Zoom with a View
He’s the quiet, unassuming dude on the boat who transforms your floundering fret and spindrift into glorious poster-sized rectangles of eternity. We chat to the artist behind the lens to find out what why he loves Cape Town, why he once turned down a soft-core porn job offer, and when he’s going to swim a Robben Island himself.
If you have a great pic of yourself looking pensive entering the 11-degree water at Clifton, or knocking the snot out of a Robben Island with the tabletop in the background, or in fact any such magic sporting moment captured for posterity, then chances are that Chris Hitchcock took it.
A moment of utter curving stillness reflected in mirror water so calm it could be the silence in between your thoughts. “I usually shoot between 1000 and 2000/s shutter speed and between f4 to f8 aperture. I put ISO on auto and let it do its thing,” Chris explains.
“I’ve never thought about how I get the stillness, It’s just there. I do tend to chase smooth reflective water and love it when I get it, so maybe that is it. Mist can also blur the sky into the sea, which helps.”
But this old romantic might need a little more encouragement yet to swop his 600mm for his Speedo. Chris says that when he left school, he had no idea what to do with his life. An interest in electronics landed him a job selling technical components, before he ended up in the fledgling Cape Town IT business.
“But full-time photography had been the dream since I got my first proper camera way back in 1982. I just had no idea how to get there and to compound it, I was in a bit of a salary trap. Fast forward to 2010, after a massive mountain bike crash, I was out of sporting action for six months with a destroyed shoulder and sundry other dented body parts. To pass the time I picked up my camera and started shooting the sports I competed in, as I knew them pretty well.”
Chris shot tens of thousands of photos just for himself, to learn the craft. The next year, the Energade BSG Triathlon saw his pics on Facebook and invited him to shoot their national series for two years. The pro-sports photography career quickly mushroomed when he became one of the official Ironman photographers in 2013. Basically, if it moves, even down a wedding aisle, Chris’ll shoot it. His crowning moment was getting a wildlife photo published in a National Geographic book.
“I think you really have to want it,” Chris says. “I look at other photographers’ work and dream of being able to make similar photos. The really interesting thing for me is the technical puzzle. But I still make a point of watching creative channels on YouTube every day without fail. I’m always learning something new or getting inspired all over again.”
Chris was once asked to do a soft porn photo shoot, but he said no. “To this day, I have no idea why they asked me, but I turned it down because I knew I’d giggle like a schoolboy throughout the entire thing.”
Best photo moment? “I once did a shoot with Jean de Villiers, the Bok captain, and as usual my wife was my assistant on the shoot. Of course, I assumed she knew who he was until she asked him what he did for a living. Apparently, not everybody follows rugby!”
Worst photo moment? “When a cycling newspaper tried to blacklist me with all my clients because I refused to give them an image for free. My clients all backed me to the hilt and the paper is now out of business. Never underestimate the value of good customer relationships and bad karma!”
But, back to swimming! The worst for Chris is when a swimmer doesn’t breath bilaterally, and he’s on the wrong side! “All I get then is the back of their head. I’ve been known to shout quietly at weird people like that. Fog and bad visibility can make for some really cool imagery, so I embrace them. Rogue water does add to the challenge though. Two years ago, I was hanging over the side of the boat with the camera close to the water in the smoothest of smooth seas when a tiny splash of water got on the back of the camera. That cost me R10k to fix.
“The biggest challenge with shooting swimming is using a zoom lens in a big swell. Five minutes of that and I’m guaranteed to be redecorating both sides of Derrick’s boat.”
Chris says the best thing about shooting outdoor adventure sports is that he gets to place the athlete in the environment, be that an ocean or a mountain. “Add Cape Point or Table Mountain to the photo mix and suddenly things get very spicy. The fact that I have the best environment in the world in which to place athletes is just the cherry on the top for me. I spend a lot of my time on wine farms shooting trail-runs and mountain biking and you won’t believe how much effort and massive money the farms are sinking into making their venues attractive for adventure!”
And the million-dollar question – when will we see Chris in the water himself?
“I do swim. I started out as a triathlete, including doing the obligatory Ironman. I’m not an active swimmer at the moment, but I’m tempted. I just need to trade my warm duvet for cold water, and no one has yet made a compelling enough argument for me to do that.”