Stab Magazine | How To Shoot Pipeline’s Many Moods By Brian Bielmann

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How To Shoot Pipeline’s Many Moods By Brian Bielmann

The experience and knowledge of 40-years treading water, and the story behind 13 Banzai scroll-stoppers.

full frame // Feb 21, 2018
Words by Morgan Williamson
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Brian Bielmann is one of the surfing’s most fabulous photographers, and one of the finest to call the North Shore home. “Legend Status” is a term that gets blown around like dandelions in the breeze these days, Brian is bonafide by Webster’s strictest definition: A famous or notorious person, especially in a specific field.

The man’s been pointing his lens at Pipeline for over 40 years, shot everyone from Gerry Lopez to John Florence, Andy Irons to Tom Curren, Kelly Slater to Jamie O’Brien—if they surfed Pipe well over the past 40 years, they’re frozen in time in Mr Bielmann’s archives.

To this day, he’s one of the hardest working photographers to ever shoot the notoriously moody break. Recently, at the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, the 60-year-old veteran photog put in six-hour-plus days bobbing in the brine. No breaks. All work and reward.

On the North Shore, Brian’s one of is many adopted mayors. There’s not a restaurant, bar, Foodland, or food truck where he won’t run into someone he knows. Nor a person he doesn’t have a story about that that’ll have you in stitches.

His work can be seen hanging proudly on walls here on the North Shore, and in restaurants, bars, and pro surfer’s living rooms around the world. Though, he admits, “If you never want to sell your work, put them in restaurants. Mine are everywhere. No one ever buys them!”

With interest in the technical sides of surf photography at a fever pitch in the Instagram Age, we wanted to hear some hard-earned lessons from a shooter who has remained sharp through four decades of fads, and kept his lens on Pipeline the whole time.

The following is part retrospective part instructional, what we’re calling: How to Shoot Pipeline’s Many Moods, Pipeline as told by the man who has known her well and intimately.


Pipeline. 2010.

Brian: This is your standard Pipeline lineup shot. In the past ten years, this shot has become super popular. Shooting empties at Pipe is powerful because it allows the viewer to be like, “Oh, I’d love to be right here on this wave.” It’s good for mind surfing.

This photo was shot in 2010 with a 70-200 tele-zoom lens. If you’re trying to capture the environment around you, you look for the interesting things. This particular day that was just people on the beach, the sand and the waves.


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Herbie Fletcher. 2014.

This photo of Herbie Fletcher was shot using a fisheye. The interesting thing about shooting Pipe with a fisheye is, when the wave’s breaking, you’re facing the shore. As the wave hits, it wraps around you, and this moment is the last chance you get before the water fully engulfs you.

For these shots, you’re going under and you’re shooting blind.

You have to hold that trigger down. This is the total just go for it shot.

You’re not looking through the lens, not lining things up, not waiting for the perfect moment. You just keep the motor driving and try to keep that camera up as high as possible before the wave covers it.

This shot was taken ten years ago. The cool thing is that Herbie, after all these years, is still out charging Pipe. I’ve been shooting him since the 70’s. Here he is, in 2004, still out there on a longboard. Killing it.


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Mike Stewart (booger). John Damm (ejecter). 1986.

This shot is of John Damm and Mike Stewart back in 1986. At the time, they were two of the best Pipe riders. In that era, there was this group of guys they called the Pipeline Underground. John was one of the top underground Pipe surfers then. 

This was shot from the land with a telephoto lens. I would say 95 percent of the shots we did from the beach were shot this way. Tight, with nobody in the foreground. You just relied on the action in front of you to make the shot. I shot on Fuji 100 film back then. We only had 36 shots, and you had to make them count. The difference shooting then compared to now is you wanted to be sure you weren’t wasting your film. Even if you held your finger on the trigger you’d miss peak moments. It wasn’t as easy as firing off rapid shots like it is today.



Aamion Goodwin. 2014.

That’s Aamion Goodwin, shot in 2014, during my favorite time to shoot Pipeline, because you get so many colors when the wave is backlit.

This was taken during that magic 20 minutes before the sun sets. These are best to shoot from the water while swimming. You get that low angle and you have water in the foreground. It creates this you-are-there feeling.

For shots like this, you have to watch your exposure because you’ve got a lot less light. Which means opening up your exposure and compensating. There are so many hidden colors in the wave at that time of night.

So you basically have to overexpose the shot from what you would shoot with during the day to get all the colors.

It’s a low light situation; up your ISO a little bit. I usually go from 200 to 400.



Brain Pacheco. Pipe Trails. 2008.

This shot got me started with my whole Red Bull career. I won the Spirit Award with that photograph. I changed this photo to black and white. I thought that would look really cool.

To me what’s important about this photo is that it’s one of the moments that happen between the action. A lot of times the best surf shots are those moments you don’t expect. Like here, I was waiting for Brain Pacheco (pictured here) to drop into this wave and he pulled back. It was in the final seconds of his heat in the 2008 Pipe Trials, and he needed to catch that wave to get into the main event. This was right when the buzzer went off. That’s why he threw his hands up in frustration. He knew his run was over. It was like all he could think about was the agony of defeat.

This was taken from land with a telephoto lens. You wouldn’t want to shoot this any wider because without being up close you’d miss the emotion.



Mark Healey. 2005.

This photo was taken in my water housing. I was getting ready to swim out at Pipe and this set came through, so I decided to take a step back and shoot the situation in front of me. Which was me standing on the beach, waiting for the wall to pass, and that moment you can jump in the water and swim as fast as you can to make it out into the lineup.

