I met Paul Grossmann around 3 years ago, when I was down on the south coast of NSW stalking out a wave I had heard about.
While that spot has become increasingly more exposed over the past few years, at the time it was somewhat only locally known, and any locals would have every right to be a bit sceptical about some random out-of-towner snooping around their local secrets.
When I turned up and there were already 2 photographers there, I immediately felt a bit uncertain.
The first guy I met could not have been nicer and more welcoming. We had a good chat, he asked where I was from and what I was up to in the area and assured me I was super welcome to be there. I then did the inevitable “do you have an instagram where I can check out your photos?”
Drinking my coffee later that morning, as I scrolled through his account, I realised Paul Grossmann was not only a really genuine, great bloke but also an insanely talented photographer.
As a wave photographer, your subject is literally an ocean of opportunity, and it’s the way you see through the viewfinder that sets you apart.
Paul has a special vision of the ocean and it’s details that come in fleeting moments. He understands the way light hitting a subject enhances its form and he overcomes personal uncertainty to put himself in situations that many wouldn’t in order to gain a front row seat to some of the most amazing and unique displays of the oceans dance.
These amazing moments don’t happen every day, or every session, so his incredible collection of images is also a testament to the commitment and time spent on his craft.
I know many of you will already be familiar with Paul’s work, and so hopefully this insight into the man himself will only further your appreciation.
And as always, if this is a new find to you, then enjoy!
This is what this series is all about - community, sharing and diving deeper beyond the 2 second pause-and-scroll to realise that, behind the countless images you now see in your feed, there are real people, with real talent and real motivations, who are pursuing their passion and setting inspiring examples every day.
Oh, and this one produced another great quote as did last weeks, so i’m going to ‘pre-peat’ it here (my new word - made it up - whatever!)
“Shoot what you want to see, don’t shoot what you think everybody wants to see”
My home town is Wollongong, a coastal city on the New South Wales, South Coast, approximately an hour’s drive south of Sydney. A great place to grow up, great beaches and surf breaks line the coast to north and south, plenty of places to surf, dive or photograph.
Was photography always the plan? Or what made you first pick up a camera?
There was never a plan to be as invested in photography as I am.
As a young fellow in my teens I used to sit out in the surf with my mates egging each other on to get deeper or surf bigger, gnarlier waves. I watched the waves pitch then launch masses of ocean liquid into the air, eventually crashing into knee deep water. I used to wish I had a camera to capture the moments as at the time there weren’t too many people shooting from the water, (SLR cameras were expensive, water housings if you could find one were even more expensive and digital cameras weren’t even a thing.... all film). I guess I forgot about photography after that.
Fast forward a lot of years, I started to work with a mate who was a photographer for the St George/Illawarra Dragons. I used to talk to him often about photography and to be honest I thought ‘How Hard Can It Be?’ … buy a good camera, point the camera at a subject, press the button
Too Easy … Yeah Right.
I convinced my wife that I needed/wanted a camera to capture our family moments and experiences, so I went out and brought a Canon 60d with kit lenses.
I tried to justify the purchase of the camera by photographing family moments, which was nice (and it’s still enjoyable) but it wasn’t satisfying my creative side. I shot sports (Football and Soccer) with my mate (The St George/Illawarra Dragons Photographer). I enjoyed it, it was fun, plenty of action, but once again it wasn’t doing it for me creatively. I shot Landscapes - the creativity was there but not the action.
About a year after purchasing the camera we went on a family holiday to Snapper Rocks and while we were there the Quiksilver Pro was on, so I started to shoot the surfing with the rest of the 1000 Photographers. I really enjoyed it, but every shot was the same as almost every other surf photographer that was shooting during the Quiksilver Pro.
One morning during the Quiksilver Pro I rocked up at the beach on first light to shoot the Pro Surfers free surfing before the days competition started. While watching the pros I noticed an explosion in the ocean, it was backwash from the swell hitting the rocks and rebounding into the in-coming swell… ‘Ocean Chaos’ massive Flares and Liquid Curtains…. add in the filtered morning light…. BANG … a light bulb moment… there it was, the moment when all the elements came together and sent me down the path of ‘Ocean Photography’.
My daughter hooked me up on Instagram and I started posting a few photos and started to search ‘Ocean Photography’ (It had it’s own genre). It was amazing to see new ideas and styles.
