20 November, 2014 20 November, 2014

Shooting Hawaii – with Chris Van Lennep

Yesterday afternoon we were visited by old friend and legendary surf photographer, Chris Van Lennep. He soon had our ears open as wide as our smiles with an impromptu chat-turned-interview about what it takes to photograph some of the more challenging reefs along the North Shore of Hawaii. Over the years, Van Lennep has gained a wealth of invaluable knowledge at spots like Pipeline, Backdoor and Off The Wall. So if you’re planning a trip there (or just want to hear some cool stories) keep reading.

All photographs © Chris Van Lennep. Interview by Calvin Thompson.
* Click images to view larger.
Van Lennep compares Shane Dorian’s situation in this centrespread (Vol. 20.6) to a tightrope walker, just with no safety net and razor sharp coral beneath you.

[continued] Those days, in the nineties, it was film not digital. And a lot of the photographers used to shoot from the beach. Shooting at Off The Wall, Backdoor, Pipeline, Gas Chambers and that whole area was totally different. First of all you had to swim out, you had to get out there without getting beaten up or losing your water housing (which I did on one occasion), and you only had 36 shots.

Can you remember your first time swimming out to shoot in Hawaii?
The first time I went in I got smashed. I was shooting Backdoor on about a six foot day. That’s when I got my housing ripped out of my hand. I found it wedged in the crevice between Backdoor and Off The Wall about an hour and a half later. If you get hit by a wave you just get totally obliterated and even though you’ve got a strap to secure the housing it’ll still get blown right off your wrist. Swimming in is even more terrifying on a big day. If you don’t time it right you’re gonna get bashed. And you’ve got to swim over the reef, there’s no ecscape. I’ll give you an example: If you’re in the water over a reef like Backdoor and an eight foot set comes, most of the water sucks right off the reef as it’s pulled into the wave. So it can get quite dangerous in that regard for water photographers. But those days you had to swim in and swim out a bunch of times, so it definitely required more fitness. Today with digital photography you can shoot over 400 pictures on a 16 GB card, and that basically makes it a bit easier. So now you can make one attempt, get out there to shoot, and then you got one attempt to get back in without getting clobbered.

(Vol 24.2) Craig Butcher sets his rail on a Pinballs bomb, while Van Lennep pulls the trigger.

So how many times might one have to swim back in and out again on a firing day?
I’ve seen guys make two or three attempts to get out, like at Pipeline on an 8 – 12 foot day. You have to time it right to get through the channel. Sometimes you miss it and you get washed just further down to the sandbar on Pupukea, where guys will get smashed completely. It’s like six foot as high as this room (gestures with arms) and you’re in two feet of water, you can’t get through it. The wave goes straight to the sandbar or onto the reef so it can be tricky to negotiate with a camera and housing in the water. One of the best guys that I’ve been observing there over the last two to three years, is Brent Bielmann. There’s other guys too, like Pat Stacey. There’s a couple more really good photographers there, but it still always boils down to a handful of really good guys that get the shots.

Any added advice in terms of gear, for photographers and surfers going over to the North Shore this Winter?
You can sit in the channel with like a 135mm or a 70 – 200mm and you’ll get great shots, but the really unique ones are definitely the wide angle shots. It’s a unique angle that better captures the intensity of the wave, that’s the difference. You can’t explain it to somebody in words. Nobody can explain how much power there is on those waves. If you’ve surfed, for example, just in California or Durban and you go there, you’ll be in for a bit of a nasty awakening with regards to power. So you’ve got to get used to heavy reefs between Durban and Cape Town first if you really want to go shoot or surf in Hawaii and make a name for yourself. So all the South African guys that have done well there have paddled in some of the strongest waves in SA. You have to, otherwise you can’t do it there, it’s too intimidating.

Dale Bamford scored a Van Lennep “A-Grade” on the cover of Zigzag Vol. 22.4, which credits Chris as “The Man Himself.”

[continued] Some would shoot with like a 50mm to 100mm at Pipe, but your optimum lens to shoot with at big Pipe – when it’s breaking outside third reef – would be at 135mm. You’ll get the perfect frame composition shooting from the channel, with less chance of being taken out. There’s way more risk shooting a wide angle but the rewards are there for the photographer to get a unique shot [pauses] but it’s a risk. Some of my most iconic shots are basically one shot sequences because there was no time for me to even hold the button for the second one, you had to escape quickly.

And what gear were you using back then?
That first season I was using a Nikon FE2 which is the equivalent to the FM2, and then the following year I changed to the Canon film cameras. I can’t remember the exact name.

Hawaii has changed a lot since the early Nineties, but as far as locals and crowds go, what advice would you give to South Africans planning a trip there this winter?
You’ve got to show respect for the people that live there, especially the local surf community because it is their home. What I found was that a lot of people from different parts of the world would go there and think it’s their spot, where really it’s on the contrary. You’ve got to wait your turn, if you don’t wait your turn you are gonna get a [pauses], a visit, let’s say in kind terms. I’ve seen boards turned over and fins smacked out, surfers being given the command to go back in. The Volcom house used to have the whistle, for if anyone dropped in on one of their friends. So if the whistle went, you knew someone was paddling for Kauai (laughs). Ja, I’ve seen that happen. You just have to wait your turn, you’ve got to wait your turn in Hawaii because everyone wants a wave.

Van Lennep gained the experience necessary for the North Shore by shooting places like Cave Rock and Durban’s Bay of Plenty.

[Continued] The locals will give you a wave if you show them respect, make no mistake, as long as you can also show them that you can surf and don’t back out. As soon as you keep paddling for waves and backing out just once or twice it’s a waste, so you’ll slide down the pecking order like snakes and ladders you know (gestures someone sliding down), right to the bottom and you’ll be getting the leftovers after that. Also, not too many beers before swimming, that’s for sure.

You must have seen your fair share of injuries swimming in the impact zone?
There’s been a lot of injuries; broken legs, blown eardrums (a lot of that) from hitting the bottom, and guys drowning. There was always guys drowning, friends of mine that I’ve photographed over the years for instance. The first photographer, John Moses [pronounced Mosay], drowned in 2005 at Backdoor on only about a six foot day. He hit the reef and blacked out. So it is dangerous for both surfer and photographer. But Hawaii is a lovely place, it’s a photographers paradise if you love surf photography but it requires work and effort, fitness and a little bit of guts.

A condensed catch up with Chris Van Lennep from the archives, back in 1994 (Vol. 18.3)


  1. louis wulff
    20 November, 2014 at 7:44 pm · Reply

    Van is and always be THE man!!!

  2. Rich Hambloch
    25 November, 2014 at 3:52 pm · Reply

    what a legend

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