. Just by swimming through waves you will figure out the best place to be to get under waves and punch out the back of them. While catching waves bodysurfing you need to be much more precise than with surfing since your body has much more drag than a surfboard. If you stop paddling a surfboard you will glide across the water for a bit, but if you stop swimming when bodysurfing you come to a dead stop immediately. You end up needing to sit right under where waves are breaking to catch them which often puts you in the impact zone and this is a place you will spend a lot of time in shooting especially if you are using a fisheye lens. With all the time you end up spending in the impact zone on top of your narrow window to catch waves you end up with a better understanding of how waves break and where to be to catch them, get barreled, and go over the falls. You will also figure out how to go over the falls, since believe it or not there is a right way to go over the falls. Since, the success rate of making barrels bodysurfing is quite low I found myself going over the falls quite a bit. Throughout my many time getting tossed I figured out where I could be on the wave in order to go over and punch out the back instead of getting slammed on the bottom. This only comes with practice and clocking in time in the water because it turns into a natural reaction.

          For me, bodysurfing also got me used to cold water very quickly. I think I only ever saw one other person bodysurfing in the middle of the winter in New Jersey and for good reason. Swimming when the water sits at around 35 degrees is not for the faint hearted. I would say I was often colder bodysurfing in the winter than swimming with my camera because when catching a wave it was almost impossible to prevent an injection of ice cold water from shooting right into my hood and down the rest of my wetsuit. Most of the time I used my hand plane which locked my fingers in the same spot for the duration of the swim. This got them fairly used to going numb as they do when holding a waterhousing in the same position for several hours. While swimming in the cold is never really a comfortable experience I’m glad I had it to get me comfortable before taking my $4000 water shooting setup over the falls with me.

Jon from Thunderbomb Surf Camp sliding through an early morning barrel

          Bodysurfing may not be the end all be all to prepping for a career in surf photography, but it helped me a lot and I had a ton of fun along the way. Some of my most memorable experiences on surf trips were when I put down my camera to grab the hand plane to catch a few. The largest wave I caught while in Fiji was with a hand plane and not a surf board and after getting barreled I went over the falls in spectacular fashion, luckily without hitting the reef. I felt that bodysurfing was the best thing that

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 All Photos Copyright of Dave NIlsen Photography 

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