Captivated by the texture, color and power of the ocean since he was a kid, Nick Allen first started photographing waves as an art student at Humboldt State University in Northern California back in the early 90s. After going through a lot of canvases, Nick finally realized that he was meant to be a photographer, not a painter.
Continuing his education at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, where he learned about the technical aspects of commercial photography—portraiture, studio lighting and digital imaging. Bringing his technical skills and fascination for the ocean together, he started seeing and photographing waves in an entirely new way.
Using waterproof housings for 35mm, medium-format and digital cameras, Nick photographs while swimming, which allows him to position himself within the wave. Often shooting with a slower shutter speed, he is able to capture a sense of motion and fluidity with his images, so that everything is still and moving at the same time. Nick has had work published in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Surfer’s Journal, and various other surf industry publications and websites. Sold primarily to private collectors, Nick’s images are also available for license as rights-protected stock photography.
What is it about a wave that has captured your eye and desire to photograph them?
When I was a kid, I would be bodyboarding or bodysurfing and as I would duck-dive through waves I always tried to get a glimpse of the tube as the wave passed over me. Sometimes I could remember a vivid image for a few days… the form, the light moving through the wave, the color and texture of the water. That’s basically the same thing I’m doing now, except now I’m keeping the images.
And how do you feel your images of waves differ from other surf photographers?
The waves that I shoot aren’t always good for surfing. Sometimes I shoot small waves, sometimes I shoot in total closeouts… I’m always looking for hollow waves, but I’m not looking to capture the “perfect wave” as it applies to surfing. Sometimes that happens, but I’m more interested in just shooting the forms of waves that are available to me.
What else do you shoot in addition to waves? Is shooting and selling fine art photographs of waves able to sustain your life? Or do you have to shoot outside of the ocean to make a living?
My wife and I run a photography business, Nick and Laura Photography , in Marin county, Ca. We photograph weddings, commercial and editorial work, and my wife photographs children and families. Our 3-year-old daughter, Riley, is our office manager, and keeps us on our toes.
I shoot waves because I love it… I get to be in the ocean, log some tube-time, and create images. Shooting waves doesn’t sustain my life – but it makes me happy, and I really enjoy working with people to create custom artworks for their homes. I enjoy the process of producing images for within waves, which I try to update every other day.
Without giving away too many of your lo-fi secrets, what are some alternative or experimental ways that you shoot?
One of the easiest ways to take photos in the water is to stick a camera in a ziploc bag. You just need to accept the fact that the camera is probably going to rust and die, because some leakage is inevitable. There are tons of cheap film cameras out there that have different effects and are ripe for playing with in the water. One of my first cameras for shooting in the water was a Minolta Dual Weathermatic DL. That thing was really cool, and did a great job of sealing out the water, but you couldn’t adjust the shutter speed. But that made for some really neat slow-shutter blur effects, and I got some images that I wouldn’t have captured otherwise. From there I moved on to water housings for 35mm, and now I’m using an Aquatech housing for the Canon 5D MarkII for the bulk of my work. I’ll still use film for specific effects, and hope it will always remain an option, but the time saved in scanning and retouching makes digital an easy choice. I’ve made a couple of low-tech housings and still want to pursue that angle…
How do you feel that your art education and background has assisted your photography career? What was the deciding moment like for you to pursue photography as opposed to being a painter/artist?
My art education has been a huge factor in my photography career. My mom is a painter and art teacher, and creating artwork has always been a part of my life. I was a studio art major at Humboldt State University, where I studied painting, drawing, ceramics, lithography, and photography. I was focused mostly on painting, and really struggled with it. I happened to take a photography class towards the end of my degree, and it just seemed like the right fit. The process of composing images with a camera and being a part of the elements while shooting worked so much better for me than painting canvasses at home or in the studio. It might seem dramatic, but I felt the need to destroy all of my paintings now that I had found my path with photography. I took an axe and broke all of my paintings down to a manageable size and then burned them in a burn barrel. It felt good. After graduating with a degree in Fine Art, I wanted to learn more about commercial photography. I studied digital imaging at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, and then felt like I was ready to pursue photography as a profession.
You also obviously have some skills in working with wood. How’d you get into making your own handplanes, paipos, and boards?
I bought a handplane from Danny Hess several years ago, and really loved it. I started making my own later that year, and have made 15 since then… mostly for me, but a few for friends too. I built a lot of models as a kid, so that seemed to help. I started making handplane versions of surfboards… I made a twin-fin fish, a flex-spoon single-fin, a displacement hull monster of a handplane (for slop!)… it was fun just trying to recreate those types of boards in handplane form. The great thing about making wooden handplanes is that it’s a pretty small-scale project, and you’re not dealing with fiberglass or resin or anything super toxic. It keeps you connected to surfing when the surf isn’t good, and it’s a lot of fun.
You are an avid body surfer from what I understand. What was the draw for you? And how has the rise in popularity of handplanes aided in your bodysurfing?
I bodysurf about 80% of the time… I love surfing, but if it’s hollow I love being able to bodysurf to get right into the sweet spot, and handplanes allow you to get more speed and make barrels that you would never make compared to traditional bodysurfing. Crowded lineups become a non-factor, and you can pick off all the waves on the inside.