Look on any pro photographer’s Instagram and buried in the comments of their most-liked images is the inevitable question: “What camera do you use?” You could make a drinking game out of it.
Our resident amphibian shooter Luki O’Keefe gets that inquiry a lot, so we asked her to open up her beach bag and share her favorite snapshot tools. But like a guitarist, the type of instrument you play is only half of the melody. Luki expands upon why she loves shooting in the water despite the endless challenges and the film cameras always around her neck.
All photos of Luki O'Keefe shot by Keoki Saguibo. All film photos by Luki O'Keefe
What is your go-to water camera set up and why do you love it for shooting surfing?
I've always shot with the Canon 5D series, most recently the 5D Mark 4 with the 24-105mm lens which gives me the best range for shooting the whole wave. I also always try to carry a little waterproof 35mm film camera.
For shooting surf, my favorite moments are up close from interesting angles that are easier to accomplish in the water than on land. I prefer not to have too much landscape in the background of my surf shots for a couple different reasons. Firstly, because it makes all of my shots look somewhat the same, secondly, because I don't want to give away the location and bum out the locals, and thirdly, because I like surf shots to be focused on the water, the surfer, and the movement.
What camera and lens setup do you reach for most while shooting lifestyle?
I use pretty much the same setup but with a wider variety of lenses depending on the situation. I always carry a 24-70, 24-105, 400, 85, 50, and a doubler. I also always have film cameras with me. This bunch is still pretty lightweight considering that I have a lens option for almost every range.
The subject, focus, composition, and direction of the light source really have nothing to do with the camera but all of them make a difference. Most of my work is shooting on surf trips with women of different ages and my goal is to capture the real moments quickly without interrupting the flow of things. This is where the small 35mm point and shoots come in handy for candid snaps.
I love shooting with all of the Seeababes. Knowing the subject personally plays a huge role in photography for me. Most of my favorite images happen when they thought I was still adjusting my exposure because they are totally distracted and relaxed. Everyone has a different idea of what beautiful looks like and his or her perspective on that is sometimes surprising and always inspiring.
What are the challenges of shooting in water?
There are so many challenges to shooting in the water but I think the same things that challenge me also keep me engaged and provide variety. The first challenge is just getting out there without getting eaten or stuck in a rip. Yikes. After that you have to find a place that lines up well with the wave without getting other people in the shot. Then you have to get the best of their wave without being run over and just pray there aren't water drops on your port.
Everyone has their own techniques for keeping their port clean with goops, waxes, licking, and coating but I just wash my port with Dr. Bronner’s soap. The water falls right off for about a half hour then starts collecting little salt clusters. At that point, I just wipe it with my hand underwater until it squeaks and off rolls the water again! There is so much variety in water surf photography because its almost impossible to get the exact same angle and since you are so close, the position of the surfer on their board will change the entire composition of the image with every passing second. It's a dance, really.
Tell us more about those film cameras that you always have with you. Why are these your favorites?
My Contax T2 never leaves my side. Never. I use the Contax T2 as my go-to camera because it’s the sharpest, quickest, and most reliable with no light leaks or quirks.
For a shoot, I'll also carry two Olympus stylists tied together with one strap so I can just toss them around my neck. My first Olympus stylist has a beautiful light leak that wraps around the edges of the photo, which I love for the moments that need a little flair. The second Olympus is just another reliable point and shoot that gives me a light leak every once and a while. I carry that to have another film option on hand or for other people to play with.
For the water, I have the Canon Sure Shot WP-1. I also bring my grandma’s old Vivitar 220 sl on most trips but I don't always have time to use that one at shoots.
Let’s talk film. Is there a certain kind that you use all the time?
I use the Contax T2 for most portraits so I load it up with Portra 400 or Ektar 100 for the best skin tones and finest grain. For the Olympus with light leaks I try to keep something experimental in there since I’m already expecting a lot of flair. The other Olympus is always loaded with TMax 400, a B&W film I love.
All of the point and shoots I have work in pretty much any condition and they have great flashes for night shots— that’s why I love them so much! If its pouring rain I might just use my WP-1 (water point and shoot).
What kind of camera bag do you use for traveling and what’s your advice on how to pack and travel so your gear arrives safe and sound?
I pack everything except my housings into one carry-on Pelican case. Pelican cases are hard, waterproof, dustproof, and crushproof cases so I don't have to worry about anything getting damaged. Sometimes I'll bring a smaller case for boat trips and long road trips. This way I can bring less and still have the protection of the Pelican case. I'll also pack a camera backpack for hikes. One of my clients just gifted me a new one that has a dry bag, a protected camera compartment and laptop compartment so I can put a wetsuit in the same bag as my gear and not worry about it. I'm a little afraid, but excited to test it out!
A few of Luki's favorite black-and-white film moments, light leaks and candid captures:
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