An Idiot's Guide to Surf Photography

I was wincing inside. My friend and colleague, fellow filmmaker Rob DaFoe, had just introduced me to winemaker Richard Sanford at a wine tasting and screening of Rob's new film. The words slipped past Rob's lips, sort of unexpectedly hit Richard between the eyes, and dropped right into the still evening air in the Mission la Purisima Garden: "This is my friend David. He is a surf photographer."

Richard cocked his head and smiled graciously. I felt compelled to explain. "Well I do shoot some surfing, but that is actually the smallest percentage of imagery in my library of work. Yes, I am a senior photographer with several surfing magazines, but…" My words trailed off, and then it hit me. I always feel like I have been introduced as the village idiot when someone starts off an introduction by describing me as a "Surf Photographer." An apology of sorts seems to want to always spring to my lips. There are several reasons for this. All of them pertain to the following list of line items popularly thought to be peculiar to the genre of individuals typically described as "Surf Photographers."

1. They own vast amounts of expensive equipment.

2. They travel a lot.

3. They follow the Jeff Spicoli character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High around, waiting for him to do something great so that they can make the approximate 100 dollars per page that the average surf publication pays.

4. They have little real income as a result of their avocation, so are either supported by parents/trust funds, work other jobs, or live in their cars, which are generally old Seventies-era Detroit-issue clunkers.

It is easy to spot the contradictions in the above line items. So what then is reality, should one want to become a "Surf Photographer?" Below is the real list of items one must acquire to get one's feet wet in the game.

1. You have got to have game. That means a complete understanding of the language of photography, surfing, surf history, weather, swell and weather forecasting, and know all the players in the surf industry worldwide. You must be physically very fit and able to put your body and camera where surfers go, as Point-Of-View ("POV" for short) imagery is generally the most compelling. So you need to be very comfortable in demanding and often harrowing ocean conditions. Obviously, game takes a while to acquire.

2. You need a camera package. Mine costs upwards of $40,000 and much of the water equipment is custom-designed by me and built by an eccentric guy in Santa Ana, California.

3. You need to be digitally and computer literate. My computer system consists of two high-end Macs and one PC and an external raid storage system ($10,000) and about $15,000 worth of programs and numerous classes hosted by my agency, Corbis Images, on how to use it all properly.

4. You will need the art sensibility of a person possessing a Masters of Fine Arts in order to properly interpret an athletic subject in a manner different from the cadre of other highly skilled and talented individuals you will come to know as your colleagues.

5. You will need the business management and marketing skills of both a corporate CFO and CEO to manage your work and market to the 40-odd publications that exist for surfing in the global market. Because you will need every $100 page you can get each publication period just to maintain forward momentum.

6. You will need to have an unbounded enthusiasm and love for the ocean and people who live in and around it that call themselves surfers.

However, should the above line-item list prove unrealistic or emotionally and financially too unpalatable for you — it should — just keep your day job. Get a disposable water camera, make a few great images of your pals, and go surfing.

I think that how it all manages to work was best summed up down in Hollywood one day as I auditioned to be the unit photographer for a motion picture. A calm, nice fellow introduced to me only as "Tim" looked over my book of images, some of which happened to be ocean- and surf-themed.

After a quick but detailed look at my work, he simply said, "I would love for you to shoot my movie." "Your movie?" I asked. "Yep," he replied. "I am the director, and if you can shoot surfing you are more than qualified to shoot anything we will need." Tim was a surfer.