Interview: Tom Carey's Secrets to Successful Surf Photography

Catch a wave! A pro surf photographer talks about how he became a "good photographer in bad waves."

Surfing Magazine's Senior Photographer, Tom Carey, discusses gear, egos, getting roughed up by big waves, and what it's like to work in one of the worst environments for photo gear.

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.

How and when did you make the jump from hobby to profession?
Probably about [age] 19 or 20, I was shooting good photos with pretty terrible gear. I just kind of approached my parents and said, “Hey I really want to do this. I need to take out a loan and it's going to be a lot of money, like $10,000. I'll pay it back in a year or two. Every day I don't have this equipment, I'm going to be losing money.” They kind of, I guess, believed me. I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it or not (laughs). So they loaned me the money and I was able to pay it back in literally 6-8 months. Things went a lot smoother than I thought. I was making good money. I was able to shoot the right people. Things just took off from there, so I was pretty lucky.

Did you begin photographing surfers right away?
It's been all about surfing since day one. All of my friends I grew up with surfed. They were good amateurs when we were younger and then they all turned pro. I just kind of followed them around. It's pretty much been [about] surfing my whole life. There was never any other type of photography [I was interested in]. I just wanted to get into the surf mags so bad. That was just my dream. I had one thing on my mind and that was it.

How long have you been the senior photographer for Surfing Magazine? How did that come about?

Gosh, maybe it's been about four years now. Time flies. When I was about 20, I was senior photographer for TransWorld Surf. That lasted for awhile. I was 24 or so when I quit to work for Volcom to shoot their team and freelance to all the magazines. There were pretty much three American surfing magazines at the time: Surfing, Surfer, and TransWorld. I had my best year and I got hooked on freelancing. After awhile, all of the magazines tightened their budgets and quit using outside photographers and were just using their senior photographers, so I went to Surfing and have been there since.

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.


Where is your favorite place to shoot: on the shore or in the water?
It's definitely in the water. It’s scary at some spots. In Hawaii, it's definitely scary, but rewarding at the same time. When you come up from getting a good shot—or what you think is a good shot—and you're right there in the barrel with a surfer going right by you, it's pretty exhilarating. Even though it’s digital, I don’t tend to look at my photos too much until I get in just so I’m not caught with my hand in the cookie jar (laughs).

As far as locations go, I'd say Indonesia is the best place to shoot. I kind of have a big love for Mexico. It's a great country. I love the people, the food, the beers and everything about Mexico.

Hazards of the job: were you ever injured or hit by a surfer while shooting?
I've been fairly lucky. I've been bounced off the reef a couple times pretty hard. One time when I was younger in Indonesia, I got picked up by a wave and slammed on my back and head; but [luckily] at the time, I was wearing a helmet. That kind of startled me, but I didn’t get injured.  In Hawaii, I've been pretty frightened a couple of times. I had a camera get ripped out of my hands and it hit my leg really hard underwater. [The impact] blew the wing nuts out [of the underwater casing] and flooded the camera. The wave washed me all the way into shore. I could barely walk (laughs). That was pretty humbling because the waves weren’t that big. Other than that, I've been fairly lucky. I’ve just had some long hold downs underwater and been roughed up a little bit, but I think that happens to everyone. I’m a fairly good swimmer, so I’m usually not too scared. I don’t think I’ve ever hit any surfers.

What has been your most difficult assignment so far?
The most difficult assignment is usually dealing with certain surfers. Some of these guys are prima donnas or just terrible to work with. They're just not friendly. You go on a trip with a bunch of guys with a bunch of egos and they don’t get along and it’s really uncomfortable to be in a car together or in tight quarters for days on end.  All the traveling and stuff, you get used to it. It's fun. You get to see new places. As long as the people you're with are fun, you have a good time. I try to organize my trips with guys I want to be around, even if they're not necessary ‘the greatest surfer’. I’d rather come home and say “That was a great trip, we had a lot of fun,” not “We got great photos, but man, that was a bummer hanging around these guys!”

