On The Waterfront; AJ Neste’s Pro Surf Shot Strategies

Here are a few things AJ Neste's learned about photographing surfers:
One, it's the singer, not the song. "The most important part of being successful at this," he says, "is knowing the surfer. It's not just showing up somewhere and taking photos of random surfers. You won't know their personal style."

Dane Zaun on the north shore of Hawaii. This photo was featured as the window display in Pacific Sunwear stores nationwide in 2007. (EOS-1D Mark II, EF 600mm f/4 IS, f/6.3 at 1/1000 sec.)
All Photos © 2007, AJ Neste, All Rights Reserved

Two, you can always back up. "I was thinking about a 400mm lens to go with my EOS-1D Mark II. But a surf photographer I know named Aaron Chang told me, `No, man, you're going to need a 600. You can only walk so close to the ocean, but you can always back up.'"

Pretty much everything else AJ needed to know he learned from his father, the noted sports photographer Anthony Neste. "My dad was shooting for Sports Illustrated and he would take me to spring training," AJ says. "From the age of 5, I was my dad's camera donkey. That was my main job, and I didn't really realize I was learning anything. I was just having fun."

Luke Davis, featured in the film, Walking on Water, at San Clemente, California. (EOS-1D Mark II, EF 600mm f/4 IS, f/9 at 1/1000 sec.)

Being a pro photographer was never AJ's aim. "Growing up, sports was the focus of my life," he says, "and my goal was to play pro baseball. I played in college, but when I didn't get signed I wondered, where do I go from here?"

Well, how about to the beach?

"I'd always been borrowing my dad's camera and taking photos. When we moved from New York to Florida, when I was 15, I started surfing." Soon he was taking photos of his fellow surfers. "One of the surfers I was photographing, Will Tant, was trying to make it on the pro level. One day he asked if I wanted to go to California. He was going to be filmed surfing the coast and he wanted me to take photos."

Shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton at the finals of the 2006 World Junior Championships, Huntington Beach, California. (EOS-1D Mark II, EF 600mm f/4 IS, f/10 at 1/1000 sec.)

It wasn't a tough decision. "It was a magical trip, a photographer's paradise," AJ says of that adventure, and on the day his surfing buddies took him and his photos to Surfing magazine, it changed his life.

"We pull into the parking lot and one of my buddies says, `C'mon let's go.' Well, I'm not going to go in--it's my favorite magazine and I was nervous, but my friend is saying, `You gotta show them your shots,' so we go and see one of the editors. He's looking through the shots on my laptop and he stops midway and says, `Who do you shoot for?' `Just for fun,' I say, `it's my hobby,' and he says, `Well, you want to shoot for us?' They needed a guy on the East Coast and at that moment I was it. So there it was, from hobby to my first job."

"This Hawaiian local seemed to always get the best waves of the day, even if the nose of his board was missing," AJ says. "He showed visiting mainlanders how to get in great position on the north shore of Oahu." (EOS 20D, EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM in an AquaTech water housing, f/13 at 1/1000 sec.)

His second job wasn't long in coming, and it came largely as a result of something he'd learned from his dad. "The thing with surf photographers," AJ says, "is that they'll find a spot that gives them good lighting and a great background and then they'll stay there. But I'd seen my father work the sidelines at football games for Sports Illustrated, and he'd run up and down the field with a monopod. So when I was photographing surfers, ideas would be flying through my head and I'd be running all over the place. People were noticing me because I was moving around."