Interview: Photographer’s Adoration for the Ocean Captured in Towering Wave Portraits

Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

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The ocean has always been a part of photographer Luke Shadbolt‘s life. Growing up on the coast of Australia, the tide was omnipresent—a constant from when he was a kid all the way into adulthood. The relationship was deepened by his devotion to surfing in his teens. As a creative college student, he fell in love with photography and wanted to shoot the waves but was unsure of how to approach his calling. Once he became an art director for a surfing magazine and purchased the proper equipment for shooting underwater, he began to explore the ocean in this new way.

Shadbolt is adept at conveying the vastness of the ocean while showcasing its finer, dramatic details. His most striking compositions feature giant waves where the currents form white caps and produce frothy waters born out of immense power. It’s here, in these fascinating still shots, that we see the “veins” of a wave—whether they are rocketing towards a crest or sloping in a relative moment of calm. Sometimes, Shadbolt will include both of these states in the same photograph as a way to remind us that nature takes on many, often dueling, forms.

We were excited to speak with Shadbolt about his journey to shooting wave photography. Scroll down to read My Modern Met's exclusive interview.

Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

When did you discover your passion for the ocean?

I’m not sure there was a definitive turning point as the ocean was just part of everyday life growing up on the coast in Australia. It's part of the fabric of your youth, you learn to understand and respect it from an early age. I’m not sure if this is just me, but I feel like, for anyone who has grown up with the ocean as their playground, there is an unspoken calling that takes place. It might be every day, or maybe once a month or even less, but eventually, you need to get back to the ocean to reset. Especially if there is a large swell running, there is just an energy that draws you back and takes your attention away from anything else.

What inspired you to start snapping wave photography?

When I was younger I was always drawing and painting, but as I hit my teenage years, surfing took over as an almost addiction. A little later on, during my first year of university doing an arts degree, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but one of the courses I took was photography and really loved it. I ended up transferring to doing a visual communications degree and there was a lot of photography involved in that. I had always wanted to get into surf photography but didn’t really know where to begin, or whether it was a viable career. After working in graphic design for a few years, I ended up as the art director for a surfing magazine and at the same time had also just purchased a digital SLR and underwater housing, so I had a direct outlet for shooting surfing and that was where it started.

Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

What is your favorite part of shooting the sea?

Just being around the ocean is the best part. It’s kind of like a reset button or a form of meditation. I feel very privileged to experience these extremities of nature, it really is about the experience more than anything, the resulting photos are always just a simulacrum.

Do you go with a plan of what you'd like to shoot? Or, based on the conditions of the water at that time, do you have to be spontaneous about your compositions?

I tend to go into a project or to a specific location with a concept in mind, but with such a reliance on nature playing its part, the conditions ultimately determine the final direction. It can be frustrating when the swell or sun or wind don’t cooperate how you’d envisaged in your mind, but I like to have that flexibility and draw on the experience of being in the moment.

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

It appears that sometimes you're in the water snapping photos while other times you're well above it. How do the considerations for your photos change based on where you're located?

This is dependent on all the environmental factors, as well as what I’m trying to achieve. You have to take into account the location you're shooting, swell size, tide, wind, available light, and couple that with a concept or idea. I’ll often have certain locations in mind for specific conditions, but for a lot of what I photograph those conditions only line up once or twice a year.

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

What kind of gear do you use to capture your photos?

Technology definitely plays a big role in how I look at and interact with the world. I’m interested in how technology can further expand our understanding or experience of reality, and being able to have access to new equipment that offers new perspectives is something I’m exploring at the moment. As for what camera I use, I shoot on a few different ones, some digital and some film depending on the project, but the majority of what I shoot is on the Nikon D850.

What kind of special equipment do you use for photographing in/around the water?

For underwater and protective equipment, I’ve been using AquaTech underwater housings and weather shields for over 10 years now and I can’t recommend those more. I’ve also recently had an underwater housing made up for a Broncolor Siros 800 flash that I’ve been experimenting with.

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Duality is a common motif of your work. What about it intrigues you? How have you found different ways of exploring the theme?

This is definitely a narrative that I’ve discovered through my work. I feel like anything exploring the ocean, or even just water, in general, will examine duality and balance as a central theme. Water obscures and cleanses, depending on your perspective. It’s really a matter of understanding that nature is a representation and reflection of life. Absolutes are rare in nature, and being able to appreciate and understand multiple perspectives is what allows you to learn and progress and I try and look at what I shoot through this same lens.

You capture some extreme shots. What is the most adventurous you've ever gotten when shooting?

A recent trip to the Aran Islands was possibly the most adventurous; shooting from the top of 150ft sheer cliffs with 90km/hr wind gusts and torrential rain was pretty intimidating. Doing it solo was possibly not the smartest idea. It never seems that adventurous at the time until you look back in hindsight. Again, it’s all a matter of perspective.

What's on the horizon for you? Anything exciting you can tell us about?

My wife and I are expecting our first child in a few months! Very excited to start a family. I’m currently working towards an exhibition in Sydney at Michael Reid gallery for later this year, as well as a group show at the Gosford Regional Gallery in December. I’ve recently been experimenting with sculpture and video, I’m excited to expand my practice into new media.

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Powerful Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Amazing Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Amazing Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Amazing Wave Photography by Luke Shadbolt

Luke Shadbolt: Website | Instagram | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Luke Shadbolt.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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