How I Got That Shot: Michael Muller’s Strobe-Lit Surfers

December 5, 2012

© Michael Muller

Michael Muller used customized strobes fired remotely to light waves and backlight surfers for TransWorld Surf magazine’s Imaginarium contest, which focuses on innovation in surf photography. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

When Michael Muller decided to create his own customized, waterproof strobe lights that he could use underwater, he had two photographic subjects in mind: Michael Phelps and great white sharks. Nine years ago, Speedo hired Muller to photograph Phelps and other Olympic swimmers, and he continued shooting for the company annually for the next eight years. He’s also obsessed with photographing sharks, especially great whites. Intrigued by the idea of bringing studio lighting to his underwater photography, Muller, a longtime action-sports shooter, decided to try to figure out a way to waterproof some powerful strobe lights.

“My goal was to make a light the size of a Profoto head so we could use Profoto accessories,” he explains. After trying a few different fabricators to produce a prototype of his designs, he eventually worked with Lee Peterson and Erik Hjermstad, who incorporated the inner workings of a Profoto strobe into a light that was watertight. Muller received several patents for his design. He has since used the lights while photographing sharks in Fiji, a challenge that was documented earlier this year by the Travel Channel, and more recently while photographing great white sharks in South Africa. Muller was eager to put the lights to use on his commercial and editorial assignments.

Earlier this year when VonZipper, makers of sports goggles and sunglasses, asked him to shoot the stills and video for TransWorld Surf magazine’s annual Imaginarium contest, Muller got his chance to try out his customized gear while photographing surfers.

For the contest, Muller explains, the magazine asks a handful of sports companies to submit forward-looking interpretations on surf photography. Muller says, “I knew it would show companies a little taste of what I want to do with surf photography.” He also shot a short road-trip video as he and the surfers went looking for waves.

While his lighting produced exactly the kind of backlighting and other effects he wanted, the location, waves, and currents created logistical challenges and some disappointments.

When VonZipper’s marketing people first contacted Muller, he was planning a shark shoot in South Africa, where the waves would have made for some dramatic surf imagery. Unfortunately, there was too little time to coordinate with VonZipper’s sponsored athletes, so the shoot took place in Southern California in August, “a bad month for waves,” Muller says.

Muller spent a day shooting at a beach on a Marine base, with his crew on boats and Jet Skis, and the photographer shooting in the water using an underwater housing for his camera. Eventually, they were instructed by Marine personnel to leave the restricted area immediately, but Muller had already found that the waves were poor. “I was scared that first day that nothing was going to happen,” he says. “But when you scramble, and then you pull it off, that’s very rewarding.”

The next day they moved to a public beach popular with surfers. The problem there, however, was that restrictions prevented Muller from using Jet Skis that could hold the power packs.

Muller explains that his lights are attached to Profoto Pro-7b power packs, which, of course, are dangerous to have near water. “Those stay on a boat, if you’re photographing sharks,” or on the side of the pool, when he’s shooting swimmers. Without access to Jet Skis, Muller had to find other flotation devices that could keep his two power packs above the water and away from spray.

He chose two large, body-size Boogie boards found on the back of Jet Skis used by lifeguards for rescues. “We rigged the two packs in Igloo coolers we bought at a drugstore. We strapped those to the jumbo Boogie boards, and two people had to push those up and over the white water.” The assistants had to hang on to the board, and were dealing not with point breaks, where each wave always breaks at the same spot, but more unpredictable beach breaks.

The heads were attached to the power packs by 120-foot cables. Muller notes, “Then you needed to have someone every 20 or 30 feet holding the cable. It would drift in the current.” He also had an assistant holding each head. “For each light we had six or seven people,” Muller explains: two to four people holding cable, a person holding each light, two people trying to hold on to each Boogie board, “and me on the beach with a long lens and a radio transmitter” roughly a football field and a half from each light.

Lighting: Muller used the lights in several ways, often fitted with a Magnum or a sport dish to shape the light. He liked the effect he got when he used the strobes to backlight or edge light a surfer.

Muller says he had found that using a sync cord to fire the strobe heads didn’t work in a strong current, so instead he fitted each power pack with a PocketWizard receiver, despite the distance.

In some shots, a wave appears lit from within. “When some of the waves would go over the guy holding the head, I’d fire it,” the photographer explains. “I’d have the head inside the wave, and that would illuminate the whole wave.” He next plans to apply similar lighting techniques, plus a few tricks he uses in his commercial work, while shooting in more dramatic surf, preferably where the waves break in the same spot consistently. “I look forward to seeing it go from my head to paper because I can see it so clearly,” he says, “and it is going to blow people’s minds.”

A Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III on a tripod, with a 700mm lens, was used for the shoot.

After shooting for a whole day, Muller notes, most of the best shots he got were taken between 7 and 7:30 pm, as the sun was going down and the strobe lighting looked most dramatic.

Related Article:

Michael Muller Surfing Photo Gallery