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Finding The Great Wave

The Great Wave 1/1250 f/7.1 ISO 100

I was surprised, thrilled, and honoured to be the winner of the Seascape category of the 2022 Natural Photography Awards with my image, The Great Wave.


The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Japanese: 神奈川沖浪裏, Hepburn: Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura, lit. "Under the Wave off Kanagawa")[a] is a woodblock print that was made by Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, probably in late 1831 during the Edo period of Japanese history. The print depicts three boats moving through a storm-tossed sea with a large wave forming a spiral in the centre and Mount Fuji visible in the background. – Wikipedia (

When I was young, I used to enjoy spending hours looking through the pages of a book my parents had on the artwork of famous artists. I used to lose myself in the paintings of exotic far-off places and imagine what it must have been like to live there.

The GWOK was always one of my favourite pieces. I liked how the simple shapes and colours captured the waves’ motion and power. Upon closer inspection, I noticed small figures of men hunched down at the bottom of the boats. The explorer in me was captivated by this new component—a hidden element that is only visible upon closer investigation. They brought a sense of scale to the image and heightened the excitement and tension in the scene. Without them, the wave would not have been as ‘great’.

Years would pass before I came upon my own unique interpretation of the Great Wave, but the effects from my early exposure to Hokusai's work would still have an impact on my eventual concept for the image.

Taking The Shot

Beyond The Blue 1/640 sec f/6.4 ISO 100

I had just received my first medium-length zoom lens (Sony 70-200mm G) about two weeks before this shot and I was anxious to test it out. Before this, I was using my 16-35, and I was still figuring out the settings and camera setup with the 200mm.

The weather forecast the night before predicted large swells coming in from the northeast, so I charged up all of my batteries and packed my bag for an early morning drive.

I live on the south coast of Barbados, and it takes about an hour to get to The Animal Flower Cave which is on the north end. When I got there, I was greeted with a band of ominous clouds hanging over the horizon and it didn’t take long before the rain started to pour down. Once the rain stopped, I walked out to the edge of the cliffs and just watched the waves for about 15 mins.

My Sony A7R2 and I got a great soaking on this day; surprisingly it wasn’t from this wave but from another one a little further down the coast. Both the camera and I were kitted out with some basic plastic covers, but the camera was still having a hard time with the sea spray and I was getting intermittent lens errors popping up on the screen. Fortunately, Sony has since then made significant improvements with its weather sealing.

I took all the photos in this post from the edge of a cliff. Using a close crop and zooming in on the larger waves adds intensity to the images. In some instances, it looks like I was actually in the water when I took the shot. At the time, my main goal was to see if I could zoom in close enough to capture more abstracts.

White Wash 1/800 sec f/8.0 ISO 100

After taking a few shots I realised that sometimes, especially when there was a lot of chaos in the scene, and no strong contrasting areas; if I zoomed in too far the camera would struggle to find a focus point to lock on to. In those situations, I found I got better results if I shot wider and then cropped the image in post.

I set my auto-focus to continuous and went back and forth between the wide and zone settings for the focus area. Of the two I had the best results with wide.

In some cases, I noticed there were spots where the waves broke consistently and they were more predictable. With those ones, I could focus manually and have most of the shots in focus.

Curl 1/500sec f/8 ISO 100

The light was harsh at this time of the morning, but since it was coming from the side it helped to bring out the shapes, textures and details in the waves.

Blue Curl 1/1250 f/7.1 ISO 100

One of the things I like most about shooting at the Animal Flower Cave is watching the backwash from the waves hit the cliff, rush back out and crash into the next set of incoming waves. It’s impossible to tell exactly when and where they will collide, but after watching them for a while you can get a general idea of where they will form and increase your chances of capturing that moment. What happens at that moment is a big tossup and depends on several variables all occurring at the right time and with the right intensity. In the photo above you can see the two swells in the foreground rushing back out to sea, on a collision course with the incoming Blue Curl.

Bloom 1/1250 sec f/7.1 ISO 100

The Big One 1/1000 sec f/6.3 ISO 100

Post Processing

When it came to processing "The Great Wave," I wanted to reduce the chaotic elements in the scene and see if I could also draw the viewers' attention away from the large wave in the background and focus more towards the smaller outgoing swell. I think the most important tool for this was to crop out any distractions around the image. I also darkened the Great Wave in the background to let it be more of a surprise after the viewer explores the image.

I didn’t realise it then, but this delayed surprise about which wave is the Great Wave, harkens back to my first encounter with Hokusai’s woodblock.


Writing a piece like this is a fantastic teaching tool for me and is a constant reminder of the qualities I need to keep looking for in my creations.

The more experiences I have, the more options I will have when it comes to expressing myself through my images. This includes things like books, movies, meeting new people and travelling to new places.

Conversely, there is something to be said about spending more time with a particular subject or place. I spent a little over 4 hours (1500 exposures) photographing the waves, and after a while, I began to notice various patterns regarding how and when the waves broke. Furthermore, the light changed dramatically over time, making certain types of shots more evident. In some cases, the colours would intensify, while in others, the textures in the water would become more visible.

Because I was new to the process of shooting with a longer focal length, I took a very experimental approach to my shots. Tight crops, wider crops, different focus areas and methods, different shutter speeds, and different drive modes; being open to all of these options helped me refine the type of photographs I wanted to create.

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