Shooting The Curl

How Stan Moniz creates supersharp, hyper-colorful wave photographs
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The perpetual motion of waves falling on the shores of lakes and oceans around the world gives you an opportunity to explore abstract shapes and colors while experimenting with composition and form. The reflective qualities of water are exceptional for capturing repetition in the colors and shapes of the surroundings and atmosphere. At the same time, the leading lines of concentrically closing waves often create a dynamic natural frame for wildlife, surfers, landscapes, coastal subjects and sunsets or sunrises.

Not many people can claim “rock star” as their fallback career, but when Hawaiian native Stan Moniz left for the mainland in 2000 to spend a decade touring with his band National Product, the self-proclaimed “water baby” was forced to set aside his photographic aspirations and leave the ocean behind. Prior to signing with a major label, Moniz was an amateur photographer and a professional bodyboarder—a natural choice for a kid who spent all his free time in the surf. So when his band called it quits in 2010, Moniz was free to make his way back to the beach—this time in California—and refocus his creative energy on the water.

Like many aspiring wave photographers, Moniz started shooting with a GoPro camera. Unlike most, though, he quickly found the versatility and image quality lagging behind his rapidly improving skill set. He upgraded to a Sony NEX-5N and considered it a revelation, even though he was using a makeshift waterproof housing found on eBay. When the budding photographer was introduced to Alan Love, owner of housing maker AquaTech, it changed his life.

“Right before the Nikon D7100 came out,” Moniz says, “Alan said, ‘Get the camera, and we’ll get you a housing.’ I shoot with a Nikon D7100 now, and my housing is an AquaTech Compac. The NEX-5N was awesome, but just having a camera with a larger sensor and no optical low-pass filter, the color spectrum was off the chain! So much more life in color and vibrancy. The images seemed more true to the moment. That change helped me grow and develop into the type of photographer I am today.”

Love introduced Moniz to Greg Napoli from Kenko Tokina USA, who was so impressed with the photographer’s energy that he offered to loan him any lens he wanted. While many of his colleagues rely on fish-eyes, Moniz made a calculated choice to set his work apart.

“Everyone shoots with the fish-eye,” he says, “but I wanted to be different, so I got the 11-16mm. I stayed away from that fish-eye look specifically to force myself to create something new that not many are going after.”

Up for a challenge, Moniz also uses a telephoto in the surf, the Tokina AT-X M100 macro. He uses it to isolate the beautiful details of curling waves and for the depth created with a soft background.

“I like being different,” Moniz says, “and doing different stuff. Over the last year, I’ve started using the 100mm macro. Once I got it, I was, like, holy moly. It’s an old lens, but I love it. I like the super-soft bokeh background, so I’ll go down to ƒ/2.8 if I can. In the morning, I’ll start at 1/1600th at ISO 100, and that will give me ƒ/2.8. I like that look, the pop. It looks really three-dimensional. There’s so much texture to the background, it looks like patterns. It looks like you can touch it. It looks painted.

Photographer and bodyboarder Stan Moniz has made a career in and around water. He avoids the typical fish-eye look in favor of a more standard wide-angle view to incorporate more of the environmental surroundings. He also uses a telephoto macro lens to challenge himself compositionally.

“With the 100mm, I’m in autofocus,” he notes. “This is the cool thing about the Compac housing: It has a pistol grip with two buttons. The top button is an autofocus track button. I’ll always put my focus point a little off to the right. I never center anything; it’s a Rule of Thirds kind of deal. So I track the wave on the top, so it locks it, and then I start firing with the bottom button. My camera shoots six frames per second. With the 100mm lens, there’s more technique, but the photos are just remarkable.”

Moniz says his two favorite lenses require distinctly different shooting techniques. “With the 11-16mm,” Moniz explains, “you have to have a housing with a flat port because a dome port has distortion. I put the 11-16mm in manual focus, measure three feet and lock it. That’s basically the sweet spot for water photography. With a wide-angle, you don’t want anything below ƒ/5.6 because it’s just too soft. I always stay between ƒ/7.1 and ƒ/11. That’s my sweet spot. I’ll never go over 1/1200th shutter speed. You don’t even need to go over 1/1000th; that stops the wave enough. I usually shoot between 200 and 400 ISO to keep my aperture between ƒ/7.1 and ƒ/11, and I’m always in shutter priority. The other secret that a lot of people don’t know is exposure compensation. A lot of people don’t like shooting into the sun at sunrise because it gets blown out. I tell these guys to drop their exposure compensation by two-thirds. That boosts your aperture. And if you overexpose, that’s going to bring your aperture down. Even on foggy days, I’m always at two-thirds.”

Because rich color is so important, Moniz frequently uses a Speedlight in an AquaTech Strike housing to drop the ambient exposure and deepen the intensity of sunrise and sunset color.

“You kind of get burned out shooting with the same kind of lens in broad daylight,” Moniz says. “Every wave is different, and I want to get more different. Like the ‘Lime Wedge,’ that was shot during a beautiful sunrise, but I used the SB-900 Speedlight. A lot of people will high-power everything, but that’s not the trick. You’ve got to down it two-thirds or even a full stop. You’re gonna kill the ambient light if you’re too high. I’ve kind of got that down now, and my camera syncs at 1/320th, but I can go up to 1/1000th or even higher because it’s a Speedlight. I use the rear sync, too, and it’s stopping everything. I’ll play with the exposure because I have it on TTL. I’ll play with the exposure as the sun gradually comes up because I want the sunrise and sunset colors to be really pronounced and saturated. I don’t like to do too much post. Before, I used to do way more post than I’m doing now. I think it’s just because I know my settings now.”

Back on dry land, Moniz runs his RAW images through a fairly straightforward postprocessing routine. While his images are saturated and detailed, he’s careful to retain the reality of the waves and light.

“I used to be so crazy with the GoPro,” he says. “You’d have to do all these different layers to mask the bad resolution and stuff. But in post now, basically I’ll go to Curves and increase contrast and play with it from there. There’s an S curve in there, that’s one of the best ones. And then I’ll go to Vibrance, especially on a gloomy day. I won’t overdo it. When you can tell it’s looking fake, that’s when you pull it back. I won’t go past 20 or 25 with the Vibrance unless it’s a really dark day. And I keep the Saturation at 0.

“With the 11-16mm, you still sometimes get soft focus,” Moniz adds, “so I’ll duplicate the layer and do a High Pass filter. I’ll set it at a Radius of about 3.0, and then I’ll switch the layer mode to Overlay and bring the opacity down, probably never over 50%. That brings out insane detail. But sometimes it can look too fake. Sometimes people like that surreal look. I like it more real. It’s very easy to cross that boundary.”

See more of Stan Moniz‘s dynamic wave photography at