Friday's Foto Tip: How do I become a surf photographer?

I've probably been asked this more than any other question as a surf photographer. That and do I get to surf when on location in exotic countries? If you were also wondering this, well the answer is yes, but only if I have the goods in hand and it's one of the last days of the trip. Work comes first; it's one of the first steps of being a professional.

The spoils of working hard. Playing hard at my favourite wave at home in Kommetjie. Photo: Robb

This isn't exactly a technical tip, but since the question comes up so often, I thought I'd share my experiences and personal insight into what makes a surf photographer, and how the choices I made got me to where I am today.

Legendary surf photographer, Chris van Lennep probably gave me the single most important piece of advice as an avid beginner, "Don't just do surf photographer Al, you can't survive on just that". Like all frothing youngsters, I soaked up the advice of my hero and stored it away for a rainy day. Little did I know that his advice would literally shape my life and career, and that 12 years later, it would ring clearer than the day I heard it on the beach in Ballito.

On Location on the edge of the African desert in The Western Sahara.

Being a surf photographer is like any other art form. Not only won't you survive professionally by just doing one specific form of art, but nor will you grow creatively or as an artist. In my experience it wasn't so much the work or fields of photography I initially targeted, but rather the ones that fell into my lap that become my chosen fields of interest. Your friends and family are the greatest form of marketing available to you, make use of that. Take every photographic opportunity that comes your way. Sure it will be scary and overwhelming at times, but those are the kind of opportunities that makes us grow, and continually keep your mind sharp and fresh as an artist. For me it was small jobs for architects, interior designers and the odd wedding or private function. Man I was terrified at times, not wanting to disappoint or miss a moment, but I sure learnt, and I know it made me a better photographer and person in general.

Water housing in hand, checking my settings before taking the plunge into the Arabian Sea. Photo: Kew

If there is one element of being a surf photographer that is without a doubt the single most important element, it is your ability to be social. And no I'm not necessarily talking about your social networking skills, and how many hours you spend on Facebook (which are also important these days). No I'm referring to the simple act socialising with people and building life-long relationships. In the flesh if possible, telephonically and via email. Building relationships and maintaining your relationships with others will make or break how successful you become. I've sadly seen incredibly creative photographers fall away because they weren't social enough to maintain a healthy relationship with editors or advertisers, and therefore market their brilliant photographs. It's not some pretend show either. You have to be it and live it. You need to engage people constantly on a daily basis, and really get to know the people who in essence will keep you successful.

Shooting from a pier in India. One grom wanted to know about photography, the others just wanted to see my iPod. Photo: Kew

In the beginning it all started with www.ShotBru.co.za A platform where any passionate surf photography can showcase their best work and get recognised at no cost to themselves. This will be your first step to creating the brand that is yourself. From there people will get to recognise your name and photographs, and hopefully one day soon you'll win the coveted first prize (A Rip Curl Tide watch for me which I still wear). This is usually the first sign that you're on to the right path, and you'll automatically take the next step. From here start submitting photographs to Zigzag directly, or at least emailing me (avg@zigzag.co.za) with your best low res photographs. As you grow and learn your photographs will become better, and eventually your work will start to feature in the actual magazine. You'll get paid and your name will once again grow. From here it's what you make it. The world is your oyster. Do small and interesting trips locally in South Africa. Get a crew and do some international trip. It's your call. I was blessed enough to be invited by another legendary photographer, John Callahan, to an Indo trip for Carve magazine in the UK. For me personally that was the next big step, and probably my biggest step in the career. He truly opened up the international door for me, and taught me the importance of the business side of being a surf photographer.

Self-portraits with wild animals can be tricky. Giant sea turtle in India.

Well that's it for this week. But going back to what Chris "Van the man" Lennep said to me all those years ago, he couldn't have been more right. Surviving off just surf photography is all fun and games for the first few years when you're single and have little to no responsibilities in life. But when the time comes for you to settle down, get married and have kids, you will need to be more than just a surf photographer. Be a photographer in the greater sense. Photograph everything you can, market yourself correctly, maintain those relationships, and live life through your viewfinder.

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Comment by Gary Carstens on April 5, 2012 at 13:02

Thanks for the tips Alan they have been a great help, I will be sure to use them in the future. Kilbride has been helping me alot and we have been getting some great shots at the Hoek and other spots. Thanks again and keep the tips coming. 

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