I’ve always wanted to be a surf photographer. Every month before the summer of eighth grade, I put twenty dollars of my newspaper money aside. My future dream was hidden in a Band-Aid box in my underwear drawer, stuffed under a dog-eared copy of Playboy and next to a jar containing my tonsils steeped in formaldehyde. A couple of pocket knives, a rattlesnake skin and a broken pair of X-Ray Specks completed my clandestine treasure trove. It was 1968 and being the diligent paperboy that I was, it didn’t take long to have more money than Band-Aids.
The used Pentax K1000 was everything I’d hoped for. It was my big dream come true. The heavy black-and-silver body came complete with two lenses: one was the stock 50 mm lens, the other was an impressive nine-inch-long telephoto. This lens gave me instant beach cred among my group of teenage surf buddies. It was a scratched up 300 mm Soligor lens, but to me, it was everything needed to put a confident swagger in my step. I got my seventy five dollars worth in lens envy alone.
Living thirty miles from the beach and not being old enough to drive wasn’t going to deter me from becoming the next LeRoy Grannis, at least in my mind. For my first outing, my best friend Mike Gillming agreed to accompany me in search of a subject worth the price of a roll of Kodak black-and-white Tri-X film. We rode our sting-rays to the county percolation pond. On a bench sat a couple in a more than warm embrace. From a fair distance, I aimed my big lens and snapped away. Immediately the man looked up and yelled, “What the hell are you doing?” He flew off the bench in a full sprint straight toward us. Mike, still on his bike, made a clean getaway.
I lost time trying to swing the camera over my shoulder. Just as I began the pedal to freedom, Mister Grouchy-man grabbed the back of my Hang-Ten tee shirt, bringing my escape to an abrupt halt. My first thought? I wished I sent away for the brass knuckles instead of the Sea-Monkeys. Frothing, the angry man demanded my camera. With everything a thirteen-year-old could muster, I pleaded my case. I explained that my photos were only nature shots for a “What I did this summer” report. I did everything except cry. Maybe I teared up a little. After a very tense five minutes punctuated by a mad-dog stare down, the man released his death grip on my arm and walked back to his still warm girlfriend. This was my first hard lesson in big-lens surf paparazzi hate.
Being a surf photographer is a lot like owning a boat; schlepping of heavy, expensive equipment for every possible condition, navigating through unknown hostile territory with the nagging fear of damage, piracy and theft. You shell out the big bucks while your friends reap the benefits with none of the work. A boat owner is in charge of the outing. There are no guarantees. You’re catching fish or you’re barfing over the rail. Either way the owner is paying for the experience. Even when everybody chips in for gas, the boat owner is forking out big dough for maintenance, storage and all the extra equipment required. A surf photographer is in the same predicament. When friends have bigger egos than the waves they surf, big disappointment is often the result. “Yeah brah, I was totally shredding. Your camera angle must be the reason that I look like such a kook.” Never mind that to take and process that shot, you’ve shelled out enough money to buy a boat.
Pro surf photographers make the least for the most amount of gear. A common misconception is that the equipment makes the photograph. That's like saying, “A pro tennis player hits the ball better because he has the most expensive racket.” Forget about the years of practice or the countless investment dollars it takes to get there.
Enter the digital age of photography. Film is a thing of the past, forgotten like Pop Rocks and phone booths. Cameras have gotten lighter and the images sharper. Prices of high-end camera DSLR bodies and lenses have soared. A basic pro setup can easily cost twenty grand or more. Skilled surf photographers swimming in the impact zone or those posted up on the beach with a tripod and the big glass still shoot the majority of surf imagery. On the other end of the spectrum is a guy holding a three ounce GoPro that costs a little over 300 bucks. He packs a close-out, posts the shot and instantly gets over a thousand views. Now, anybody with an action camera can be a hero.
True-blue surf photographers will always catch more quality shots than perfect waves. When the surf is firing, there is no rest for the dedicated surf shooter. When the ocean’s blown out and the swell is yesterday's news, the image maker can stash the camera gear and just surf. Andy Warhol famously announced to the world that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. Don’t count on a professional surf photographer to give you yours. After all, Kai Lenny will always be a better subject and shred the gnar better than you. That’s where I can help. Subscribe to this magazine, drool over the incredible shots and give thanks to all the photographers; the real unsung heroes. Let’s give them a thumbs up, they too could have started out throwing newspapers.