Eugene Tan, the man behind Aquabumps, has seen it all and from every angle. From humble beginnings with a group email that evolved into a Bondi gallery space – to his recent art+photography fusion with light bars and a Dell XPS laptop – he truly is the master of capturing a moment.
In the lead up to his Discovery Session in partnership with Dell at this year’s TEDxSydney online event, take a moment to find out more about his origins, passions and hopes for future projects.
How did you go from being a guy who likes to take photos to a guy who runs a commercial entity?
It happened very organically – I started shooting the early mornings at the beach in the eastern suburbs, combining my 3 passions of the beach, surfing and photography and sending the photos attached in an email to mates (that was 21 years ago). They loved them; mates started sharing with mates and within a few years there were 10,000 people on the email. People started asking for the photos as prints. I remember at the time thinking “Ah, what a hassle, now I have to go and take the file to the printers and print it off’. (Not realising this would become the core business.) After a few years, I was offered a small space in North Bondi and decided to give up my day job and give it a real crack. I think at the time I had about twelve bucks in the bank and was sweating making my first month’s rent, but the opening weekend we sold artworks and 21 years on we now ship globally and employ eight people.
What’s keeping you motivated to go out and shoot everyday?
I think after 21 years of getting up at sunrise I’ve programmed myself to start my day that way. I love that every day is different at Bondi or if we’ve travelled the mornings light is so beautiful wherever you are in the world, it makes everything look good. I love finding new angles and ways of seeing the subject that I’m so passionate about – the ocean, the beach. It pushes me creatively every day too – to keep fresh and like anything you do consistently, hopefully, I keep getting better at my craft.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self from your perspective today?
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to fit into a job or an industry, if you find what you really love and focus your energy on that – it can work out that you can hopefully make a living from it.
What’s your current photography setup?
I’m going through an interesting time with my photography gear – 2020 is about trying new things, so I’m currently mostly shooting on Sony Gear, as I used Canon for 15 years plus. Sony has pioneered the mirrorless technology, so I really wanted to see what all the fuss is about. I also use Phase One medium format gear for situations that are more static, like sunrises and ocean pools. I still have plenty of Canon gear, especially their new R collection.
In the water I shoot with Aquatech water housings, I’ve been with them for around 20 years. I’m also shooting a lot more video these days – and loving mirrorless cameras for this.
If you could only work with one of those pieces for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
If my house was burning down, and could only choose one lens – I think it would be my 100mm to 400mm lens on a Sony A7IV. I shoot the vast majority of my work on this lens and love the compression and sharpness it provides. If I could use two lenses for the rest of my life, it would be that plus a 50mm – 50mm is basically the same as what my eye sees. Portraits etc look amazing at 50mm. Street photography is mostly done on a 50mm.
Do you think there’s an advantage to mastering both analogue and digital photography?
I think you’re either one or the other – I like to shoot a lot, I would take 85 photos on an average morning to get 12 of the best to feature in my daily email. Whereas there are film photographers that will labour over setup and consider a shot for weeks months to then get the shot on film. I think shooting digitally just suits my personality and style of shooting. I’m a moments guy and you gotta be there to capture the moment, so I tend to move fast and shoot a lot. Also, shooting digital gives me the immediacy to post it straight away, which is the core of Aquabumps. Photos from the beach – shot today. With film, there’s too much time lag.
What do you think about phone photography?
I think there’s a time and place for it – I have a google pixel and have worked with them for years. The phone has an incredible camera and the new Google Pixel 5 video capabilities are great for shooting my boys skateboarding. I love that you can pull it out at any time and place and not miss the special moments with my family or when we’re travelling. I also love that I don’t have to think about settings, lenses, etc – it’s just raw shooting and all about composition and light.
You’ve had a camera in your hands since the eighties, meaning you navigated shifts in technology, how did you find navigating those shifts?
I’m a nerdy tech guy, at heart so I love the evolution of cameras and technology and where we are today. I’m always researching and have been very fortunate in being able to trial the newest cameras on the market and computers like Dell and software in perfecting and refining my craft of fine art. At times the shifts have been challenging but I love to push myself to learn new things and evolve creatively, so with technology moving so fast you just have to stay at the forefront and adapt and progress.
What is new technology doing for photography?
At the moment there’s a huge shift in photography tech – DSLR to Mirrorless. DSLR is a digital camera with mirrors inside – it’s old tech from the eighties. I thought I would never need to leave DSLR until I was given a mirrorless camera – which are much smaller, easier to travel with, lighter, sharper, cleaner files for printing and faster focusing – basically better image quality overall and easier to shoot with.
When I look down the viewfinder of a mirrorless camera there is no guesswork. The exposure displayed to me and the depth of field is what I will shoot – unlike DSLR cameras where you have to keep checking the back LCD to see how the image came out.
Plus I’m a real techie and I love the entire creative process that goes into every image I create. I was brought up in darkrooms to create the perfect print. Nowadays a Dell XPS laptop is essentially my darkroom, but it’s allowing anyone to be a pro at this art form and that’s the real magic.
What’s your dream technology + photography project?
I love shooting underwater. It’s one form of photography where there’s still plenty of avenues not shot yet. I would love to shoot underwater with lighting at night. I did a bit of this in a pool with the Australian Ballet – but I’d like to do that in the ocean. It would be scary at night time the ocean comes alive with sea life – sometimes big sea life!
I’m hoping a drone will come out that can carry one of my medium format 150-megapixel backs. Something portable that I can travel with. I’d love to travel around Australia with a rig like that. Or hell, how about an Australia wide trip with helicopters, stopping at all the cool spots.
What would you define as “real” photography?
‘Real’ photography evokes a mood, it drops me into the shot, it lets me dream.
Real photography to me is anything I’d hang on my walls – big. When photography is printed huge it reveals all the hard work and attention to detail when capturing and processing images. For me, that kinda rules out lo-res drone pics and phone shots which flood social media. Yes, they look good on your little phone screens, but when you see a medium format shot, taken from a helicopter blown up to 2 metres you immerse yourself in the image and will fall in love with it. For me, this is ‘real’ photography.
What are some of the most “real” moments you remember capturing over the years?
Shooting Capri, Italy, with a local pilot in a helicopter at 2,000 feet, he stalls the turbine, and we start to drop for a brief moment before rebooting. After the shoot, we land in his yard and have shots to celebrate our return to safety.
Swimming out to Pipeline, Hawaii on a very big day with my camera. Thinking I was going to drown a few times as the ocean unleashed on me. My heart was pumping out of my chest as I captured enormous waves at one of the most dangerous surf breaks in the world. Getting back in was harder than swimming out. I remember finally beating the rips and currents and getting to the shore, in the dark – relieved.
At Bondi, I see ‘real’ moments, all the time. It’s just one of those places that attract weirdness. From nude people to whales slapping surfers. Bondi is always a great place to shoot.
What advice would you have for photographers looking to find their niche?
Come up with something new! Find it – stick with it. Be consistent, shoot every day – hone your craft. Find your unique style and stay true to that. Never give up, persistence and faith go a long way. Many people told me Aquabumps wouldn’t work – I thought otherwise and here we are 21 years in, still going strong.
Together with Dell XPS, Eugene is hosting a Discovery Session at this year’s TEDxSydney Online Flagship Event on Friday 6 November: Explore the Art of Photography. Attend this session and discover how you can maintain creativity as well as learning about the creative process with the help of the right technology. Good things are still happening and we don’t want to miss them. Dell XPS has the ability to make human connections a reality right now.