Shooting a Cornish Winter with Clare James

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 25d ago

Cover shot by @icevikingingy

Shooting in a UK winter can be a fickle pursuit. Sure, it's cold, the light's best at the extremities of the day and sometimes, you're going to get skunked. But there's so many moments of clarity out amongst the drink, little hidden moments waiting for a lens to be trained on them – oh and the surf community is thriving, of course.

Clare James has been shooting around Newquay, Cornwall and further abroad for quite some time now. The draw to the ocean, whether that's surfing or shooting, is all the inspiration she needs to face the frigid waters of the Atlantic. And just recently, Clare was our go to snapper for the headland when the Cribbar went absolutely insane-o, her shots have now been shared on publications all over the globe.

Spot guide: Cornwall.

© 2021 - Clare James

You'll often find Clare shooting the likes of Fistral, Watergate, Perranporth and etc, or helping shoot live video for the UK Pro Tour – so we thought we'd ask her for top tips about surf photography in Cornwall and a bit about where her ocean obsession began. Note this convo was originally published in 2020, but it still rings true today and gives a welcome introduction to our preferred photographer when the Cribbar goes off.

Tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and when did you first surf?
I am a 28-year-old, photographer with an addiction to surfing or a surfer with an addiction to photography, not 100 per cent sure which way round it is.  Growing up in London, I spent all holidays on the North Devon beaches swimming and bodysurfing. My dad was a windsurf instructor and so my sisters and I all got heavily into windsurfing. However, it wasn't until going to university that I started to surf.

In 2009 I moved to Falmouth to study Geography. In the first few months a friend and I hired a foamy, went to Porthtowan and then just ran each other over, lots. We were hooked, eight-years-later we both live in Newquay, surf together most days and go on lots of wild trips. 

© 2021 - Clare James

And did that translate into surf photography as well?
Strangely, I got into photography and surfing at the same time but completely unrelated. Whilst at uni, I also learnt to Scuba dive in Penzance this and my degree is how I got into photography.
Through studying a scientific degree I saw lots of amazing ideas and projects which were very inspiring. However, they often never reached the public eye. I was determined to use photography to throw more light on these ideas especially when it came to environmental, ocean related issues.

 After uni I worked out in Mexico for six months, studying coral reefs, dive guiding and instructing. I brought a camera, a canon G12 and an underwater housing. I spent a lot of time photographing wildlife and the dive guests during their dives. I fell in love with shooting underwater out in Mexico, I was captivated by how the light plays underwater  and I am still fascinated every day I get in the ocean to shoot.

On returning to Falmouth I decided that the next dive job had to be somewhere where there was both the opportunity to surf and dive.

I was offered a job out in South Africa, Mossel Bay, I jumped on a plane and this was the best decision I ever made. I was working as a course director, for a media company, running and teaching month long advanced photography internships, with a focus on in-water, wildlife and sports photography.

South Africa is where I truly feel in love with surf photography both on land and inwater, the light, landscapes, wildlife and wilderness blew my mind. My surfing also improved, as managed to surf many different breaks in Mossel bay, J bay, Cape St Francis, Cape Town, Elands Bay and many other spots up and down the entire coast. I got so hooked on Africa I ended up living and working out there for two years. 

I also got into filmmaking in SA, I was commissioned to make a conservation documentary for Sibuya game reserve, raising awareness of the work the anti-poaching team were doing and using the video to raise funds for equipment. This is where I developed the skills that I use to shoot video in-water today as well as photograph. 

All you need to make the call: South Africa.

A well-known spot on Cornwall's south coast.

A well-known spot on Cornwall's south coast.

© 2021 - Clare James

Where are you based now?
When my South African Visa ran out, I moved back to Cornwall, to Newquay, moving in with a friend and four-years-later, I am still here. Having roamed around for many years without a base, I now love having Newquay as a home from which to work with. I still travel a lot for shoots and projects. However, at the end of each trip I always get excited to return to Cornwall and get back in the ocean here.

Where are your favourite spots to shoot?
I love shooting north Watergate and Penhale corner, as the light and landscapes are beautiful and usually there is less people who bother walking all the way or paddling, so it is quieter in the water. I also really enjoy exploring and finding different beautiful spots to shoot, the variety and locations in Cornwall are endless.

