July 15th, 2008 | By | 2,679 Comments

BEHIND THE LENS WITH TED GRAMBEAU

ted grambeau

(Click here to see our exclusive Ted Grambeau gallery on Flickr.)

Born the son of a legendary Australian football coach in the late 1950s, Ted Grambeau’s expected destiny was to become a brilliant footballer himself. But thanks to a self-described “lazy” attitude and a fortuitous injury, Ted eagerly sought out his other interest in surf photography. His early subjects were his mates at their local breaks in Wonthaggi and Foster, back then small country towns in Victoria. While a career as a professional surf photographer was almost unheard of at the time, Ted was nonetheless inspired from his friends letters from exhilarating and exotic locations where “…sticks are 15 cents and as thick as your arm.” First starting off in a prestigious Melborne studio under Brian Brandt, the travel bug got the best of Ted as he was soon off to Bali, Africa, Afghanistan and Tahiti. And it’s this desire to journey far out of bounds and to navigate through difficult, even dangerous, situations that has allowed him to be the first choice in travel editorials. The signature Ted Grambeau photo is rich in color, texture and contrast, and will commonly be referred to as eye candy. In his own words: “My goal all along has been and still is, and it gets harder to work out, to make a living taking photographs that I want to take…I don’t need to go to Hawaii now; the competitiveness takes the edge off it—swimming out in the water with 20 other guys, most of them probably better impact photographers now. I prefer to tell the whole story of a journey and really enjoy the trips with people who enjoy traveling…”

 

In your experience, how vital is formal education to a successful career in photography?

Although not essential, it certainly is an advantage to have a formal background in photography. Like anything, knowledge is power to a certain extent. Some great photographers have little technical knowledge but may surround themselves with talent. Whatever works. I believe a great eye, passion and dedication are probably equally as important as sound technical knowledge.

What is more important to you: Great equipment or a great subject?

Great photos are sort of like baking a cake. If you use all the best ingredients in the best kitchen with the best chef, you will probably end up with the best cake. That being said, “the subject” is undoubtedly the vital ingredient—a beautiful model, the hottest surfer… whatever the subject is, is paramount.

History has pretty much shown the man stopping the tank in Tiananmen square, The napalmed little girl during the Vietnam War , the fall of the Twin Towers in NY; no one is really concerned whether a better lens or camera should have been used. They are iconic photos. The person I considered the greatest photographer, Henrie Cartier Bresson, only used a normal lens on his Leica camera. You don’t get more minimalist than that!

But on a competitive level, if all other things being equal (light, subject etc…) the better quality equipment will win out. Note: Standing on the beach on the North Shore in winter with over a hundred of your competitors along side you, I suggest you have as good or preferably better equipment if you want to sell any shots.

Describe a “classic” Grambeau surf photo.

I don’t see a shot that has a definitive style of mine, however I have shots that represent a lot of what I’m about. I think the Cyclops shot on the cover of the Surfers Journal represented not only a beautiful wave, it was also something that required a lot of effort to be found—as well the limit of what currently ” can and can not” be surfed! And it also holds something special to anyone who surfs. It literally sends a shiver up one’s spine! Maybe with my fashion shots I’m developing a look, but I’m not really sure.

Describe your general work flow.

Traditionally, my surf trips were to explore unusual locations that would likely have surf, gather some surfers from the companies and go explore. For me now, it’s as much about the journey as it is the surf. Recent times have seen companies recognize the value of such endeavors and created major marketing campaigns around them. This is the passion side of my work flow. The magazines I work with usually support my proposals and cover my costs, and my income is derived from images published or sold to the companies for advertising.

Next to that is scanning weather maps, swell forecasts and reacting with short term trips (3 – 4 days), to a location where the surf looks like almost a certainty. Pro surfers prefer these types of trips as they don’t like being away long and stand a very good chance of getting waves.

Commercial work now makes up the bulk of my income and most of it is still derived from the surf industry. I have a great relationship with most of the big companies and do a lot of work with Rip Curl. That may involve going on a location with an art director, models, make up, and an assistant, and producing lifestyle fashion images, wetsuit campaigns, etc. This area has been made possible for me after having somewhat more of a formal photographic training. It is exciting and challenging to work more as a team than that of an editorial shoot. It’s also an area that has a lot more inherent pressure to produce. You can’t just say, “It wasn’t sunny during those days, can we wait?” You must come up with results every time.

It’s basically creative problem solving. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great creative people over the last few years. In particular the creative director for Rip Curl, James Taylor, has been a driving force behind some of the best results I’ve ever photographed.

How has digital photography changed your style / work flow?

It has indeed changed a lot of things, but in another way nothing has changed. Let me address the last part of that statement. Digital has not made anyone who wasn’t a good photographer before a better photographer now! It doesn’t make he or she get up earlier and capture the magic. It doesn’t make them see any differently than before. What it does do is facilitate that person’s talent so that what they see can be more immediately realized. Which in some ways has shortened the life event of photography from a month or two (when the monthly magazines would come out) to a few days (once it’s been on the web).

Combined with Photoshop, there is a down-grading of standards with the acceptance of “we’ll fix it in Photoshop!” in the digital age. The sheer volume we now shoot in digital (because we can) is estimated at five times previously shot on film. So work flow has become the big issue with photographers—editing, storage (at least three times as much), hard drives, software, computers, expensive digital cameras that are out dated every two years.

Photographers really got screwed in the surf editorial industry. They saved the magazines film, processing and scans costs, but have to pay between $6,000 to $20,000 a year in new equipment for the same return. But there’s no turning back. The control photographer can now have over their images (if they want to learn lots!) is pretty amazing.

What was your most recent equipment purchase and why?

Last camera was a Canon 1-Ds 111, 21-meg camera, at $12,000 AUS. I bought it because it’s the best quality camera in its class. It allows me to shoot a photojournalist style of fashion /advertising while maintaining the highest quality. The other recent acquisition was an 85 F1.2 Canon lens. It’s a low light fast lens that extends the shooting time for hand held photography during the interesting times of morning and twilight. I’m a lover of fast prime lenses.

 

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