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Renn McGann wins 2020 Nikon Surf Awards

Western Australian photographer, Ren McGann, has won the 2020 Nikon Surf Photo of the Year award for his image, The Right, featuring a notorious WA big wave.

Photo: Ren McGann.

Ren, who lives in Margaret River, has been shooting The Right for about five years. It is where his interest in photography began, as he sat on a jetski snapping images of huge lumps of water heaving over a shallow reef.

‘I never really went down there with the aspiration of becoming a photographer, but I kept going down and taking photos,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘Progressively, I improved my gear, became a little obsessed with it, and really started to learn about editing.’

His winning image was taken last year and shows his friend, Dan Corbett, deep inside the backlit wave.

‘Last year was a pretty bad year for swells at The Right. We did five or six trips, and pretty much four of those were write offs. That was the only good swell we had that year, and Dan was on fire that day. He was in both the photos I submitted.

‘The angle of The Right sits in this direction, so that as soon as the sun goes into the afternoon it lights up like a light bulb. It’s pretty amazing.’

Ren’s other entry, Free Fall, was selected as a finalist in the contest and shows Dan in a less-than-ideal situation. Photo: Ren McGann.

Ren pilots a jetski while shooting and uses an Aquatech Rain Cover, an affordable waterproof fabric that encases his camera. ‘I’d love to get in the water, but I find I can be a little more versatile with a non-housing – I can switch focal lengths and things like that.’

The major downside to the cover, unlike a waterproof housing, is it doesn’t fully protect Ren’s camera if it’s immersed in water, which is a real risk when shooting such an extreme wave. One time Ren was sitting close enough to The Right that when it barrelled, the air inside compressed and created a water canon or ‘spit’ that engulfed his setup. Another time seaweed became caught in the jet of his ski, and Ren was trapped on the inside of the reef with a massive slab of water coming towards him. He managed to power over the lip of the wave before it broke, but free fell a few metres on the other side and dunked his camera in the water. ‘Good fun,’ he said, and a much more ideal scenario than falling into the jaws of the wave with a few hundred kilos of jetski in the mix.

Almost every landscape photographer can relate to spending time and money to reach a far-flung location, only to have Mother Nature greet them with underwhelming conditions. Big wave surf photography can be even more tricky, as it also factors in the limited number of large swells and wind conditions.

‘My background before photography was as a commercial skipper, so I have a pretty good understanding of weather systems and reading charts and things like that which helps to translate how the conditions will be down there,’ he said. ‘It’s a fickle wave to read, and you’re also relying on third-party information from forecasting websites. Sometimes they’re right onto it, and other years they’re so off. Like last year the forecasting was terrible. The year before last was amazing, they were on the ball almost to the minute – they could predict exactly when the swell would hit, almost to the minute, as well as the wind.’

While Ren’s passion for photography started at The Right, a deep dive into Photoshop lasted two years and resulted in an appreciation for editing. ‘That’s probably where my passion is now. I’m trying to do things a little different, taking a bit of an artistic approach to it.

‘Sometimes I’d be lucky if I pull five images from 11 hours of shooting, thousands of shots. With those images, I’ve done edits which are eight or nine hours. It’s a real slow process. I do a lot of dodging and burning in a more delicate fashion, and spending time picking out highlights and creating a composition.’

Ren was chosen by a panel of 10 judges, and has won a Nikon Z7. Check out his website here, and Instagram page here.

Nikon also awarded Andrew Kaineder the Nikon Surf Video of the Year Award for his beautiful piece, Flow State, a 15-minute clip following young Australian big wave psycho, Russell Bierke, as he chases swells on the South Coast of NSW and Tasmania. Watch it below.

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