INTERVIEW WITH OCEAN PHOTOGRAPHER @shesurfs_photography
Firstly, can you start with a little bit about yourself ?
My name is Mikala Wilbow. I am a 33 year old surfer, wife and mum to two. We live on the Northern beaches of Wollongong in a humble little home we built ourselves with our rescue kelpie pup ‘Chance’. I wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up near the ocean but grew up water skiing on the Hawkesbury river and lived in chlorine pools competing as a swimmer which left me with a green tinge to my hair through most of my youth.
I had a wonderful and adventurous childhood but there was always something missing, that salt air. I am a water baby and need my regular dose of salt water. I am constantly torn between my two favourite toys, my camera and my surfboard and i have been shooting for the past 11 years. I was that kid that never smiled in photos and hated the camera. I was always more comfortable behind the lens.
When did you first start your photography journey?
My journey started back in the year 11 dark room at school which was in a demountable building. There wasn’t enough interest to have a photography class so I was handed the keys to the room to experiment and explore my interest in photography. I was lucky enough to just catch the end of film and then transitioned into digital as I started my career a few years later.
My professional journey started when I got my first photography job in a wedding, portrait and commercial studio in North Sydney. From there I moved around into different areas of photography gathering the skills I feel I needed to survive this industry and be able to do what I love for a living.
Can you give me a breakdown of your current set-up and why you selected it?
I use the Canon 5D series because I love that full frame sensor and the Aquatech Housing. I chose these purely because of the people that I worked for in the early years of my career. Once I learnt how to use Canon and Aquatech I trusted it and have stuck to it since.
What would you say is your favourite lens and Why?
I am in love with my 24-70mm 2.8 and 70-200mm 2.8. I started my career in a wedding, portraits and commercial studio so they were my go to lenses. Using those lenses as much as I did, it kind of shaped my style.
As much as I love playing with primes I always find myself going back to these two. I feel like these lenses allow me to experiment more with my subject and cover more of a variety of shots.
How would you describe your current style?
I love to shoot in so many ways and its shaped based on what and who I am photographing and the vibes they are putting out. I love to get up tight, shoot wide and use lots of empty space. I feel that my style is emotive, natural and more candid posed (as I call it) somewhere in the middle of allowing the subject to be candid and capturing the natural as it unfolds but stepping in when I see something that I want to shape and re create.
What would you say inspires your creative vision?
I’m really inspired by visualising images that I want to create that I have never seen before and my love for surfing, the ocean and being surrounded by creative and inspiring friends.
What time of day do you prefer to shoot at?
Mornings for sure! There is just something so magical about shooting pre dawn to sun up. You get such a variety of emotion in the images and always get a slightly different effect with the lighting. It is just my favourite part of the day. The morning light is the one thing that has me bouncing out of bed scrambling to get out the door.
Among all your work what is the most memorable moment you have captured?
I would say that the most memorable moments are the ones that I spent floating around with my friends capturing them in the water. My love for the surf lifestyle is driven by the beautiful moments I am so lucky to be able to capture.
It’s the simple moments like paddling out at first light, sitting on the board watching the sunrise with your friends and the many more things only a surfer gets to experience.
You shoot a lot in the ocean have you ever had any experiences that really scared you?
Yeah I have. I spent my youth as a competitor swimmer and grew up near the river water skiing so being in the water always felt so natural to me. I didn’t know much about the ocean though until I took up surfing when I was 18 and learnt even more when I got into water photography in my early 20s.
I was on a girls surf trip in Bali with a bunch of my friends in 2008. At that point my surfing wasn’t up to Bali standards so I took to the water shooting a lot and was on a mission to capture the trip for an editorial in Curl magazine.
We were down in Medewi for a week and decided to head to Balian for a day of surfing. We all piled in the car and as we arrived after a half hour drive from the resort I forgot my flippers. The surf was on and I didn’t want to miss anything so the girls paddled out and I followed with my housing and my bare size 10 feet. I got out pretty easy and had a great 2 hour shoot.
As I called it a day and paddled into the shore, I passed my girlfriend paddling back out for another few waves. She asked if I was ok to get into the shore and If I needed a tow. Me not knowing of the rip running strong that I was just about to swim into I thought I was fine and almost on the black sand. I rolled onto my back and took my eyes off the beach for just a moment and then when I turned back around my heart skipped a beat to see that I had been swept all the way down and out heading towards the cliffs and what I remember were a few large rocks.
With my arm attached to the housing, I started to try freestyle and back stroke in all different directions trying to figure out how to get out of this rip. I was struggling to get any power in my stroke being attached to my camera and I could just see the line up getting further and further away. I rolled onto my back to catch my breath and process the thoughts of ditching my camera in order to give myself the best chance to get back to the beach. As I was laying there my eyes began to fill up with tears at the thought of not being able to make it back and no one being able to see or hear me.
Just at that moment I heard an angel say “are you ok? You know you’re in a really big rip right?”
I was so relived to roll over and see that surfers concern on his face. It took us half hour of paddling and kicking to make it back to the shore. I’ve never left the beach without a pair of flippers on my feet again.
How do you continue to educate yourself to become a better photographer?
I visualise a lot of concepts and images that I want to create and capture, I read a lot of better photography magazine which inspires me but mostly I just shoot as much as possible and try different things some work and some do not but I always learn something
Who are your greatest photography inspirations?
I am really inspired by women’s surfing from the 1990’s and early 2000’s and the photo campaigns of the Roxy and Billabong girls shot by photographers like Jeff Hornbaker, Dewey Nicks, Jeff Divine and Tim McKenna. These images were what drove my passion for surfer girl photography and my love for working with surf lifestyle brands.
What country are you dying to shoot in but haven’t had the chance?
Tahiti is a place that I am really keen to get to among many others.
What continues to motivate you to produce your work?
The surf lifestyle, ocean and that urge to get that next photo to fall in love with.
Lastly what is one piece of advice you would give someone starting out in photography?
Shoot as much as you can and don’t get too caught up in the camera gear. Just focus on developing your eye and style first. The gear will eventually come. Also, play with different types of natural light. As I was told early in my career, you will never stop learning about light.