On Assignment: Shooting Surfers on the Severn Bore

Here’s the first in what will hopefully be a series of “On Assignment” posts, where I talk through a shoot in detail.  I’ve scoured through my archives to find shoots that are interesting and educational.  Each time I want to highlight aspects of the decision-making process to illustrate how I work, bring shoots together, and deliver the final images.

Location: The Severn Estuary
Shoot Duration: from very early morning to lunchtime, plus return journey
Personnel: Editor + Deputy editor, Paul on video, plus his assistant
Equipment: Basic bits, plus rented Nikon 600mm
Date: 3/3/14
Fee: Hundreds
504 shots (+ 3 GoPro videos)

In March 2014 I shot a crashing bore. Seven of them, in fact.

Right, stop that, that’s already too many puns and I’m only 3 sentences in. All of that terribly clever wordplay was simply a way of saying that in March 2014 I shot surfers on the Severn Bore for Men’s Fitness. If you’re not familiar with what a tidal bore is, go and look it up on wikipedia and then come back.

Severn Sunrise
Sunrise over the Severn

All good? OK, so the plan is to shoot the editor and deputy editor of Men’s Fitness as they attempt to ride the Bore as it heads upriver. This requires a bit of planning, as unlike coastal surfing, we can’t just head down when the tide is about right, and then hang around trying different parts of the beach – the wave just comes by the once, so if we miss it, we’re out of luck. Since the wave is coming by at approximately 8am, and Men’s Fitness aren’t going to spring for an overnight stop, that means leaving London at about 3am to be sure of being in place with enough time. Muggins here was driving, and there was a very sleepy rendezvous at Vauxhall in the dark before we headed off, and everyone (apart from me) promptly fell asleep as soon as we hit the M4.

Launching. Not quite the beach.

We’re meeting Nick the editor there, as he lives in Oxfordshire, but with me are Paul (who’ll be shooting video) his assistant, and Ben the deputy editor. Nick and Ben have been in touch with Steve Potter, an expert who’s ridden the bore several times, and is lending Ben a board. For a shoot of this nature, local knowledge is a massive plus. Not only does it help in terms of finding good places to shoot, but since this really is a “one shot deal” we need to know the best places to start, and the surfers need a few insights in how best to ride the bore.

Local knowledge aids us in that we find out that if we’re quick we can actually get 2 bites of the cherry, the first at Broad Oak and the second alongside the Tidal Bore Inn. Wonder how it got that name? A quick bit of google maps scouting, and some simple maths, tells me that my 200mm lens isn’t going to be long enough, so it’s off to Calumet for a 600mm Nikon rental, along with a 2x teleconverter. I also opt to bring along my aged D300s, so that I can shoot with 3 cameras – the D4 with the 600mm on, mounted on a tripod, the D300s with my 70-20 f2.8, and the D800 with the 24-70 on. I’m sure you appreciate that I’m not doing this to show off, simply to allow me to switch from one focal length to another very quickly – far quicker than I could change lenses.

3 cameras BTS
This man has too many cameras, but he is very warm!

I also brought along my 2 GoPro’s to supplement Paul’s video kit, and we mounted one to each of the surfboards.

GoPro Still

The first ride went very well – both Ben and Nick stayed on it for a decent distance, and their biggest problem seemed to be avoiding crashing into other surfers and kayakers. The river at this point is very wide, and from our vantage point we had a lot of warning as the Bore approached, as well as ample chance to shoot long, medium and wide shots.

Severn Bore
Awaiting the Bore

There was a brief delay whilst Nick got trapped in the river, unable to find a convenient way out, and then we raced on to the pub. Here the river is MUCH narrower, and there are steep grassy banks, lined with trees. It’s also sited on a tight bend, so we’ll get far less warning of the Bore approaching. The second attempt was far less successful than the first, and both Ben and Nick got dumped pretty quickly. In their defence, almost no-one stayed on at this point – the wave was shifting direction rapidly, and the banks were very unwelcoming.

Severn Bore Inn
NOT an easy wave to ride!

We polished off a bacon bap in the pub, and then everyone helpfully fell asleep in the car again all the way home. Mind you, it was an early start, and they’d had an awfully big adventure.

One thing to mention from this shoot was that despite the window to shoot in being very small, there was still opportunity to shoot stuff beyond the basic Men’s Fitness brief. Having worked for the magazine for a long time, I’m fairly familiar with the sort of thing they’re looking for, and naturally it’s the big heroic shots. In this case it’s a shot much like this:

Close-in hero shot, and the reason I hired a 600mm lens!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like this sort of shot, and obviously, I’ve got to get them as they’re my main brief. But an event like this, and an opportunity like this, is always too good to miss, and I make a real effort to keep my eyes open and look for as many other shots as possible. The space of the Severn Estuary, the small dots of surfers, the solitary wave, and the milky dawn light, all make for appealing shots. I always hand over pretty much everything to the magazine on a shoot of this nature, and let them choose what they want for their layout, but then once the immediate rush of the job has passed, I find it’s well worth “re-editing” the shots to see what else I can find. In this case, there were several shots that the magazine either ran very small or didn’t run at all, but edited together make a very nice little photo-essay.

Severn Bore Portfolio 1
Expectant Surfers
Severn Bore Portfolio 2
Compressing perspective with a 600mm lens.

So always make sure you get the job done, but always be on the lookout for extras wherever you can, and if you’ve been sent somewhere for the first time, or somewhere you’re not likely to return to for a while, milk it for all it’s worth.  Here’s the finished result.

1st Page
Tight-in Opener


Double page spread. Note the repro difference from page to page in the water colour….


back page
With 4 pages to fill it’s important to get shots beyond just the “hero” shots.

Mystified by any of the technical stuff I’ve referred to in this post?  Allow me to make things clear for you with my Technical Fundamentals course.

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