I look back on my teenage self, sitting out in the ocean with his mates watching the waves break and thinking, what if I had got into this ‘Ocean Photography’ thing early in life???
I’ve purposely left a lot of my early images on Instagram as a reminder of how it all started.
I still don’t really see myself as a full-on ‘Ocean Photographer’, I think of myself more, as a bloke who’s got a camera and likes to shoot pictures of the Ocean.
You have an amazing way of portraying the ocean through details, light and compositional framing. Are you envisioning shots prior to going out or is it more a matter of adapting your style to the conditions that are presented?
When I’ve checked the swell forecast I try to anticipate what the weather/light conditions are going to be like. I’ve then usually got an idea of what type of image I want to achieve. I’ve got to admit though, a lot of the time one or some of the elements don’t line up, so then I just have to adapt to the conditions.
There have been many times when I’ve gone out with a particular shot in mind and I’ve really focused on getting that shot even when the conditions weren’t quite right for the particular idea. I usually get out of the water after the session frustrated knowing that I missed a lot of other awesome opportunities. I now try to go out to each session with an open mind and shoot what is in front of me. I don’t think you can force the shot, when the time is right the opportunities will arise.
My main goal when heading out into the ocean is to shoot an image of the ocean that everyone who has been to the ocean has probably seen, but did they really take any notice of what they saw? Did they see that little splash just before the wave broke? Did they notice the froth spray up in the air as the wave hit the dry sand bank on the beach? Did they see the light reflect off that little ripple on the ocean surface? Did they see those waves collide and morph into some wild, mutant liquid beast?
Swimming and shooting amongst some of the waves you shoot would come with it’s own risks. What sort of prior physical and mental preparation does it require to be comfortable and present in the moment in order to capture your images?
“No Risk… No Reward...”
I’ve said those words to myself many times as I’m psyching myself up to get into a solid swell in dark water with a 20 minute paddle to safety.
Believe me, I’m definitely not the most ‘Ballsy’ bloke around (unlike some of your previous interviewees i.e. Russell Ord). Just ask some of my photog mates that I shoot with, I’m usually the bloke furthest from the peak trying to shoot over everybody’s head. But for me, mentally it’s about getting out there and having a go. ‘Take the Risk’ - eventually as I get more comfortable with the conditions the more ‘Ballsy’ I get.
I guess, to me the word ‘Risk’ means pushing my own limits, pushing outside my comfort zones. But at the same time, minimising the chance of something going wrong.
There are certain places I shoot where I’ll only go out if I’m out with somebody who I know is competent in the surf and the tide is right and the swell is pretty uniform and straight. If conditions are not right, I’ll shoot from the rocks or find some where else to shoot. Try to minimise my risk.
Physically, I try to stay pretty fit and active. I’ll try and get a 10km run in once a week and I try to get in the water as often as I can, either to shoot or swim. The last thing I want is to be physically unable to get myself or someone else out of trouble if shit gets bad.
With the unpredictable nature of the waves you are shooting combined with high frame rates, you must come in from a session with a lot of amazing images that never see the light of day. What are the elements required in an image for you to select it from the bunch to publish?
With high frame rates comes either a lot of amazing images or a lot of images that are thrown into the trash.
That’s an interesting question, I’ve never really thought about what makes an image a ‘Keeper’ or not.
But what makes the shot a ‘Keeper’? I’m sitting here looking at the question and I still don’t know?
Is it the light?
Is the mood?
Is it the shapes?
Is it the detail?
Is it the sharpness of the image?
Is it the focus point?
Is it the light flickering off the ocean ripples?
Is it the colours?
Is all of the above?
I think it’s a combination of all of the above elements in some way shape or form combining in their own little way.
There’s always the image that I just know straight away it’s going to be a ‘Keeper’, but as I scroll through the images on the computer there’s always a shot or two, that for some reason or another just catches your eye. The ‘Diamonds in the Rough’, with a bit of editing they end up being the pick of the bunch.
What made me pick those ‘Diamonds in the Rough’?
It’s just something that catches the eye as I’m scrolling through the gallery.
There are a lot of images that do not make it off the computer screen, but every now and then I’ll go through my old files for a bit of a clean up and I’ll find a few images that at the time didn’t make the cut and now all of a sudden I’m stoked with them. Maybe I was looking at the images previously with different moods or thoughts and ideas.
