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Risking his life for the perfect wave

By Maggie Blaha, special to CNN
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Kenji Croman's love of the ocean became the focus of his photography in 2008. Croman says he took this shot at Rocky Point on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. "The sunset was absolutely amazing." Kenji Croman's love of the ocean became the focus of his photography in 2008. Croman says he took this shot at Rocky Point on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. "The sunset was absolutely amazing."
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN iReporter Kenji Croman started photographing waves in 2008
  • Despite the risks and injuries, Croman wouldn't consider doing anything else
  • Check the surf report to know wave conditions before venturing out to shoot
  • It's hard to stay calm enough to take pictures in the face of a large wave

(CNN) -- Kenji Croman has broken bones, dislocated his shoulder and elbow, endured concussions and nearly drowned several times.

He's also had three close encounters with sharks over the years.

A 10-foot wave landed directly on top of him five years ago, bending his body to the point that he actually kicked himself in the head.

"I literally heard every bone in my body crack," he said.

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Croman has been photographing ocean waves since 2008, sometimes risking his life to get that perfect shot at the surf break.

Despite the risks and inevitable injuries that come with wave photography, the Hawaii resident, body surfer and former competitive swimmer wouldn't do anything else. The 36-year-old photographer loves the thrill of meeting the barrel of a wave head on, shooting waves as his passion and shooting surfers to pay the bills.

Some of his business involves creating Instagram promotions for Dos Equis, Maui Sunrise Shells and other companies. He has been able to shoot some of the most beautiful and untouched beaches in South America and Mexico through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign.

But most of his wave photos are taken close to home. His favorite moment? When the sun rises at Sandy Beach in Oahu, Hawaii, but the waves there are good at any hour. What Croman loves about waves is how each one is unpredictable and as unique as a fingerprint. And he captures waves from an angle that allows spectators to see them breaking in slow motion as he does.

The process of photographing waves requires more than just swimming out to where the surf breaks and waiting, he says.

The night before a photo shoot Croman checks Surfline.com, a website and streaming coastal HD camera network that provides live and predicted ocean weather information, to see what the winds, waves and tide will be like at certain times.

"If the winds are blowing offshore, this creates nice barrels and usually better conditions than if the winds are blowing onshore."

Croman has both a primary camera and a backup for emergencies. He goes without a wetsuit but wears fins and uses heavy duty underwater housing to protect his camera.

There is no great way for him to protect himself.

He admits there is probably protective gear he should be wearing, but there is little he could have done to decrease the impact of the 10-foot wave that crashed on top of him. Croman was rushed to the hospital where his doctor initially thought he had broken his neck. His neck was fine, but he was hospitalized for a week and spinal fluid leaked out of his ear, he says.

The hardest part of Croman's job is staying calm in the face of breaking waves when his initial instinct is to panic and swim away. He once risked his life to shoot a 25-foot wave but the resulting photo "looked like a three-foot wave," he says. The 25-foot rock in the background "didn't give it the right depth you need to show how big the wave was."

Croman studies the swells, searching for patterns and trying to time when a wave will break. At most, Croman will take two to three shots of a single wave.

"I've shot waves for so many years now that I see the wave in slow motion," he said.

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