Ocean Photography Wizard Stephan Kleinlein

What better gives the inside of an Ocean & Surf Photographer than in interview conducted by one of the top Kite Surfing Magazine “The Kite Mag” Editor Alex Hapgood:

Stephan Kleinlein, one of kitesurfing’s most revered photographers sharing some of his knowledge about the world of ocean photography. Kicking off by asking Stephan a pretty essential question:   

Why be a kitesurf photographer?   I believe all good things in life start and continue out of a strong passion and the dreams we have inside of us. For myself, after being here for just over 50 years on our beautiful blue planet, I can say for sure that adventure in or around the water has been the path of my life. Whether it was surfing, kitesurfing, windsurfing, SUPing or diving (preferably free-diving) I was always straight into it. Which wasn’t easy growing up in a town in Germany which was far, far away from all the beautiful oceans!   

It didn’t take long though before I was traveling the world to follow my dream to one day live on the beach. In my early years of traveling I lived in Hawaii, Maui, California and the southern countries of Europe (and I still try to travel every year to these places for the big wave seasons). Then, aged 27, I moved to Australia which became my home, and Perth on the west coast is now my base from where I travel the world with my photography every year.   

So photography and the interest in art has been my focus since I was young, and right now I just love kitesurf, surf & ocean photography. I have always been a more visual person, seeing details and beautiful things around me, and especially capturing things that the normal person doesn’t really see. For example the breaking wave underneath the water surface. If you think about it, even a surfer doesn’t really see clearly how a wave looks when it breaks underneath the waterline because they don’t wear googles, and a scuba-dive photographer doesn’t really spend much time in shallow waters to capture those incredible moments. I was also inspired by other surf and wave photographers, guys like Clark Little and Russell Ord, so I went out experimenting with different types of water camera equipment. Coming home with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of images every day and going through them on the computer to find the few really special ones was, and still is, incredibly exciting. Shooting fast action sports like kitesurfing on fast rolling waves, freezing the split second, and turning it into some colourful or incredible black & white photo images is very satisfying.   

So if you are aiming to become a professional kitesurf photographer you need to be willing to put the time and effort in and a willingness to experiment with new equipment and techniques, plus you need to train to be able to swim for many hours in the ocean with your camera water-housing equipment whilst getting hammered by set waves or getting nailed by the fins of some of the guys buzzing around you, and you also have to be comfortable having other much bigger creatures around you while you are waiting for the next shot!   

The passion and the urge to capture special moments that nobody has captured before is crucial to success. It is an amazing lifestyle. It can become a way to see amazing places, to meet incredible people and travel the world.  I also have been a skydiving instructor and camera flyer for many years and have over 17,000 jumps on my belt, and my work here also has supported my ocean photography adventures.   

These days I mainly shoot for kitesurf and surf brands, magazines and advertising companies as well as focusing on my own art work. These photoshoots often involve weeks or months away from home, shooting whole days in and around the water. Then in the evening – when everyone can relax and have a beer – my job just really starts with several hours on the computer importing the footage and editing, then cleaning and preparing the equipment for the next day.   Being a professional ocean photographer works only with 100% commitment, tons of self-motivation, and heaps of dedication to get through a job from the beginning to the end. Thankfully at the end, when the job is done, normally the clients are really happy and I feel satisfied (and of course you will get a lot of free beer from other kiters who hope to one day be in your shots!).         

Here a few points, which are always part of my photography jobs, especially for Surf & Kitesurf Photography and which I teach in detail in my workshops:

1. Kitesurfing is just a pure energy sport. Playing with the elements and having the best fun out there. Fast shooting is often the case with fast moving objects. Trying to get each single droplet that splashed into the air during a jump or on a wave. Get the angle, get the trick. Try something different and enjoy.

2. Be there, in that special moment. Always have your eyes open for the next shot. I believe the best shots happen when the kitesurfer doesn’t know you are shooting. But for those shots you as a photographer have to work even harder and be alert all the time, because things can happen anytime. Sometimes I’m in the water waiting for the next rider to come and perform when all of a sudden I turn around and a board is right there, almost in my face. Be ready for anything. A cameraman in the water, especially for kitesurfers, is almost like a magnet. Filming or shooting far away on an outside reef you can still tell where the photographer is swimming as you can see where the bunch of kiters are hanging around!

3. I enjoy being the photographer more than being the performer on the board, plus kitesurf/surf photography is like a sport on its own and can be very demanding when the waves are big, the current is strong, and the sea life large.   

4. Don’t forget it is all about having fun in the water, in front or behind the lens. Capturing the pros is fun when they do their radical tricks, but getting a smile from someone while they are enjoying their time in the ocean is just as rewarding.     

5. When you’re thinking about a shot, lines, colours, patterns, nature, beauty and energy all come into it. I love to capture those moments and turn them into a piece of art for us, so we can watch them on our computer, on the walls in our houses or wherever.   

6. Waves are the queen category for kitesurf photographers. Kitesurfing, SUPing, Surfing, it all looks spectacular if the shot is taken from the right angle. The power and riding with the energy of the waves, it doesn’t get more pure than this. Being in the water as a photographer can be very challenging, especially when the waves are getting bigger. But the images can be amazing. When shooting with a long lens from the shore, it can also be challenging to get the right angle, but be creative, think about composition, think about the fore and background as well as the rider.   

7. I won my first competition after 10 months kiting, the Asian Windsurfing Tour on Saipan. The only real trick I knew was a back roll, but at the end I was consistent with it and won against some top riders who tried to pull the big tricks in low wind and didn’t score. Well, it was a joke, but I won!  It just shows, that consistency, hard work and being out there will lead to success and this is the same with photography. 

8. Many years ago back in Tarifa, I was there for some kitesurfing action – a place I used to go even in the early days for windsurfing when it all started with wooden booms and very big sails! At this stage I was standing in the lagoon
near Tarifa to take some shots with my little tiny Canon camera. I got frustrated with my shots as everything was too far away and I didn’t have a proper water-housing. Then I watched those pro surf photographers with the huge lens and I was able to have a glimpse through that lens. From that moment I knew that I had to save my money and I knew that I would love to get more seriously into surf and water photography.     

9. Rule number 1 is to have fun and enjoy your time! Don’t worry too much about what other photographers do. Try to find your own style and play around. Experimenting is an important part for your success as a photographer. But also getting knowledge, by asking experience photographers and participating in great located workshops, where you have a chance to meet good riders and build up your own reputation will bring you up to the next levels. Try to work out your  own style of photography. What does all the technical knowledge about cameras and the settings mean when you don’t have an eye for it? And the eye for photography comes from going out to shoot, shoot and shoot some more!