So I guess I still don’t know what makes an image worth keeping or not. But what I do know is that everybody sees an image differently. I’ll show my wife and kids finished images and I’ll end up with several different critiques about the images… good and bad.
Is shooting in the water always your preference and what is the main difference for you between water and land shooting?
Shooting from the water is definitely my preference.
A bad session shooting from the water is still an enjoyable session for me. It just seems to make me feel more alive… almost therapeutic.
Before I brought my water housing, I felt limited as to what I could shoot, It was either from the rocks or beach. I felt as though a lot of my images started to look similar, with the same angles and the horizon in the background. It was definitely a progression to shoot from the water.
I like the different angles and moods that can be achieved by shooting from the water. Horizontal along the ocean surface, picking up little flickers of light or along the face of the wave, picking up little ripples that make interesting focal points or up towards the top of the wave. To make the wave look aggressive or placid depending on the light and conditions.
As an ocean photographer, no one is forcing you to wake up in the dark and cold and go and jump in the ocean. What is it that drives you to do what you do when most people choose to stay in a warm bed?
As I’m a shift worker I’ll usually head straight to the beach after night shifts to check out the surf. I can’t say I always head out for a swim, but it’s a bit easier when I’m already up to get out in the ocean than it is getting up early and heading out.
It’s not always easy to get up early and jump in the Ocean on those freezing cold winter mornings. But the thought of seeing other people’s shots of the morning’s sunrise on Instagram and missing a potentially awesome photography session, is I guess what gets me out of bed.
The thought ‘No sacrifice Equals No reward’ enters my mind as I’m trying to drag my sorry arse out of that nice warm bed.
On top of that… Who doesn’t love a good sunrise?
The flip side to getting up early and having an early morning session in the ocean is having a post swim coffee with a few mates, checking out each other’s shots and having a bit of a laugh.
Sounds as though I’m trying to put a very positive spin on getting up early to get to the beach. It’s difficult and not much fun putting on that cold, wet wetsuit that hasn’t dried from the previous session. Believe me at times it sometimes sucks.
What does the next 12 months hold for you photography wise?
I’ve got a few trips planned (though not all the trips are about photography, but I’ll hopefully get a few photography sessions in).
The main trip I’ve got planned later in the year is a surf trip to Papua New Guinea, so I’m hoping to photograph some new waves that have had minimal exposure as well as some new exotic landscapes and wildlife and hopefully some of the local Indigenous tribes.
At the moment there’s not much planned for the New Year, but there’s the hope of finding some more local ocean breaks that are worth shooting. The search is always on my mind.
On a Professional level for the next 12 months there’s still a lot more improving and learning to do. eg Websites (I still do not have one, work in progress), social media, printing and presentation and public exposure.
Pointing the camera in the right place is the easy part compared to the business side of things.
If you could travel anywhere, what would be the top 3 waves you would love to see and shoot?
No.1 - Teahupoo in all its glory. The way it sucks below sea level and morphs into a thick lipped mutant is something to be seen to be believed. The bone crushing noise that wave must make would be scary as… Adrenaline Pumping.
No.2 – Nias… Back in my high school days I had my Science book covered in a ‘Surf Life’ Magazine sequence shoot of someone surfing a massive Nias wave with the tropical palm trees in the back ground. I always mind surfed that wave during science lessons. I used to think I’d love to surf that wave, but after seeing a recent days shooting of massive Nias by Ted Grambeau, I think I’d just be happy to shoot it from the channel.
No.3 – Banzai Pipe… It’s just an iconic wave that I’d love to shoot, while I’m on the North Shore. I may as well hook up with Clarke Little and shoot the Waimea Bay shore break.
That’s the top 3 waves, but the list is endless. From the massive mutant waves at The Right, to the iconic steps at Shippies, to the massive local slabs that hit the NSW South Coast when the swell is up. I like to look more for ‘Chaos’ as opposed to ‘Perfection’.
Any parting advice for aspiring wave and ocean photographers?
My advice for aspiring photographers in general is to shoot everything. Portraits, Flowers, Landscapes etc shoot close up, from distance, Macro. Eventually you’ll find your niche and when you do you’ll have a passion for it and want to try and perfect it.
Advice for aspiring Ocean Photographers, try to keep the horizons level.
Shoot what you want to see, don’t shoot what you think everybody wants to see. I still struggle with this concept occasionally.
Dive into Paul’s world further here
Instagram: paul grossmann images