Photographing Winter Surfing in Alaska with Scott Dickerson
Scott Dickerson began photographing winter surfing in Alaska because he wanted to share the experience with others. His love for photography stems from a love of sharing stories, so it was natural for him to share the story of Alaskan surfers.
Photography and surfing have been my great passions for the last two decades. I often have a hard time deciding whether I should stay behind the lens or paddle into the surf. I thought people, potentially a little less crazy than me, would appreciate the visuals involved with riding waves in a place as beautiful as Alaska.
As you might guess, the surfing community in Alaska is quite small. After almost 20 years of surfing here, I’ve gotten to know the majority of the characters involved. When I’m behind the camera, I’m often photographing friends I’ve surfed with for years. I occasionally work with traveling individuals or brands who want to showcase their products or athletes in the Alaskan environment. I’ve photographed everyone and everything from three-time world champion surfers to my wife as she learned to surf.
Over the years, I’ve scoured the northern-most state by boat and plane searching for places where surfing is possible, but I most often surf close to home, in the small town of Homer, Alaska. While winter surfing in Alaska may seem inhospitable to those from warmer climates, it’s actually the best season to surf.
The entire winter season offers great potential for surfing. Winter storms are more violent and frequent. We watch for low pressure storms that generate waves at sea. The best surfing is the day after the storm or when a storm is offshore and the waves roll to the shore. We don’t usually surf in the middle of a storm, but we’ve done it before.
Of course, Alaskan winters present plenty of challenges for both surfers and photographers. Daylight hours are extremely limited, with sunrise around 11 a.m. and sunset only four or five hours later. This definitely limits your opportunities! You need waves, the right stage of tide, and favorable winds all to come together. You also need daylight to see and shoot, so dealing with that as a limiting factor significantly increases the complexity.
The cold climate necessitates quality equipment, both for myself and my cameras. Alaska is a cold, windy environment with salt spray saturating the air. It’s next-to-impossible to keep equipment dry, especially when snow is blowing. While most people only think about keeping themselves warm and dry, I can’t forget about my cameras. When it gets extremely cold, below zero degrees Fahrenheit, cameras slow down and battery life becomes an issue. I keep spare batteries warm in my pockets.
Challenges aside, photographing surfing in the snow is a magical experience. When it’s snowing heavily, it’s very quiet. The snow mutes the roar from the crashing waves. You watch the snow fall and disappear as it hits the water. If it’s cold enough and snowing hard enough, it starts to form a slush on the surface of the water. It’s incredible to watch.
Overall, the most important thing for a surfing photographer who wants to take quality photos is familiarity with the sport. Knowing how to anticipate the action and position yourself to get the best shots is key. My experience as a surfer helps me capture the best images.
Photographing surfing is all about getting in tune with the ocean, the waves, the surfers and their timing. Waves come in sets, so being able to read the ocean and know when and where the next wave is going to break helps me take the best photographs. For those not personally acquainted with surfing, I recommend spending time watching the rhythms of breaking waves. Every storm makes different waves, and every beach is different. Seek out locals for the best insider knowledge.
Exercise patience, observe, and anticipate the action based on the waves and the surfers’ movements. The more you observe, the more you will learn how to read the ocean.