Nathan Fletcher, the Chopes cylinder of death, and the anxiety. Photo: Brian Bielmann
Making Money Off Surf Photography Is Hard
How to survive this digital rage.
It's 2017 and the internet rules everything around us. Digital's the new print and because of this, no part of the industry has been more affected than surf photography.
Growing up, print reigned supreme and only a select few cowboys had the photographic clout required to line the monthly pages. But today, print is flatlining and every donkey with a smartphone thinks they’re Aaron Chang. Photogs have to flourish daily on the gram to make a name for themselves.
I am not a photographer and because you probably don’t give a shit what I think, I've enlisted the help of one of the industry’s most respected and a rising star to see where insta-fication has led the lensmen of today.
Brian Bielmann is one of the top surf photogs in the world. He's the gent behind some of surfing’s most recognisable images over the last few decades. He also co-runs Developing Legends (we sent the talented sa_rips earlier this year to the North Shore to work with Brian), a specialised photography workshop that helps passionate photogs improve.
Laserwolf (Brandon Campbell) has quickly climbed the ranks since picking up surf photography in 2010. Making his bones in heaving Pipe has led to covers and spreads in all of the top mags and shows what it takes to make it these days.
Laser adores harm's way. Last year, the gent broke his hand (and had resconstructive surgery) then learned how to shoot lefty. In today's world of surf photography, that's how you hustle! Here he dodges the fins of Mikey Bruneau.
Stab: What does the digital PR platform also know as Instagram mean to you?
Brian: At first I thought it was kinda kooky, then I quickly realised the younger guys were starting to get exposure from it and that I needed to get involved. It’s starting to be the place that everyone sees your work.
Laser: Instagram is the greatest thing since sliced bread (unless you have one of those imaginary gluten allergies). It’s just such a powerful tool that allows you to extend your marketing and networking to reach a global audience, and the best part is that it's free! Incredible right? I pay/waste money monthly to keep my website going just to have one, but it’s so lame and I don’t remember the last time I updated it or even looked at it.
Where's the good in print?
Brian: I’m old school, we shot with covers and spreads in mind, now that everything is on the internet it’s not as much of a thrill. When they started websites alongside the mags, they would save the best shots for print. Now the print is dying, or already dead in many cases, and the internet is everything. I’ll just never get over the death of print.
Laser: I love print. Surfer's Journal is the only mag I subscribe too though. If I’m in line at the grocery store, I’ll skim through the other mags until it's my turn to checkout but then I toss them back on the rack, bending the corners and probably putting them in the wrong spot (sorry Foodland). Nothing will ever beat a good read that you can touch, feel and flip through over and over again. Not even Instagram and those damn addicting stories they recently added.
For some of the most iconic (a word we don't use lightly) shots of AI, Brian was on the other side of the lens.
Is digital better than tangible pages and high-gloss?
Brian: I don’t think it is personally, but Transworld, Surfing and some of the other mags only had a small distribution compared to what you can reach with your online presence and they closed shop.
How can online tools such as Surfterra (a platform the connects average surfers with photogs) fit into the equation?
Brian: There was no format to do that before, but with Surfterra you just type in a spot, what time you surfed it and see if there was anyone shooting photos that day. In my case it’s a great outlet to put photos up that I would normally let sit in my files, now I can post them and let everyone who follows me on Facebook and Instagram know that I was shooting and to check if I got your shot.
Laser: It's good for the average Joe and the guy shooting the average Joe. John John and company ain't using it but a photo slut like myself would be all over if I thought someone got a shot of me.
In a world where it's never been easier to get your images out there and never been harder to get noticed, how can an aspiring surf photog succeed?
Brian: Well, you used to climb the ladder within the surf world, so the guys who had worked the hardest were at the top, and once you were in that space, you were guaranteed coverage/exposure and to get paid for your work. With digital, it’s all about how good of a self-promoter you are. There is an overabundance of good shots out there, too much content and a lot of work gets lost.
Laser: Calling surf photography a flooded market is an understatement. I don't know how other guys are coming up these days but having a unique name definitely helped me stand out while I was growing as a photographer. You got to grind, stand out and be getting banger photos because there is just so much talent out there.
The moral of the story kids is shoot surf if it's your hobby. Sell some shots to the mags, sponsors, etc, but if you can get into products, girls and fashion, do it. Surf still (sometimes) sells, but sex is never going out of style.