Justin "Jughead" Allport. Mutant Slab. Right place, right time. Photo: Russell Ord

Justin "Jughead" Allport. Mutant Slab. Right place, right time. Photo: Russell Ord


The Inertia

What makes a great surf photo in my eyes?

There are so many elements that comprise an amazing surf photo, but I am not going into the technical jargon here. Basically, what I look for in my own surf photography affects my judgment as a photo editor.

The first thing I see when I look at my own work is how basic the actual capture of the photo is. I can’t stand my own photos when I know how basic it was to capture the moment; I know I have a job to do by portraying that split second of action, telling a visual story, but I can’t help feeling like an impostor – calling my self a “surf photographer” when in reality I was on the sidelines pointing a camera. That is dead easy.

Photographers all over the world shoot sports this way and do an amazing job highlighting the moments and plays that dictate the game. They are called “sports photographers.”  They’re not basketball or football photographers. They’re sports photographers. So why would I call myself a “surf photographer,” if I am capturing a surf scene the same way? I personally would rather miss every bit of action to take that one photo where I actually feel like a surf photographer. Yes, I miss the stickers for sponsors, magazine editors wonder why I didn’t get the postage stamp for the next issue, surfers are dark on me for missing that wave. It goes on and on. Well, I don’t give a rats ass anymore because I know what effort went into that one shot.

When I take this same approach to looking at others’ work as a photo editor, it’s very difficult because most photos that come across the desk are the surfer’s magic moment. They’re well-captured for sure. They tell a little story with some creative flair, but, in the end, very rarely am I just blown away by a surf photo. But when I am, it’s nice to admire the skill level involved: Pat Stacy’s Surfing Mag Cover of Timmy Reyes, Zac Noyle’s Tahiti shot, Jon Frank and Stu Gibson, Shippies Photos, Spencer Hornby, Ritchie Vas photo at Ours. Those are just to name a few off the top of the head, all captured with complete skills.

To give you an example how I relate this approach through my own work. Justin Allport crazy slab, this photo is 10 out of 10 for impact to the viewer, and so it should be. It’s an incredible amount of water coming down on a surfer who has no escape route. Personally, it’s only 1 out of 10 for capture, the 1 for being in the right place at the right time. Other than that, it’s a basic shot.

Chris Ross. All the right ingredients. Photo: Russell Ord

Chris Ross. All the right ingredients. Photo: Russell Ord

However, this Chris Ross stand up tube is by far the best photo I have captured on a personal skill level, and it has given me a greater sense of achievement because I know what went it required to capture this moment. It may only be a 3 out of 10 for impact to the viewer, but personal skill level is right up there. I actually feel like a surf photographer, and the feeling of that moment was incredible.

I have learned to separate my photography and my role as a photo editor, to be extremely critical on my photography experiences and judge the work of others for the photo impact alone. The latter is a little strange, because I am disliking all my work with the exception of a few shots and excepting photos that I know are very easy to take.

The formula I have devised so I can be both photographer and photo editor: Skill level of capture + impact of the photo. Ask yourself this next time while looking at a photo before passing judgment on your own and others’ work, and the outlook may be far different. Are you really a “surf photographer?”

View Russell Ord’s portfolio here and more from Russell here.

  • Russell Ord

    I just want to add to above – I am not comparing water or land etc just highlighting what effort can go into a photo and its great to be able to recognise those efforts…thanks

  • Champson

    I must disagree, not too psyched on the Allport photo even though that wave is insane. But I saw your photo of Chris Ross in the TW photo issue and it stopped me dead due to the angle, composition, perfection of shape, Chris’s style, and everything else coming together. I was thinking I couldn’t understand why it was buried so far back in the issue. So it’s coincidental to read your post on this.

  • Joao Brek Bracourt

    the robert capa o surfing, mate!

  • Neal Miyake

    Interesting formula. Would a shot be any less compelling if it was shot off a jetski or boat vs swimming? Like you I prefer shooting in the water (recreationally), but I get stoked on land shots as well. Have had my share of sketchy situations but the images from those sessions may not capture the difficulty of getting the shot. I guess those images are more precious on a personal level, but not necessarily from an artistic one. Btw, your photos are excellent.

  • slammajamma

    Good for you for sticking to your beliefs and satisfying your own needs as an artist; to chase that shot which pleases yourself, regardless of the fact that it may actually be less appreciated than the ‘spectator-pleasing sports shot’, and not win you the same front page big bucks. That’s fucking punk rock ethos in its purest form, because you’re literally putting your body/life on the line to get that shot by doing things like swimming The Right. It’s working though because you’re winning mad respect for doing things that way. The real shit has a way of rising to the top in the end. Massive respect to you mate.