Photographer and Founder, Eleven 17 Creative

Getting your foot in the door is all about forming the right relationships. Photo: Zak Noyle

The Inertia

Building a career as a photographer in the surf industry presents a range of challenges. Getting your shots in magazines is different from signing major brands for marketing campaigns, for example. The challenges are mostly fun, and there will be many, some you won’t be able to predict. But aside from lining yourself up with a good mentor or an internship, a simple understanding of the differences in working with publications, clients, and athletes can go a long way in helping you succeed. Here are a few hints.

Working With Publications

With publications, it’s important to create a relationship with the photo editor. That person will be your connection to getting images published with a magazine, either in print or on a site. You can start to build that relationship with an email — a friendly email — introducing yourself and sending three to five of your favorite photos (in an email-friendly size). Don’t overload their inbox. Your intro email can answer questions like where you’re from and what you enjoy or specialize in shooting. Show them how you can help them and what you can do differently. Continue this relationship by sending little photos here and there and eventually, you’ll get requests: “Hey, can you shoot this?” “Could you shoot that event?” “Do you have this photo?” Be dependable so a photo editor can count on you for resources and unique angles.

Working With a Client

When we talk about working with a client, that could be anything from an advertising campaign for a surf brand to working for a third party like an ad agency. Again, you need to create that relationship first and then be dependable. Show them what you’re able to do in this day and age of mass content distribution. Pitch them your idea. Come up with something unique. Know their brand or what a brand they work with needs. Know what the client has done in previous campaigns before pitching ideas because you want to show that you’ve done your homework.

And again, be dependable. That means you’ll want to deliver on time, agreeing to deadlines you can meet. Keep in mind that you want to create the deliverables, doing this in a timely manner as well as a realistic one.


Many times, I’ll go to a brand with an A-to-Z plan: I’ll take them from concept to delivery and even give them ideas on releasing the project into the world if I have a solid relationship with the client. By doing this, you’re delivering a full marketing plan. You’re showing you’re able to incorporate their athletes, their talent, as well as their product. This is how you get a leg up, show you really want it and how you want to to deliver and enhance what they’re doing. Photographers have to be proactive in this world.

Working With Athletes

Working with professional surfers, or even other athletes, how do you approach that? Surfers are the talent that’ll most often be featured in your work, so how do you get your foot in the door with them?

Create an image that stops the surfer, an image that they want to share, one they want to show everyone, and that they’re proud of. Being on the beach, shooting, capturing them and the best action with the best lighting will eventually show they can rely on you. All this will also help you open doors with surf magazines (who want photos of athletes) as well as brands the athletes are sponsored by and need content of their ambassadors. This is your gateway, creating good images and good relationships with surfers and the athletes you shoot.

Social Media

Social media is incredible. We can connect in ways we never imagined before. It can open the door for you and will further your surf photography career once you’ve got that foot in the door. So post that photo, get that photo out there, tag the surfer in it, and let them acknowledge it. The next time you see them you can offer, “Hey, next time you’re going out, I’d love to come.”

The industry isn’t what it used to be. But even though it’s not the same, it’s still alive and well. You, the photographer, just need to learn how to navigate it in a different way. Content is social-media based, and you’ll need to pivot and get your images out right away. But keep in mind the right way doesn’t mean you have to give everything away just to get your foot in the door. Start where you can in the beginning, but also know your value. As you progress, know the value of your images and how it’s going to help a surfer’s career as well as the brand.


Brands need content and this is where you come into play. This is where you can excel. Take it, go to those brands and show them this amazing drive and ability and what you can do to further their goals.

Turning your passion into a career won’t come overnight. This isn’t something that’ll just happen. It’ll take hard work, time, dedication, and pure love and enjoyment of the craft. But you can do it. You can get to this point if that’s what you choose to do and where you want to take it. Don’t lose that drive, keep going, and you can achieve anything you want.

Editor’s Note: Learn surf photography from one of the best surf photographers on the planet with Zak Noyle’s Guide to Surf Photography. 

Also, check out our recommendations on the best lenses and cameras for surf photography.


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