Craig Levers

Published 1/1/0001

Craig is one of NZ's leading Surf photographers - and has been in the industry for 20+ years. A self-confessed gear junkie Craig is always looking for ways to improve the way he shoots or find a new and different angle.

Where are you based?
I'm out at Piha Beach, on the West Coast behind the Waitakere Ranges, it's been home for over 20years, and for the last 5 I've been able to base my work from home.
When did you first pick up a camera and what was it?
It was a long time ago now! Part of my 6th Form Art portfolio was a black and white study of my first new surfboard (clearly I haven't moved on very far!) - that was 1986! It was a friend's mum's Nikon SLR with a cool hippie embroidered strap. My art teacher loved the shots, and that encouragement really stuck with me. I bumped into her in the street some 15 years later; she was so stoked I'd followed photography, she kind of did the 'yeah I knew you would' nod.    

Tell us a little about your style of photography.
For the last 25years my specialty has been surfing. I landed the job as New Zealand Surfing Magazine's photographer in 1993, and I stayed there for 15 years, so my style is very editorially based. I'm not a studio guy- while lighting fascinates me; I only own one light and hardly ever use my speedlite.
The majority of surf shots you see are taken from the beach using a telephoto like a 500mm or 600mm and often with an extender added. This gives you a nice tight crop, which was a huge drive in surf photography through the '80's and 90's, but the long lenses compresses the view, it squashes the foreground into the background and make things look flat and 2D.
I needed an angle that was different, so in 1994 I started swimming out into the surf with a Canon EOS 5 and a 28mm in a water housing. This gave the magazine a huge point of difference at the time but also set me apart, because no one else was shooting from the water in NZ (although people had in the past). For a time I was NZ's best surf water photographer, I was also NZ's worst, hahaha.
Shooting from the beach with a tele-photo lens is the bread and butter of surf photography, you get the job done, you're nailing the action, but you are a viewer looking into a scene.
Shooting from the water is more exciting as you are participating in the action, you're in the barrel with the surfer- you are sharing the 'stoke', the danger, the energy, you're more immersed and engaged literally and figuratively. But your hit rate is way, way lower, so part of being a surf photographer is assessing the surf conditions and making the call as to which angle is the best use of your time.

What gear do you use?
Mostly Canon.
5DmkIII - I love the dynamic range this body yields.
EF 500mm F4.0L - My workhorse beach lens, so sharp, sharper and lighter than my old 600mm F4.0L for sure.
EF 300mm F2.8L - My boat lens, this is what I use for shooting surfing from a reef pass in a boat.
EF 70-200 F2.8L - What pro doesn't have to own one of these - the great all rounder.
Zeiss 50mm F1.4 - Such a crap lens at 1.4 !!! But at 2.0 and down this thing is amazing and a completely different colour and tonal rendering to EF lenses.
Mamiya Shift C series 50mm F4.0 - I use it with an EOS adapter to do my big panoramic stitches.
EF 17-40mm F4.0L - Another all rounder, I love to hate this lens, but the reality is it ends up sitting on my 5D most of the time, at f8 it's hard to beat.
EF 15mm F2.8 - My old buddy, this fisheye has given me a lot of covers and posters- thanks to Progear for getting it fixed.
EFS 10-22mm - Another lens I love to hate, terrible chromic aberration and distortion in the corners. BUT all fixable in Lightroom and a workhorse in the housing; it's yielded a lot of cover shots and spreads too.

50D body- This is my back up body, but also the camera that fits my housing. For the past 3 summers I've intended to trade up to a 7D but the 50D just keeps on going.
Speedlite580EX - I hardly use it, but I do have a port for it to fit on my water-housing.
SPL Water-housing - Pretty much the go to housings for surf-photogs, them, Aqua Tech and Essex.
Wista RF 45 Field camera - I shoot a lot of sheet film, it's a discipline I really enjoy and the skills learnt are completely transferable into DSLR shooting.
PTB 617 Panoramic - I don't use this as much as I did 2 years ago, this is the camera I shot most of the book Beached As- Then and Now on.
Schneider 75mm w/centre ND filter and Nikkor 210mm view lenses for the Wista and PTB.
And then a whole bunch of tripods, nodal heads, reflectors, pinholes and random junk that same day might just come in handy.

If you had to choose only one lens, what would it be and why?
Ohhh maaaan, just one!? - hahhaha. As you can see from the list above I'm a lens junky, I even missed out a few. I go through phases of favoring different combos and I think you have to keep evolving, so to restrict yourself to one format and one lens would be to assure your extinction as a professional and a creative.  
What is/has been your greatest challenge as a photographer?
The move from being a salaried shooter at the magazine to being a self-employed photographer/publisher has been a wonderful challenge over the last 5years. I now think I had become quite formulaic in my shooting at the mag. So over the last 5 years I've probably learnt more about our craft than in the preceding 20.

What do you feel has been your greatest photographic achievement to date?
I'm really stoked to have had as many magazine covers as I've had- there's been some 'clangers' but on a whole it was a pretty good 15-year run.
To have produced 4 commercially successful photographic based books is probably something I could hang my hat on I guess.
Last year I won three out of three placements in the Epson International Pano Awards, before that I had never really placed much weight in awards. I felt that there were the photographer's that worked, and then the photographer's that worked for awards. But after getting them and people's reaction I now see the value.


If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?
One of those fat dudes in the corner of the pub at 3pm, half cut and reliving former surfing glories.
What would be your dream job or assignment to shoot?
I'm the online editor for and last month we scooped live and fresh footage of the huge swell at Teahupoo, Tahiti. I've been there twice before, but watching that last month, my first reaction was "farrrkkk, I wanna be in that camera boat shooting NOW!"
What tips or advice do you have for budding photographers?
Don't do it. Hahahaha. It would be thematic of aforementioned comments, basically evolve or die, but also know where your craft has come from, be conversant in more than just DSLR capture. And by that I don't mean buying an old chrome SLR and twisting the hinges so makes nice light leaks, I mean understand why 12 stops of dynamic range is different [and sometimes not better] to 4.
Another thing; be professional, quote the job clearly, explain extra costs that could be incurred, be transparent in your work-flow and invoicing. Be clear in what you are licensing the release of your imagery for - and don't low-ball yourself. Value your talent.

What are your thoughts towards videography - do you see yourself moving on to shoot more video in your work?
Yeah definitely, especially now as content manager & surf photographer of a surf website. The value and ease of recording the moving moments is great. Not so much as a landscape photographer however for the act of capture. But being able to convey your work and presence through portals like You-Tube, Vimeo, your own website etc, it's almost a necessary evil.  
Why do you choose film as a medium for a lot of your work?
There's so much digital still can't do, unless you want to fry your sensor!
While I love stitching big panoramics with my 5D and pano head, I can't freeze waves in a surf break panorama, but I can with my PTB 6x17 cm. I love the movements I can yield with the Wista 45.
In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
One that enthralls and entertains the viewer, I think photography that conveys or elicits emotion of any kind has done it's job.

What do enjoy doing to take a break from photography, what recharges you?
Surfing, it's my still my first passion. It's also therapeutic, if you get too encumbered with life's details it washes away the trivia and re-centres you.  

Who motivates or inspires you to keep doing what you do?
I'm totally hyped on the stuff that the guys at Damaged Goods Magazine do, I love that there's so many guys now shooting from the water in NZ. It's a positive motivation to see stuff like Hambo's or Richard Hodder's In The Drink stuff coming through Instagram, it's like a daily source of inspiration. I'm loving Andris Apse's posts on Facebook too, stuff like that gets me thinking how can I do something different- what's my angle?.
View Craig's website


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