The Pros and Cons of Being a Wave Photographer

An Oahu bodysurfer catches big waves with his camera, not always without incident.

Oahu native Kenji Croman tried for years to explain to his friends and family how beautiful the ocean waves are. Croman would mimic their size with his hands, and their rumbling noise with his voice. It was all lost in translation until he picked up a camera. Now, he can show them.

Self Portraitx

Why wave photography?

I started out like most teens in Hawaii: bodyboarding (aka boogie-boarding), which later transitioned to bodysurfing. It’s so pure. It’s just you, the waves, and your fins. I would bodysurf these massive waves at Waimea or Pipe on the North Shore. I wanted to tell everyone about the experience: the size, the sounds, the colors and reflections. I felt like I was rambling. Then, I held my first DSLR camera in 2007. I instantly knew I had found my calling.

What are your favorite pieces of equipment?

A drone. I’ve been flying for two years. I can get some great photos and videos with it. Here’s a recent video, where I can follow surfers without getting barreled. But I’m not a sellout. I still shoot in the water almost daily with my trusty Canon 7D with my water housing and GoPro attached. I started using Periscope, which lets you do a live feed. I went in the water with my iPhone, and 70 people were watching me while I was shooting. Now I need a Lifeproof case (waterproofing).

Anything scary ever happen?

Lots. My wife rolls her eyes when I start telling the one where I got caught in a rip current about eight years ago. I was at Waimea Bay to watch the Eddie Aikau, a famous big-wave surfing competition that happens in waves of 30 feet or more. Since I’m a hardcore bodysurfer, I figured I could swim to the line-up (very far), with just a pair of fins on. I made it but not easily, snapped photos with my disposable (before I was a professional), and was ready to head back after a couple hours when the waves started getting even bigger.

On the way in, I got caught in a rip. After a while of not moving, I started to wave my hands. A lifeguard spoke on his bullhorn, “You’re caught in a rip. Don’t fight it.” Suddenly, a big set of waves were heading my way. The lifeguard said, “Swim out. Don’t swim in. Swim back out.” I wanted out of the water for various reasons, and I decided to try. The lifeguard saw me swimming and yelled, “NO, NO, NO! Turn around! You won’t make it!” I went for it anyway.

This wave was the size of three buses stacked. I rode it for a few seconds—it was a big, black barrel, very loud—before falling and getting tossed around. I was disoriented, and losing air. Luckily, the wave pushed me closer to shore, and a lifeguard swam to help. I refused. I was already in safe waters and humiliated. While I was walking along the shore, still shook, my camera washed up. I looked around thinking, Are you serious? The photos were horrible. I did make the paper the next day. The story on the competition mentioned several rescues, including mine: “A bodysurfer got caught out at Waimea but refused to be assisted.”

The Clawx

To learn how to take underwater photos without making the front page, sign up for Croman’s photography course.