Words and Images: Mat Arney

Surfing and making photographs are two pretty defining passions of mine, and every now and then they inevitably cross over.

But, if I’m honest, I’d always choose to be in the sea rather than stood on the beach watching it.  With the cheapest commercially available waterhousing for a decent camera costing at least a grand (I’m not talking about swimming out with a go-pro here) it would seem that water-based surf photography is a game for an ever-shrinking number of professionals or those with a hefty hobby budget.  I mean, how many jobbing photographers these days have at least a grand burning a hole in their pockets for a piece of kit that they’d be lucky to see generate a few hundred quid in sold images?

Not me.  So I made one.

I ended up making two waterhousings actually.  I have long held on to the philosophy that if you’re able to do something yourself then you should do so – not just as a way of saving money or acquiring something that you couldn’t otherwise afford, but as a means of learning new skills and challenging oneself.  Perhaps it’s just that I have a problem with writing to-do lists and not sitting still, born of an awareness that time is a precious commodity.

I started out researching waterhousings for surf photography – commonly known as “splash” housings and different to their deep-sea diving counterparts.  I had the choice of fiberglass and resin as construction materials (the honours project for my degree involved the use of advanced composite materials for marine engineering applications, so I was comfortable with that option) or folded and welded aluminium which I’m slightly less au-fait with.  I went with the aluminium challenge.

A photographer who runs a gallery at the end of my street, Nick Wapshott, kindly lent me his commercially bought waterhousing overnight to take a look at, and I asked a few questions of Tim Nunn (editor of Wavelength Magazine and professional surf-lensman) who gave me some advice on how to trigger the shutter mechanism.  This was the biggest issue – I had no problems making a waterproof box of some description to put my camera in, but finding a way of pressing the button without springing a leak was a challenge.  As with most of my projects, I started out with fairly modest intentions until I realised how much time and effort I was investing and then figured that I might as well do a proper job.

I measured up my cameras (I shoot with the slightly puffed-up digital version of an older analogue camera and they’re such similar sizes that I wanted to make a housing that they would both fit and function in) and made cardboard models.  Friends and acquaintances kindly rummaged in the scrap bins of their workshops and garages, and from a range of sources I ended up with some odd lengths of aluminium tubing that I could machine into lens ports, a bigger piece that might fit a camera, and some offcuts of thin-guage sheet aluminium that I could fold into a box.

Now, I like to think that I’m fairly handy but I definitely know my limits and one of those is TIG welding aluminium and another one is precision milling.  Luckily for me, just down the road from me on Bradfords Quay in Wadebridge are two companies who specialise in fettling metal:  Daften Die-Casting specialise in precision aluminium work and Grant and Kevin there took my crude CAD designs and machined the face plates for my housings with the incredibly fiddly grooves for the o-ring seals.  I then delivered a box of bits to Will Irons at MGC Engineering a couple of doors along for the guys there to TIG weld together for me.  Where I would undoubtedly have blown holes in the thin aluminum they executed seamless joints that are not only functional, but beautiful in that functional raw metalwork sort of way.

I now had two containers that looked a lot like camera housings.  I took them back to Daftens where they were powdercoated bright yellow because if you’re going to make a submarine then it really ought to be a yellow one, right?  I’m sure that there’s a functional reason for marine submersible equipment often being this colour but I don’t need to know about it.

I sourced some thick, clear acrylic and had it cut to fit the face plates and ports then got back at the handles of a lathe and surprised myself at my ability to actually work accurately when I turn my mind to it, turning down the tubing into lens ports to accept my 50mm prime lens.  A fisheye lens would require a domed port, something that there is no way I could produce, so I settled for the fact that I would be shooting from slightly further away from the action and capturing a realistic point of view of what the human eye would normally see.

I stayed late at Otter Surfboards one Friday and mixed up a small batch of epoxy glue to nervously assemble the faceplates and ports, horribly aware that just one tiny smudge of resin on the lens port would bin the entire project.  Finally, to solve my switch concern, I found a company that produces housings for underwater dive cameras and scientific survey equipment (Greenaway Marine) and ordered a simple mechanical switch from them that I could machine to fit my housing and camera.  I assembled everything and then, in early December, took one of the empty containers for a swim in the waves, relieved that it didn’t fill up with seawater and drag me down to the seabed like an anchor.  I then put a roll of film in my analogue camera and took that out, realising just what surf photographers would have had to go through in the days before the digital revolution – swimming back to the beach every thirty-six shots to take the whole business apart and change the film must have been hard work: Thirty-six shots really doesn’t last very long in the sea.

Then the “weather” arrived, and the sea was near enough off-limits for any sane attempts at water photography for weeks on end.  Until this week.  Torn between making up for a lot of lost wave-riding opportunities and testing my handiwork, I tried my best to strike a balance in between actually doing some work.  Having surfed on one day with great waves and beautiful flat, grey, wintery light that looked as cold as it was, I returned to the following spot with my housemate Ben the following day with my digital camera nervously ensconced in it’s (hopefully) waterproof yellow case.  With more than thirty-six exposures to play with, I think that in between swimming against a rip like a river, wearing some monstrously thick wedges on my head and getting bounced off the seabed a lot, I got some alright shots for a trial run.