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Birds and Breaks

Vic Buhay uses the SP 150-600mm VC and SP 150-600mm VC G2 lenses for his high-action avian and surfing photography.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Vic Buhay

Vic Buhay was always fascinated with film, but maybe not in the same way most photographers first become interested in the craft. "I was a part-time X-ray technician in college, and whenever I had any downtime, I'd experiment—I'd take X-rays of skulls, watches, whatever I had lying around," he says. "That's how I learned to look at images, and how I learned to handle light."

Decades later, Vic has since moved on from late-night X-rays to photographing the surfers and native birds near his home in Huntington Beach, California (aka "Surf City USA"), where he freezes the nonstop action into forever photos. "I love to capture the peak of a moment," he says. "I enjoy shooting fast-action sports and wildlife, but everything's often moving so quickly that you don't really get to take a close look at it. I want my photos to show you those moments you don't usually get to see."

To help him in his quest, Vic uses the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC (A011) and the SP 150-600mm VC G2 (A022) lenses. "These two are both lightweight enough for me to handhold all day or put on a monopod, though I use a tripod with a gimbal head for shooting much of the surfing," he says. "The sharpness and detail I'm able to get with these two lenses is fantastic. And that 600mm reach allows me to get close enough to capture the surfers' facial expressions, which I couldn't get with other lenses."

Vic lives about a mile from the beach, where he started hanging out when he moved there about eight years ago. "I knew nothing about surfing at first," he laughs. "Then one year I attended the US Open of Surfing, a weeklong competition here, and I was hooked. These athletes are probably the most athletic in the world of any sport, because they use every muscle in their body to do what they do. Plus it's packed with people from all over the world: I've met folks from Brazil, Hawaii, France, Japan, all cheering for the surfers from their countries. It's a terrific event."

Over the years, Vic picked up the necessary techniques to capture intense images of the equally intense sport. "Now I can usually tell: 'Oh, that's the wave he's going to take,'" he says. "You have to prepare ahead of time to shoot images like this. I'll set my ISO, f-stop, and shutter speed at a constant. I shoot manually, except for autofocus—things are happening so fast that the autofocus is critical. I use the AFC continuous focus mode, picking either a single point or the smallest group of points I can use to catch the surfer while he or she is catching a wave. Then I shoot in burst mode and just hold the shutter button down while I'm holding the AF on at the same time. That gives me a burst of five or six frames. I've caught some spectacular photos that way."

In Newport Beach, there's a popular surfing spot on the very tip of the Balboa Peninsula called the Wedge. "Every once in a while, we get these big swells there, usually when there's a storm in the Pacific," Vic says. "A few days later, we'll get those big waves, and I love trying to get a photo right inside the barrel of the wave. I had once seen a famous woodblock print called The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, and I'm always inspired by it."

Vic stood on a breakwater and was able to capture the wave just as it was crashing about 10 to 20 feet from the shoreline. "The water can be tricky, depending on where the sun is," he says. "If the sky is completely blue, with no clouds, the water will take on that color, so the top of the wave will be bluish, while the bottom will be green. I used a -.3 exposure compensation here, because it was so bright at the beach. I wanted to make sure you could see all of the droplets of water in there."
© Vic Buhay
190mm, F/6.3, 1/3200th sec., ISO 100, -.3 exposure compensation

Women surfers hang ten just as aggressively as the men, and Vic recently had the chance to photograph Bianca Buitendag, a professional surfer who was the fourth-best female surfer in the world in 2015. "The women surfers are so graceful and beautiful, but also so limber and strong," he says. "Down at Lower Trestles, near San Diego, they have a similar weeklong pro event to the Huntington Beach version, and that's where I was able to photograph Bianca. You're partly judged on how much spray you can send up, and as you can see, she delivered. It was right around noon, so I was able to get her shadow in there, which added a cool visual to the photo."
© Vic Buhay
600mm, F/6.3, 1/2500th sec., ISO 250

Sometimes Vic's photo opportunities arrive when he's least expecting them. "I was walking toward the beach one day and decided to head under this pier, which is this long concrete structure with a restaurant at the very end," he says. "There happened to be a surfer heading from the north side of the beach to the south side at the same time. I remembered, again, another artwork I'd seen in Japan of a pier with these red wooden pylons; it was similar to the view I now had before me. In this case, the pylons of the pier were about 8 to 10 feet apart, but because of the compression of the lens, they look much closer together. I almost wish the surfer had looked up, but I also like how candid this shot was."
© Vic Buhay
170mm (255mm at 35mm equivalent), F/5.0, 1/800th sec., ISO 200

Vic shot the same pier, this time out from the underside. "This was the day before Christmas during one of our warmer winters," he says. "That restaurant I mentioned earlier is the one you now see here at the end of the pier. I took this photo at the shortest end of the lens, which can make me nervous. Sometimes all-in-one lenses are an either-or deal: They're great at the long end, but not on the other end, or vice versa. But I was so impressed here—everything came out super-sharp. Plus the sunset was gorgeous. When the sun goes down, the frequency of light changes, and that happens even more so here in the wintertime. I hardly had to touch anything in post-production."
© Vic Buhay
150mm, F/6.3, 1/640th sec., ISO 100, -.7 exposure compensation

When Vic switches things up to photograph birds, he often heads down to the wetlands of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, an ecological and conservation nonprofit nearby. "In the summer and even in the winter, I see all kinds of birds migrating north and south," he says. "The birds flock there partly because there are so many minnows to catch."

Like in his surfing work, Vic often draws upon past concepts or ideas he's seen when he visualizes how he wants to capture a photo. "I knew at some point I wanted to get a picture that looks like an Audubon painting," he says. "And that's exactly what happened when I captured a photo of this pelican. Pelicans are huge birds, and it's an amazing sight to see them diving into the water. With this one, because I was shooting bursts so quickly, I didn't even realize I had captured this particular image until I got back and processed everything. You can see every detail, in no small part due to the placement of the late-afternoon sun, which was right behind me. It was like studio lighting."
© Vic Buhay
380mm, F/6.3, 1/2000th sec., ISO 320

Vic had a similar vision in his mind's eye when he headed down to the shore to photograph a congregation of terns. "When terns move, they move as a group, and it looks like a cloud of feathers," he says. "I really wanted to try to capture that effect." It was late afternoon, around 5:30 p.m., and he was running out of light. Still, he had to wait for that split-second moment when they all took off. They finally did, and Vic sprung into action. "It was something," he says. "Again, I was somewhat concerned about using a lens at its most extreme focal length, this time on the longer end, but there were no worries here with the 150-600. This image was sharp, sharp, sharp."
© Vic Buhay
600mm (900mm equivalent on 35mm format), F/6.3, 1/2500 sec., ISO 360, -0.3 exposure compensation

Even the best-laid photographic plans can't account for some of the most awe-inspiring images. Vic found that out when he was taking pictures of the terns and suddenly spied one lone bird in front of his camera. "It flew right in front of me," he says. "It was having a hard time because the fish in its mouth was wiggling. By the time I put the viewfinder to my eye and pressed the AF button and shutter release and took my burst of shots, it was gone—all in less than a second. I just happened to be in the right position, at the right distance. Every once in a while you get lucky."
© Vic Buhay
280mm, F/6.3, 1/1600th sec., ISO 250