AWARD-WINNING SURF PHOTOGRAPHER LEROY BELLET USUALLY LETS HIS IMAGES DO THE TALKING. BUT TODAY HE SHARES THE PHYSICAL TORTURE HE ENDURES TO GET THE JOB DONE.
Like most boys his age 17-year-old Leroy Bellet is not someone likely to be considered risk-averse.
He took a chance the first time he strapped an action camera to his helmet while surfing at a reef break down the road from his house and astounded his friends and family with what he produced. He again pushed himself out of his comfort zone when at just 16 he entered the Nikon Surf Photo of the Year Competition, against technically more skilled and infinitely worldlier contemporaries, and took home the winner’s trophy. He risked both his body and his equipment when he achieved instant notoriety by grabbing hold of a double-tow point of view tube angle over a roaring South Australian swell.
And now the year 12 student has done it a fourth time by putting his reputation and any hope of a regular income on the line by quitting his casual job at a supermarket and making photography his sole occupation.
While acknowledging this is a feat made considerably easier by the fact he has minimal expenses and still lives at home, Leroy says his hard working parents taught him early on the importance of hard work and the benefits to be had by throwing caution to the wind.
“My parents have never had a lot of money to spend but have always been supportive of my brothers’ and my creative or constructive endeavours. It makes me grateful and compelled to make the most of every opportunity I have. Being a surfer, the importance of taking risks is something you inherit after spending enough time in the ocean. If you never take the risk of dropping into a wave, you’ll never know what it would have been like to ride that wave. It’s always better to go and know what happens, whether it ends up being a positive experience or a negative experience like a wipe out. ”
Completely self-taught, Leroy’s first DSLR was a second-hand Nikon D90 that his parents both helped buy for his 14th birthday. He has been using Nikon since upgrading from action cameras after learning Nikon was the brand of choice of his favourite surf photographers Ray Collins and Russell Ord.
These days he shoots a Nikon D5, “a couple of” D810’s and a D300s, plus the AF DX Fisheye 10.5mm f/2.8G ED, the NIKKOR AF-S 50mm f/1.8G prime, the AF-S 70-200mm 2.8E FL ED VR zoom and Nikon SB-910 speedlight.
Leroy says he likes to look at the surf conditions for a good few minutes before deciding which lens to opt for. “If the waves are really big he usually uses his Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm 2.8E FL ED VR and shoots from the jet-ski, if it’s possible to swim I will decide between either the 50mm or fisheye and if I’m going to shoot while surfing it’s always the fisheye for the widest field of view.
“Plenty of people I now know understand more than me about the history of photography, the specifications of cameras and the photographic industry in general, but I think that the most important thing is making images that emotively connect with people; portfolios can be just as important as degrees.”
Clearly this approach has worked out well for the feisty teen whose unique viewpoint and willingness to put his body on the line to capture his images has seen his work garner critical attention and his photos published in leading surf titles all around the world.
“Photography helps me express my ideas to the people around me. I’ve made some mistakes here and there from a business point-of-view, but with the technical side of things I just focus on the aesthetics of and meaning behind images.
What used to worry me was when people said ‘it’s who you know, not what you know’ in regards to succeeding as a photographer. That was the worst advice I was ever given. I knew nobody at all in the surf or photographic industries, I started filming and shooting by myself and slowly some surfers, other photographers and magazines began to like what I was doing. Who I knew has never given me any kind of success, I make my own imagery my own way and let it speak for itself. I’m grateful that it has had the reception it has, but I’m still not trying to impress anyone.”
But whether intentional or not, while he has been busy juggling his educational responsibilities with his work commitments, Leroy’s work has been being noticed by all the right kinds of people.
With at least another year of schooling to complete, the South Coast surfer come shooter is currently midway through his preparation for a double tow shoot at Teahupo’o, a world-renown surf break off the south west coast of Tahiti.
A concept that he’d had marinating for some time, the idea has been taken up by a high profile energy drinks brand that has come on board to document Leroy’s behind-the-scenes work for its ‘Chasing the Shot’ video series that follows action sport photographers in their pursuit of innovative imagery.
Set to test not only his mental stamina but his physical prowess as well, Leroy is working himself almost to exhaustion to ensure he is not forced to compromise to get the shot.
His regimen is not that different to most high performance athletes with training divided between one 30 minute session per week of strength training, one 60 minute session of anaerobic training, cardio and endurance training (2 x 30 minute sessions per week) and surfing as often as possible. Some of the activities include underwater swimming drills, sand-dune runs, breathing exercises and callisthenic circuits.
Yet where a lesser man or woman may struggle, Leroy sees it just as part of his job.
“It’s important to train for surf photography for both mental and physical reasons. The more panicked and less comfortable you feel underwater the quicker the body uses oxygen and if you aren’t a strong swimmer it becomes dangerous for obvious reasons. I train most days in a variety of ways to make sure I am as confident as possible underwater for extended periods of time. It definitely makes me feel more in control and able to deal with the situations as they happen.
“Even if it’s just a false sense of security, my photography definitely benefits from it by being closer to the action.”
To see more of Leroy’s work visit www.leroybelletphoto.com
Words: Tracey Porter