Thoughts on Shots

Does ‘trying to get the shot’ detract from the experience of surfing?

I surf for the stoke and the afterglow that it brings me: peace of mind, elation, and the ‘everything is in it’s right place’ feeling. I also surf for the connection with nature and the exercise. And there’s a social aspect too. My dad and I bond through surfing and nothing adds to a fun surf session more than sharing it with a few friends.

So where do pictures of me surfing fit in?

I’ve found, unsurprisingly, that among surfers there are various opinions on the topic.

  • The pure / soul surfer: “couldn’t care less”
  • The salty old school surfer:  “we never had any of that shit when I was younger”
  • The tourist surfer:  “can’t wait to post this on my IG”
  • The aspiring surfer: “the best way to correct bad habits and get better”
  • The pro surfer: “better make sure my sponsor’s logo is clear”

While I usually side with the soul surfer’s take, I’ve found myself with the mindset of each of these types of surfers (except the pro surfer) at different times of my life.

When I was just a grom we’d occasionally splurge on a wind-up camera with a waterproof housing. We had no idea what we looked liked when we were surfing and were so excited as we waited for the film to be developed. We were finally going to get to see ourselves on a wave and naively imagined it would be like something in Surfer magazine. Let down by both the quality of our water photography and the shattering of our self image, we weren’t too eager to buy another one.

But lessons don’t always stick and I’ve learned that magazine-quality shots aren’t the only ones with value.

Time Machines

Some pictures from my first real surf trip after high school graduation have survived. Most are out of the water, around the surf camp with my friends, or random pictures of this foreign place that was then so novel to me. After all, none of us wanted to sit on the inside of a break taking photos instead of surfing.

As poor as these pictures are, any time I stumble upon one of them in a photo album it jogs my memory, taking me back in time to relive another chapter of my life.  


As much as it hurts to see pictures of myself surfing, especially time sequence shots, these are some of the best learning tools. The pain falls away quickly when I change my mindset from trying to get a surf-mag shot to learning as much as I can from the documentation of my biffed takeoffs and sloppy turns.

By comparing pictures of myself with much better surfers on the same wave I have uncovered several problem areas. I was getting in too late, riding the wave too low when trying to get barreled, and surfing way too far out front on the shoulder. In my mind I was right in the pocket. The undeniable footage brought me closer to reality. 

After discovering these flaws in my surfing I found ways to fix them and ultimately came out a much better surfer. Sessions became increasingly more fun. I fell on fewer waves and made cleaner turns. I made more make-able barrels uncovering a new level of amazement and fell on fewer perfect waves which reduced my level of frustration. I can see why aspiring surfers film their sessions and review them with a coach. And I know I need a lot more of this myself.

Status Symbols

Then there’s the glamour shot. If I’m in a cynical mood I assume every surfer I see with a photographer is seeking the self-absorbent glamour shot. The surfer in the water waving his arm toward the beach to make sure his photographer sees him… or even worse, wagging his board. What a disgrace I think. What a sad expression of our narcissistic, selfy-stick-brandishing, social media-addicted culture.

My only consolation is to paddle around him and catch the next set wave while hoping it catches him off guard and he gets caught on the inside. As I paddle past I think, ‘Why are you out here? And what are you going to do with that picture when you get it?’ But I already know the answer. At least I think I do. He’s going to take a couple of frames and use it to boost his ego – show it to the buddies and brag, post it on Insta for a few extra status points.

How do I know this is true? Because I’ve done it. I’ve felt the urge to stoke the flames of my ego. Make my friends jealous, field the compliments, count the likes, and bask in my short-lived moment of glory.

Yes, I’m a hypocrite. But telling myself that I’ve learned my lesson makes me feel better about it. I’ve passed through the glory shot phase of my surfing life and have risen above. Now I can look down on all other surfers who are still there with a critical eye.

However, if I’m in a mood of understanding or indifference – which I usually am these days, I brush it right off. Thinking about it isn’t making my surf session any better. You do you… just don’t cut me off.

The Origin Story

The origin of a picture holds a high level of importance in my mind. 

I have some nice surf shots that don’t mean much to me. The closeout barrel is a classic example. Taken at just the right time and a favorable angle, it can be made to look like you’re getting pitted like a pro. Left up to the imagination of the viewer, you’re in deep for a full 3-second count before getting spit out dry. In reality you know the wave swallowed you and it wasn’t even that good of a session. Playing it off to your friends like it was all-time never feels as good as you imagined it would.

The best pictures of all time – outside the water included – are the ones where I didn’t know someone was shooting. No poses, no fake smiles, no advantageous angles. Just a candid snapshot of a moment in time. These pictures are windows back into the best surf sessions of my life, letting me relive some of my best waves and reigniting a portion of the stoke I felt that day.

My favorite photo to date isn’t a barrel or big top turn; it doesn’t do much to highlight my surf prowess. But it does capture the essence of what I feel when I’m in the zone. Taken from the beach, with steep cliffs lining the point break in the background, I’m at the very bottom of the wave. Frontside in the deepest part of a drawn-out bottom turn, I have my right hand up poised for action and pointing toward the lip, where I’m headed. My left hand is lightly brushing the surface of the water as if I were petting a lion – acknowledging the power it holds and letting it know I’m no threat; we’re in this together.

I’m smiling the biggest, most natural smile I can have. Pure elation. Not a care in the world.

With one glance at this pic I know what day it was and the exact wave. It was the wave of the day for me and one of the best of my life. It’s the one picture that encapsulates my whole summer – a full three months of surfing in Nicaragua, captured in one shot.

Even once it a while, a picture can appear as a surprise and pull me back into a memory. In my dad’s office one day I saw this picture on his desk, tucked under the glass desktop where he works every day. It sat alongside a picture of my sister on a horse and my brother with his two kids. The moment I saw it, that same ear-to-ear smile from the picture came to my face again. And I also realized it probably had a similar affect for him too.

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