Near drownings. Shark attacks. Broken bones. Trips to the ER … All in the pursuit of the perfect wave. Kenji Croman isn’t a big wave surfer with a death wish, but a photographer chasing mammoth waves in his native state of Hawaii. Like a lot of Hawaiians growing up, Kenji started out bodysurfing, but it wasn’t until he was 30 years old, when he combined his love for photography and his love of the ocean, that he felt he could truly communicate how he saw the waves: as art in motion.
We were lucky to catch up with Kenji on dry land, and find out what it takes to capture the perfect wave the split second it breaks and barrels over his head, how he survived surf that nearly killed him, and ultimately, what keeps him heading back out into the water. Take one look at his photos and you’ll understand why.
Traveling Type: What about big wave photography ultimately hooked you? Is it the adrenaline rush to get the shot?
Kenji Croman: The rush is great, but it’s not about that when I’m shooting big waves. My ultimate goal is to try and convey the beauty and power of the ocean with my art, which is photography. I want to tell a story with my images. I want people to see it and think that I took that shot specifically for them. You know, kind of like when you’re feeling down and you hear a song on the radio and you feel that song is talking about your life, your situation and that artist is speaking directly to you? That’s what I want my photos to do for people.
I admit, I enjoy selling my images online, but it’s nowhere near the gratification I get when I receive an email from someone saying that my photos touched their heart because they can’t be near the ocean. Sometimes people write to me saying that they used to live in Hawaii and it reminds them of home. Someone even told me that they saw my photos and it brought them happiness because they were once a marine biologist and now they have a serious illness which has made them unable to see the ocean anymore … but my photos give them that small satisfaction. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. That’s why I do this.
What does it take to get the shot in big wave photography?
– A good understanding of your camera and its capability.
– You should be a strong swimmer.
– A very good understanding of the ocean: How it breaks, where it breaks. The tides, the rips, the undertow. It’s dangerous but knowledge is key.
– Finally and most importantly, a lot of patience.
You must be a strong swimmer. Are you a surfer, too?
I’ve been a competitive swimmer most of my life all the way up to college level, it prepared me to bodysurf big waves in Hawaii. I still compete in bodysurfing contests throughout the year. Unfortunately, I’m not the best board surfer though, I really prefer bodysurfing to surfing, but any wave riding is fun for me.
How do you prepare before and while you are out in water? What special skills does it take?
The night before I shoot, I always get all my gear ready for the next morning (I usually wake up 4:30 a.m. and get to the beach before sunrise). There are a lot of steps to take to be sure all of your gear is in order, if you miss one thing you potentially can ruin your camera. I’ve already lost 3 cameras in the past few years from water damage. Some of the steps require small tasks like tightening the screws to your waterhousing in a certain pattern (similar to a tire and tightening the lug nuts) or formatting your memory card before you go out in the water. It’s the little things that always seem to get me, so now I just go through a checklist the night before.
Also, before going into the water, I watch the tide to see if it’s going up or down, I look where the current is pulling the water to since it’s always changing. I also look at the weather, the winds, the sunrise time, etc.
What special equipment/camera do you use?
I shoot with a couple different cameras. My main camera is a Canon 5D Mark 3. My backup camera is a Canon 7D. I use a special waterhousing to protect my camera and still have the capability to control all of my settings. I also have different ports for different lenses I use.
When you teach surf photography and underwater photography what advice do you give for aspiring wave photographers?
I teach them to understand their camera’s settings, to know the ocean’s currents and tides, to position themselves in the pocket of the wave to get that perfect shot. I teach them to read surfing magazines and find images that speak to them. Get inspired by other surf photographers and their style, never imitate someone else’s work, rather find their own style and master it. Also, I teach them that it’s about patience. This is not easy by any means. You don’t just buy a waterhousing and go out in the surf and start taking incredible photos, it takes a lot of practice and sometimes some luck, too.
What’s the biggest mistake you can make in surf/wave photography?
The biggest mistake people make is rush their progress. I see too many beginners doing the spray and pray technique. That’s where they hold the trigger down and take as many shots as they can, while praying they got a good shot. It’s important to learn the fundamentals of photography first before trying to tackle something as complicated as surf/wave photography, you also risk getting seriously injured by going out in big surf when you are not an experienced swimmer or don’t know the currents.
It seems like a dangerous job. Have you ever had close calls while shooting big waves?
YES, too many close calls. I’ve broken several fingers, dislocated an elbow and shoulder, had concussions, got sucked out in a bad rip current and nearly drowned, lost my fins when the waves were 15+ feet high, I had a scary shark encounter, I hit my head so hard on the ground that the spinal fluid was leaking from my ears! I was hospitalized for a week because the ER thought I broke my neck. I could go on and on … Here’s one story.
What are your favorite spots for photographing waves? Where have you travelled to shoot waves?
Sandy Beach is one of my favorite places since the sun rises beautifully over there. I also really like shooting Keiki beach in the North Shore and also Pipe in the North Shore, too.
I’ve traveled to Brazil, Mexico, Maui, Kauai and Big Island. I would love to travel to several other countries to shoot the waves; it’s definitely my dream to do this soon.
Where is home for you in Hawaii? What do you love most about Hawaii and/or your hometown? Favorite spots to recommend for visitors?
I live in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. What I love most about Hawaii is our Aloha spirit; most people are kind and friendly. The fusion of foods we have here is delicious and of course the weather and surf is always a plus. For tourists coming to Oahu, I would say get out of Waikiki. Sure, it’s nice to hang out and do some of the fun touristy stuff but after a couple days, rent a car and drive around the island. Go to Waimea Bay to snorkel, stop at Sandy Beach and watch how big the waves are and how people just get barreled in these massive waves (don’t go in unless you’re very confident and have fins on).
I would also recommend Lanikai Beach and hikes like Kuliouou ridge. Visit Bishop Museum, go to a luau, watch the sun rise (and set) on the beach, take a submarine tour, watch the fireworks every Friday night in Waikiki at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, get some shave ice at Waiola Store, visit the North Shore. Try paddleboarding, try paddleboarding yoga (the new trend), try parasailing, try surf lessons, try new foods like locomoco or acai bowl. There are a million things to do in Hawaii!