Shaun Smith is a playful water photographer who sees the bright side in the smallest things in life. Starting at the Wedge and staring down barrels, Shaun found his style in the mini-waves movement, capturing in ripples the universal beauty of undulating water.
Surfers spend an inordinate amount of time staring at water, scanning the horizon for swell or seeking a horizon when they’re about to get engulfed by a wave. This eternal quest for a perfect balance between water and light, exemplified by barrel hunting, has led many surfers to develop an eye for photography. On the other side of the spectrum, water photographers started taking an interest in the many unridden waves that rolled before their lens. From that tension, not one but many different water photography scenes were born: Ray Collins is shooting faraway seascapes and Clark Little hunts shorebreaks; Andrew Semark is chasing giants and after trying his hand at all of these, Shaun Smith has become a mini-waves master.
Like many surfers before him, Shaun started bringing a camera in the water to shoot his friends and document his own rides, as a way to relive the fun. Growing up on the coast of California, Shaun started swimming age two, took to bodyboarding at seven and hasn’t stopped since. “I love the feeling of getting barreled. There's really nothing else like it”.
“I began hunting around on the 1-2 foot days that I always thought were no good for shooting. Turned out to be big fun! “
The progression to water photography almost happened by accident. “I had bought a GoPro to wear on a helmet while riding my bodyboard, but the waves had sucked the week I purchased it. A couple of my friends had told me that you can buy a PVC pipe (like a sprinkler) and stick a bike grip on it to use as a pole with your GoPro. Since the waves weren't rideable, I grabbed my new contraption, and headed down to the Wedge. The waves were blown out and marginal at best, but I went out anyways. I think I took about 300 photos of which 299 were horrible, but I did get the one, a “keeper”. I have been addicted ever since.”
Shaun started carving out his own niche as a response to his environment. “Really I just wanted to do something different and the waves are often small where I live. I began hunting around on the 1-2 foot days that I always thought were no good for shooting. Turned out to be big fun! I got into shooting mini-waves on the shore and then on shallow reefs. That turned into attempting to shoot big reef waves and even shooting in lakes.”
The mini-waves movement emerged on multiple continents at the same time, a zeitgeist of the mid 2010s. It reached a mainstream audience when Dom Bakarich created a viral photoshop of a mini-wave shaped like Teahupoo, which had people wondering if it was ‘real or fake’. This is a movement that Shaun proudly embraces. ”If you're saying this is the mini waves era, then count me in! When I started, other than a few of my close friends, no one else was into it'“. Shaun’s Instagram account now garners over 65k followers and each post gets heavily scrutinised. To the point where Shaun considered quitting altogether. “To be honest, I just get burned out on social media. For the last couple years I've lost followers and get about half the interaction I used to. I think that bugged me for a long time, and that's why I wanted to delete my account. Once I realized that its a silly app on my phone, and I personally think my content is getting better, then who cares!”
And while the scene is thriving, with talented mini-chasers like Jordan Stempson, Brett Allen, Pierre de Villiers or Gunnar McClellan, the social media frenzy doesn’t quite translate on the shores. Which suits Shaun just as well. “On the super small days you rarely see anyone. I go in the ocean to escape reality, so the small, under the radar days is what I prefer”.
“My favorite part about shooting waves is, the diversity factor. You really only have a split second to make subtle changes out there while at the mercy of mother nature.”
If you were to describe Shaun’s miniwave style (because yes, it is possible to atomise subculture even further), it is safe to call it ‘smooth’: no one captures water’s perfect texture better than him, glistening between cast iron, liquid mercury and glass. That smoothness give his waves a futuristic and sci-fi look, reminiscent of fiction characters like Terminator, Alien or the Batmobile. Uniquely highlighting the mirroring quality of water, Shaun allows us to catch reflections of the Californian landscape in the face of the wave, here a row a palm trees, there a condo.
While minis are in theory very accessible, attaining such quality doesn’t come easy. Like all craftsmen, Shaun knows mastery comes with patience and hard work. “As they say, ‘the search is half the fun’. You really appreciate those few magic moments, if you are lucky enough to get them. If I use last week as an example, I shot three times. 30-minute drive there and back, about an hour to decide where to go out, 2 hours of shooting and 2 hours post process. So that's 6 hours a day and 18 hours I spent for the week. The waves were horrible so I only saved a handful of videos and pics out of the 1,000's of images and hundreds of videos I took. At the end of all that, I didn't capture anything I'm stoked on, and the week was a wash. The more time you put in, the greater the reward.”
Shaun goes hunting with a double set-up, a Sony a6000 for the stills and a GoPro Hero6/7 for videos, either on top of his housing or on a 3 foot Knekt pole to get close to the action, a perfect set-up to master angles (compare angles on this wave face here and here). “My favorite part about shooting waves is, the diversity factor. Every single wave is completely different and positioning is key. You really only have a split second to make subtle changes out there while at the mercy of mother nature. All of that, combined with the ever changing light of the sunrise or sunset, makes for an exciting time no matter what the conditions.”
Shaun’s plans for the future are summed up in two words: ‘bodyboard’ and ‘shoot’. To which we may add ‘lasting gratitude’. “My dad is the man that got me into the ocean in the first place so, I owe it all to him! He is 71 and still bodyboarding! I hope to stay in shape so I can continue doing what I love.”
Follow Shaun in Instagram
Chief Storyteller at Swellbound