Let's face it, 90 per cent of the time when shooting during the UK winter, the weather’s not going to be ideal, how do you stay motivated?
For me getting in the sea is a necessity, If I don't get in for a few days I find myself feeling a little lost. Even in bad weather it is special and often when it rains, I feel that being in the water in a wetsuit is the best way to enjoy it.

A fond memory of mine is surfing in an intense hailstorm, the hailstones were large, we had to hide under the surfboards and watch them beating on the surface of the ocean. The thought of capturing shots like this now that I have surf housing, keeps me going back for more regardless of weather conditions. Being in the ocean, clears away the cobwebs, refreshes my mind, energises me and improves my creativity

Another motivation for getting in the water, is that I know how much better I feel when I get out again. Being in the ocean, clears away the cobwebs, refreshes my mind, energises me and improves my creativity. Also I am very competitive with myself and am always looking to improve on my last shot and to create a new favourite.  This winter I now have the flexibility of working for myself so aim to get out there on the wild days and capture all the elements, of a powerful Cornish winter.

Somewhere close to home, Newquay's Fistral.

Somewhere close to home, Newquay's Fistral.

© 2021 - Clare James

What’re your top tips and tricks for staying warm during the colder months when shooting?
6am the other morning, I was scrapping ice off the car in the dark, en-route to a what I was hoping was going to be a fruitful sunrise session. I mentally ticked everything off that I take with me in order to stay warm.

Firstly, is my absolutely amazing SRFACE 5/3 hooded winter wetsuit. Having used a variety of winter wetsuits over the years, this is by far my favourite for both surfing and shooting, flexible, comfortable and incredibly warm. I feel the cold easily and usually I can handle about 40 mins shooting in water in the winter. However this wetsuit has extended which when shooting photos means I can last an entire session. 

Secondly, is the hot water bottle, great for keeping hands warm on the journey there and then used as a much needed warm water shower on getting out of the ocean.

Third, is a thermos flask full of hot tea, my preference is chai however the other morning a friend introduced me to rooibos with fresh chilli, ginger and honey, which is now my favourite. 

There’s a thriving surf community around the shores of Cornwall, perhaps more so than people think about. Over the border, the Cornish are seen as insular, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Why do you think that is and tell us a bit about the surf community in Cornwall.
The surf community down here is amazing, I love winter for the fact the waters are quieter and the waves are bigger and most of the time you know the majority of other surfers in the water, as the summer hoards have disappeared and the local surfers remain in order to brave the elements. The mixture of backgrounds and people down here is inspiring, far from insular, most people have made their work fit around their passion of surfing

The mixture of backgrounds and people down here is inspiring, far from insular, most people have made their work fit around their passion of surfing and often are self employed to allow them to make the best of the swells which in turn enhances creative leading to a vibrant and amazing community. 
I love using my photography to capture this community and the beautiful place that we live. 

What are your top 4/5 fave shots? Can you send them over and write a bit about what makes them so special?
1) South Africa (Mossel Bay)

© 2021 - Clare James

Where it all began. Whilst working out in Mossel Bay there were two reef breaks which I often surfed, when not surfing I spent time photographing, I snapped this shot in the first winter I lived in South Africa. The conditions all aligned and there was 2 people out catching amazing waves in beautiful light.

2) Porthcurno

© 2021 - Clare James

Cornish winters are beautiful, quieter waters and large swells rolling through, beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  Waking up 5am in the morning to drive to the South Coast for sunrise I was on the beach on my own for an hour watching the sky lighten and an impressive swell roll in, I captured the wave sculpture image and then a few minutes later as the tide dropped further. Surfers started to appear to check the conditions.

3) In water shots

© 2021 - Clare James

I love the way the light plays in the ocean, capturing that keeps me going back for more. I also enjoy shooting wildlife and other watersports, wild swimming... basically any excuse to get in the water with my camera I will jump at. This shot is special to me as taken at one of my favourite locations to surf and shoot in Cornwall.

4) Home

© 2021 - Clare James

Home break during a mid-winter sunset recently, feel very lucky to have this on my doorstep.

5) Women crew

© 2021 - Clare James

Shout out to the women legends who I shoot and surf with throughout the year even in the coldest stormiest conditions, when we feel most alive. 

See more from Clare, HERE. Cover shot by Ingrid Morrison.