Feature Photo By Matt Dawkins

Alrighty, here we are. The issue is in hand and the beautiful world of surf photography has caught your eye.Traveling the world, hanging out at the beach, capturing beautiful waves—surf photography has to be up there as the most ideal type of photography to pursue. Heck, it seems like one of the most ideal profession to pursue, period. But it ain’t all waterfalls and gumdrops. A couple professionals in the field were willing to answers questions for us on what it actually takes to make it. Here’s what they had to say: 

1) Become A Surfer. Duh!

Surfing is a complicated sport in a complicated environment. There is no better way to understand it then becoming a surfer. “It is a huge help, understanding what is going on out in the water, and what a surfer may be thinking can definitely help your chances of getting a great image,” Mike Nelson, a New York-based photographer, told us. “I also feel that being familiar with how the surfers that you shoot surf can help you anticipate what is going to happen before it does.”

2) Utilize Social Media

Social media is now a force to be reckoned with in making a name for yourself. Every damn professional surf photog has an online presence. It’s become so integral to the industry that when I asked John Respondek, an Australian photographer who has a photography book on pro surfer Taj Burrow, if there is a way around it, he said, “I’m not sure, to be honest. I don’t think anyone has tried that!” And if anyone has tried it, there is probably a reason we have no idea who they are. “I feel like its essential these days,” Respondek added, “it’s is such a valuable tool to show your work.” Every surf photographer I talked to brought it up and it’s how I found every surf photog I talked to. Suck it up, it’s part of the job now.

3) Find your Niche…Or Don’t

Like with all aspects of photography, style is important. And though all the photographers seemed to agree that finding a niche can be helpful, it isn’t absolutely essential. Respondek said: “Finding your own vibe and style is very important, but I also think it helps if you can be an all-rounder and cover most areas of the field.” But what it really comes down to is just to continue to take photos, and your style will emerge from there. Nick Tribuno, an east coast photographer who has been in the game for 6 years, said: “It definitely helps gaining followers when you have a set style to your overall profile, but do I think it’s necessary? No. Do and post what you like and eventually you’ll find other people who like it, too.”

4) Equipment Isn’t Everything

Much like with all aspects of photography, the equipment that was once the only way to shoot surfers is changing. Tribuno broke it down for us: “I have some older friends that swear by their $7,000 set up, but the teenager standing next to them who has a $400 entry level DSLR will get their photos run in a feature 8 times out of 10 over the person with the expensive set up mainly because how they’re able to capture something. Of course it helps if you have equipment that can produce a nice quality print, but at the end of the day it’s mainly the eye of the person shooting it.”

5) Travel…Or Not

Surf photography has changed. And the idea that you have to travel around the world finding the perfect wave in a beautiful part of the world no longer applies. Nelson emphasized this: “The whole tropical weather and board short thing is a bit cliche these days. I feel that even the surf industry gets that now. When I first started shooting I was taught to shoot ‘Tight and Bright’, these days that’s definitely not what editors and companies are looking for.” But travel is still necessary, at least for your own sake. As Respondek points out, “Travelling to different surf spots around the world helps to keep your photography new and exciting.”

6) Pro Surfers Can Help

If you are going to be a surf photographer, then chances are you want to shoot actual surfers that know what they are doing. Nelson laid it out: “The formula is pretty simple, the best surfers in the best waves, will many times give you the best photos.” That being said, surf photographers don’t necessarily have to always be focused on the surfer. Tribuno, for example, has taken the other route, “For me surf photography is just a photo taken of the ocean and doesn’t even necessarily have to have a person in it.”   

7) Respect The Etiquette, Don’t Be A “Poacher”

Surfing itself is based on etiquette. Surf photography is no different. Surf photographers will look at the swell forecast, the weather, coordinate with surfers, etc. A “poacher” is someone who just shows up at the beach, takes a photo of that surfer, puts it online, and goes on their way. Respect the world, be humble, put in the time, and as Tribuno so lovely put it: “don’t ever be a disrespectful jackass to someone.” Well said.

8) Patience, Baby, Patience

The ocean is difficult, the weather is difficult, and surfing is difficult. Mother Nature has an agenda, and you aren’t part of it. If you aren’t a patience person, then you might want to pass on surf photography. “I’d say patience is key,” Tribuno said. “It sometimes gets frustrating when a shot of a perfect wave gets ruined by a person falling off their board, or waking up before the sun when the reports are good to only find out after driving to the beach that the report was wrong and the waves suck. Sometimes you also find yourself standing on the beach all day in cold only to get 3 good shots that don’t make it into any of the storm write ups. That kinda sucks too… But if you’re patient enough you’ll eventually get photos that make it all worth it.”

9) This Stuff Ain’t Easy

Surf photography is becoming more and more accessible with advancing technology and social media. “The power of social media is insane, on one hand everyone now has a powerful platform to show the world their creative skill set,” Nelson told us, “on the other hand everyone is saturated with images, so you need to go that extra mile to stay ahead of the pack.” That extra mile is getting harder and harder to run. And more and more people are willing to give away their images just to get their name out there. Tribuno said, “The most difficult aspect of surf photography is probably the amount of other people that are doing the same thing and willing to give all of their photos away for free.” When I asked Respondek the most difficult part of his job, he jokingly responded, “the ever-decreasing pay checks.” But hey, this isn’t all about the money. You are a surf photographer because you love it. Though you still have to eat.