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.

What gear is in your camera bag?

I'm carrying around three camera bodies, Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, Canon EOS-7D. I have a Canon EOS-60D that I converted into an infrared camera. I'll usually bring a Canon 600mm f/4: IS II USM, Canon 300mm f/2.8, Canon 70-200 f/2.8, Canon 70-200mm f/4, Canon 50mm f/1.4, two Canon fisheye lenses and one wide angle zoom. And I'll have two or three underwater housings, pocket wizards and flashes. My bags and my backpack are out of control. It's pretty ridiculous. I'm using a Tamrac CyberPack and a Pelican case and a Rolobag to wrap up the underwater housing and a tripod. I had LowePro roller that just recently got stolen.

As for underwater housing, I use CMT water housings. They're all custom carbon fiber housings. He makes the best underwater housings in the world. They’re molded to your hand and feel sleek. It feels like you’re still using a camera.

How do you keep all the sand out of your gear?
On the beach, it's not so much sand [that’s the problem], it's the salt air. I wrap my lenses up or I use lens coats to try to keep everything dry. I have to go to Canon’s repair facility way too often. I'm constantly getting sensors repaired and cleaned.  Where I shot is probably the worst environment in the world [for camera gear]. My 70-200 lens on my Mark IV just got demolished by a wave a couple weeks ago.

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.

Your flash series is very unique. Do you use an assistant in the water to hold a flash for you?

Someone's just out there with an old Sunpak and two pocket wizards. I'll send someone out there to swim around and try get in the right spot. Or sometimes I’ll swim out there with it, if I have an assistant who is reliable with shooting. Usually it's just your friend who wants to mess around with a camera. I used to have a more dedicated assistant, so I would swim a lot and just time it. You really only get one shot with the Sunpak [at a time], but the results are pretty amazing. It's definitely a different look and it’s something that I pride my work on. I was the first one to shoot from the beach with an actual slave out in the water like that so it’s very rewarding.

You also shoot a series using infrared cameras. Is that an ongoing project?

I just dabble with it for fun [as a personal project]. I just like the way it looks. When we’re in such tropical places—all the palm trees and all the greenery—it just looks amazing. Those cameras really love the heat. [Using infrared] is a way to shoot all those landscapes in the middle of the day when you can't really shoot with a normal camera. The infrared loves the high sun shot. I bought one after seeing a friend dabbling with [infrared photography]. Sometimes l like to get a new toy here or there. It's just fun.

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.

Excluding skill, are your shots mostly derived from planned composition, anticipation or being in the right place at the right time?
You definitely get lucky, but a lot of it is anticipation. I’ll watch the wave and the surfer and know I gotta be here. I have to give them some space to get some speed build up to race down the line, so I'll swim as fast as I can to try to get in the [right] spot. I think a lot of my success is due to the fact that I am a good photographer in bad waves. A lot of guys are really good at shooting good waves, but when you take them to a two-foot beach break, they don’t know what’s going on. I think it helps to be a surfer. A little bit of luck plays into it. There are so many elements, like water drops or a surfer spraying your camera or looking straight into the camera.

Is it safe to assume surfing shots don’t require a lot of post-work/retouching?
I hardly retouch anything, and when I do, it's just for [promotional] purposes to sell an advertisement to a clothing company or sunglass company. When I pass the images off to a magazine, they’ll touch it up. They don't want to see JPEGs, they just want to see the RAW files. It’s a nice thing for me because I’m not spending hours trying to make a photo look good. I can just concentrate on shooting. It’s tough enough organizing 10,000 photos and filing them under the right surfer’s name and tagging the images.

Please finish this sentence: “If you want a career in photography, you should...”
Be creative, study other photographers and just be hungry.

© Tom Carey. All rights reserved.

This summer, Tom is starting production of a new surfing movie for Volcom.
More from his stunning surf photography portfolio can be found on his website:


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