I got down there and thought, “This would make an interesting shot while I wait to jump out into the water.” So, again, it’s one of those moments that you just aren’t waiting for and take advantage of. In my opinion, those end up being the best shots. The surfer is Mark Healey, I took this in 2005.


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Kala Alexander. 2007.

Everybody at Pipeline is always looking to shoot the barrel, that’s the big draw.

Maybe it’s my old school way of thinking, I don’t know, but I just love bottom turns. I love that cranking moment when the wave is standing at its tallest.

These shots are best taken from the beach. The beach angle makes the wave look really tall. If this was shot from the water, it wouldn’t be as exciting. The wave would look smaller.

When going for this effect, you want to shoot down low on the beach. But you have to watch conditions, if you’re too low and it’s big, your shot can get blocked by the wave in front.

You have to look at the waves, and the sand and ask yourself, “Can I go down to the beach and get low, or am I going to lose most of the shots that I’m trying to get?”

I shot this wave of Kala Alexander in 2007. It’s the best shot I’ve ever taken of Kala.


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Evan Geiselman. Volcom Pipe Pro. 2014.

This was taken at the Volcom Pipe Pro in 2014. It was the year before Evan Geiselman (pictured here) suffered that wipeout that sent him to the hospital.

The cool thing about shooting the 70-200 telephoto is that you can keep shooting and hit the motor drive. I had the perfect moment of Evan standing in the barrel, but the motor shoots so fast that you can capture this weird moment before you go underwater. When you’re lucky enough to have the wave come up just enough to create a foreground like this, it really adds to the photograph and makes it interesting. These days, Pipeline has been shot every which way. So, it’s really the happy accidents that make the best photo out there. The weird and abstract ones are my favorite Pipe shots.



Fisher Heverly. 2013.

This shot is of Fisher Heverly from the east coast. It was taken five years ago after they called off the Volcom Pipe Pro.

Of course, at Pipeline, wipeouts can make the most interesting shots. You never hope a guy wipeouts because there can be serious consequences but if he does, as a photographer you got to be prepared to get the shot. And surfers always want to see the photos of their wipeouts afterwards. What I love about this shot is the whitewater is so tall, you look at it and think, “Oh my god, How did he survive that?” For the record, Fisher was not injured on this wave.  

For a shot like this, you’re looking for the moment the situation looks the most out of control and radical.


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Bobbing heads. 2003.

This is one of those moments in between sets. The sunsets at Pipeline are some of the most beautiful in the world and when the light’s right you have to take advantage of the moment. Instead of just sitting, talking and waiting for the next wave, you look around to see what’s going on. There are so many possibilities in those moments.

Pipeline these days is so crowded. I like these shots because you can look at them two different ways. It’s either, that it looks like a nightmare. Or look how beautiful it is. It’s got two different perspectives going on. This shot was taken 15 years ago. Time is going so fucking fast, it’s crazy.


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Andy Irons. 2004.

This was taken during the famous Janet Jackson nip slip halftime show at the Super Bowl. It’s Andy Irons at Backdoor shot with a fisheye. When you’re shooting with a fisheye it’s all about positioning. You’ve got to be in the exact place. The cool thing is, you’re part of the experience. You have to be part of the wave and the surfer. You need to put yourself in the barrel with them. You’re not documenting it, you’re participating. It’s all timing and angles. It’s about how you hold your camera and the direction you’re facing. The thing that made this shot so great was being able to see the reef and the houses in the foreground.

This was one of those moments where everybody was relaxing and watching the Super Bowl. I got a call from Ross Williams to go down and shoot. I decided to go for it and then Andy paddled out at halftime and pulled in this barrel. He was riding a borrowed a board and came out to catch one wave before returning to the game. I missed the wardrobe malfunction, but I got the shot.


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Kelly Slater. Volcom Pipe Pro. 2014.

I love this angle of Kelly Slater at the Volcom Pipe Pro. This was taken in 2014, the year he won it. A lot of guys like to sit further in and wait for the bending of the end section. That’s where you get that perfect barrel shot. The shots you can see the wave, the surfer, their board, everything. I prefer to shoot with a longer lens and sit further outside. That way you see the peak of the barrel and get a feel for how big it is.

I like when you can get the shoulder in the foreground and it blocks the surfer’s board. A lot of times these shots don’t come out, but when they do, you could care less if you can see the board or not. Man, I’ve been shooting Kelly at Pipeline for almost 30 years. Ever since he first started coming out here with Quiksilver and had a lot of hair.

For shots like this, I recommend shooting with a longer lens. I always shoot while swimming but you could get the same shot with a boogieboard. The only problem with shooting with a boogieboard is you risk getting cleaned up. I used to shoot with a boogie board a lot, but these days people are moving closer and closer to the peak. It’s easier not to bother with one.



Andy Irons.

This shot of Andy Irons is my favorite I’ve ever taken at Pipeline. I took it while sitting on a boogieboard, so I was able to get a higher elevation. Shooting from a boogie is a cross between swimming and being on a boat or a jet ski. It’s good for a different perspective at Pipeline, although, like I said before you take the chance of getting cleaned up and having an extra piece of equipment to worry about.

Andy and I had gone out in the water. He had just caught a wave and was paddling back out. This is another shot that most photographers don’t look for. They usually aren’t thinking of the empty wave shot. I know this because I always shoot empties and usually there are photographers in my photos talking to each other while they’re waiting for someone to catch something. Most guys shoot with a shorter lens, they don’t pay as much attention to the waves breaking without anyone on them.

That wave with Andy in the foreground is one of those moments in between the moments. While you’re waiting for big barrels and action shots, you can get something truly special.



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