New Sawdust artist Sean Hunter Brown stands in his booth on preview night surrounded by his photographs of breaking waves in their various magical forms that he captured on the shores of Laguna. (DON LEACH, Coastline Pilot / December 31, 1969)

Photographer Sean Hunter Brown remembers his first shot, standing in the water off Laguna Beach, with a cheap, waterproof, disposable camera.

A year and a half later, armed with a professional camera, the consulting arborist is discovering his hobby could become a second career as he showed off prints at the Sawdust Art Festival's preview night on Tuesday.

"I couldn't shoot a portrait shot to save my life, but I figured out how to shoot waves," said Brown, 43.

Brown's ocean photography is shot from the perspective of standing in the water. He catches the lip of a wave crashing down in front of the lens; a glimpse through the barrel shows Laguna's beaches, seaweed caught inside the translucent green water and the rocky beach floor glistening.

Although shots of water and foam might sound repetitive, each shot is unique — some focused on the sunlight glowing over a wave, others catching paddle boarders in the distance. The water itself proves mystifying enough, he said.

Artist and friend Walter Viszolay, who's also showing at Sawdust this year, encouraged Brown to show some of his work in his studio a few months ago. Since then, Brown has been interviewed on KCET and been featured on the University of Southern California's journalism school website.

There are two other Sawdust newcomers this year that discovered their talents later in life as well.

Painter Suzanne Charlton, 69, started taking art classes after she retired from UC Irvine in 2007. Her knack with a paintbrush caught her by surprise.

"When you start painting, everything you see is a painting that you want to do," she said of her medium.

Sheryl Holt Eberhardt, a jewelry designer, is showing for the first time this year. Formerly an IT manager for an international corporation, Eberhardt was forced to reconsider her life after a heart attack in 2007. She took a jewelry-making class at Saddleback and hasn't put down the torch and hammer since.

All the artists were taken aback by the feedback they received Tuesday night.

"I love the response," Brown said. "People that have lived here their whole lives have never seen this perspective."

As he talked, Brown pointed to a particular photo he took. It features a close-up of a wave, bubbles bursting on the tip of the lip as it crashes down.

"It's stuff you've never seen ... frozen in action," he said.

An avid surfer, Brown said he applies the same logic when describing his new ocean addiction.

Just like a surfer may say he rode the greatest wave, making him more excited for the next one, Brown said he's never satisfied.

"There's always a better wave," he said.

About 3,500 people attended Tuesday’s preview, according to Cynthia Fung, marketing director for Sawdust.

The Sawdust Festival officially opens Friday and runs through Sept. 2 and is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.  For more information, visit sawdustfestival.org.

joanna.clay@latimes.com

Twitter: @joannaclay