Photographer Dave Sandford: Erie Interviews

Sandford in Lake Erie

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Myself in Lake Erie - Dec 2015

Meet Dave Sandford, whose photos of monster waves capture the awe of Lake Erie.

The Canadian shoots photos for the NBA and NHL, and he travels the world taking photos of wildlife and nature. Next up is Churchill, Manitoba, where he hopes to capture polar bears before they take off on ice in Hudson’s Bay.

But Lake Erie is his base. The lake – which he gets in, in a wetsuit, to shoot — is what made much of his nature work possible, Sandford says.

When he posted his first crazy waves and dark skies in fall 2015, the photos went viral.

“It completely changed my world,” said Sandford. “People started gravitating to them. That really opened the doors to me.”

Sandford, 44, took photography courses at Ryerson University in Toronto and still lives in his native London, Ontario. (And no he does not surf on the Great Lakes.)

You can find him on Instagram and Facebook and buy a 2018 calendar or prints of his work on his website, www.davesandfordphotos.com. Clevelanders have been some of his best customers.

“The people there have been amazing,” he said. “Lake Erie sort of opened the doors for everything else. I owe Lake Erie a lot.”

Here’s how Sandford shoots his gorgeous pictures, what he hopes people take away from them and what makes Lake Erie “go off” like a volcano.

Why nature?

It’s something that I have had a connection with since before I can remember. My parents were very big on the outdoors, always involving my sister and me.

My photography can be used as a tool or a medium to reach people and let people know that we really need to clean up our act before a lot of these really beautiful things in our world are gone.

Through an organization, or what I’m doing on my own through social media, my photography can make a difference. If you get one person to change one thing about their life, then amazing! Then not only am I able to make a career and a living, but I’m also doing something I know can make a difference in this world, a positive difference.

How’d you get the idea to shoot waves from in the water?

Before this I shot more your typical kind of stuff, at Lake Huron or Erie or Ontario: nice beach scenes, cliffs, blue water, sunrises and sunsets.

This sort of sparked from when I spent time Australia doing ocean photography. My close friend Warren Keelan said, there’s always a picture to be made, no matter where you are.

I kept hearing his voice resonate in my head when the fall came along and it was the Great Lakes storm season.

Most people don’t think of going to the lake when the wind is 70 mph and the rain is going sideways and the sand is blowing so hard that it feels like you’re being sandblasted. Most people typically like nice curling waves that are blue and turquoise.

These pictures definitely are not. Within days of posting my photos to social media, people started to contact me saying how unique these are, that they couldn’t believe it was a lake. From Hawaii, California, all these people were saying how incredible it was.

Where do you shoot?

I haven’t yet seen a place that has a wave as unique as what I’m shooting at Port Stanley, only about 35-minute drive from my home.

The waves coming in toward the shore are an average of 7 to 10 feet. The waves I’m shooting quite typically have a minimum of 15-foot waves on average. I’m getting waves 20-30 feet. They’re a result of the water refracting off the pier. The energy is coming off the pier and has nowhere to go but up. It’s very shallow. You get a really unique looking kind of wave. It is an absolutely phenomenal thing to watch unfold.

We’re talking 60- to 70 mph winds. You know it’s big because there are no kiteboarders out there. I’ve seen guys drive up and look at it for a while and literally get back in their car and drive away because it’s too much. It’s literally Category 1 hurricane-strength wind.

How do you do it?

I’m always looking at the forecast. I have a really good app called Windfinder that is pretty darn accurate.

Every day there is sort of different. I go, watch, study the water, how it’s behaving. Some days it’s too insane to go in. There are other factors. A couple days ago, there was a lot of wood in the water — dead heads, branches. It’s dangerous. You have to take those things in account. When ice starts to form, if you take one of those to the head, you’re in trouble.

If the lake’s going off, I don’t like to miss it. I’ll be there predawn, before the sun rises, until after it sets. It’s nice to mix it up, with different angles, different looks.

I never go in alone; I always have someone with me. I wear an 8 mm wetsuit, and a lifejacket. It keeps me nice and warm for the length of time I’m in there, an hour, hour and a half. It’s physically challenging, and it’s cold. That’s all I can take. Then I get out of the water, change, sit on water’s edge. I have the storm surge washing over me and shoot with longer lens.

Do you think Lake Erie is having a renaissance?

I totally see a resurgence or renaissance with the Great Lakes over the last few years, which is awesome to see. A joint venture between Canada and the United States called the Great Lakes Project is just one example; they’re really creating awareness of not only enjoying the lakes but also what’s going on with them, keeping people informed and educated.

I hear from people about how the Great Lakes were so great and now they’re seeing this again, after they lived through a time that the lakes were kind of forgotten. It’s really cool to see how many people care about them. They want positive changes. They don’t want their lakes to die.

Will you shoot other Great Lakes?

So many people ask me if I’m going to shoot Lake Superior, and I will. But this is still pretty young to me. I can look ahead at the forecast and know this is when it’s going to go off.

I’ve had people from your side of Lake Erie, people who live on Huron, Michigan, they’ve all contacted me and said, ‘If you’re coming this way, I would love to be your guide. You’ve always got a place to stay.’ When I do decide to make a venture, it’s really nice to know I’ve got all these people who have reached out to me.

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