Nate nearly died in the Mentawais, thankfully we still have him around
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 28 June, 2015 - Nate Smith was eyeing a pro surf career when he tore a pectoral muscle and had to sit on the beach. He gathered some fledgling-pro surfer loot, including a box of his sponsor’s clothes and traded ‘em for camera gear. In the following years he has developed a knack for creating unique, memorable shots and opening the door for those magical backlit images we’ve grown to love - yes, there was a time when mags only printed bright, front-lit images. We are stoked to have him in our Creator Profile series.
Magnum Martinez, Pipeline
Where are you from and what you shoot with?
I’m from the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and I use all Canon equipment. Currently I’m running with the 1DX Body - Lenses are 24-70 f2.8L - 70-200 f2.8L and the 600mm f4. These three lenses are all you need. There’s no need to over complicate things.
How did surf photography start for you?
I grew up on the NSW Central Coast and I once competed in ACC and a couple of WQS events until an injury sidelined me. I had previously won a surf comp and the prize was a trip the Mentawais. I couldn’t go so I swapped the trip for some cash and a video camera (which I didn’t like) so I sold it and purchased a Canon EOS 630 and swapped a box sponsor’s clothes to a mate in exchange for a water housing he built me. Never stopped shooting once I figured out how fun it was.
Share with us something that most people don’t know about surf photography.
Magazine page rates are the same as what they were 10+ years ago. Day rates with your bigger companies used to be around $1500 US per day plus expenses now you’re lucky to even get $500. I would highly recommend staying at school or having a trade behind you because currently you will need about 20 double pages and a cover every month to even make what is considered a normal wage.
Tell us about that one time you almost died, on a surf trip or in the water.
Ah well, I was in the Mentawai Islands with a bunch of guys, like Jay Davies, Perth Standlick, Tom Carroll for a mag shoot and we were at Rifles on the last day. We had extended the trip by two extra days to grab this big swell. It was big and I was initially shooting from a bigger zodiac with a filmer. We were sitting on the end of the lineup and motoring in as the waves would come in. The boat driver had only just got up and was fiddling with his coffee and cigarette and basically we had drifted a little too far inside, no big deal if your boat and driver are on point. The driver had an issue starting the motor as a 10 foot+ set started looming wide and I thought, “fuck… hang on this isn’t good at all.” I told the filmer, who was from England and wasn’t too used to being out in a boat filming, after boat driver hadn’t started the motor after two attempts to get ready to bail. On the 3rd attempt the motor didn’t start I closed my pelican just in time and bailed out the left side of the boat as it was being sucked down into the dip of the wave as it barreled over top. I had to really time it. I told the filmer to bail but he didn’t.
I had grown up in the ocean and always knew better to get well away from that thing than to stay in it in those situations. I had a towel wrapped around me and a t-shirt on that both started to strangle me as they swelled underwater. I had to take these off so I could get to the surface. I saw the boat punch through the wave for a brief second then it was gone. It was mayhem. My gear was fairly OK, some of it was drowned and others only slightly wet - pelican cases are great! The driver and filmer got heavily managed. The driver got stitches to the head and the filmer had a rope tangle around his arm and skinned it as the boat dragged him like an anchor along the ocean floor. He later got staph and was flown home straight to the hospital. It was super heavy but thankfully no one died because that could have so easily of happened. Everyone in the water stopped surfing and all chipped in to help. People are great out there. Everyone helps one another when something goes down.
Name one photographic image you saw that changed the way you approach photography.
Probably my Andrew Mooney shot (above) that saw me do well in the Redbull Image Quest in 2010. It’s heavily backlit and the surfer’s face isn’t visible. Yep, the classic silhouette image. Back when I first started shooting a few of these images the mags wouldn't touch them as they wanted the face to be visible - more like the stock-standard blue water full-light type of image that we see all day long. Thankfully things have now changed. I would thank Scott Aichner for getting this style of image some air play. He was shooting nuts backlit wide angle images at Puerto on sunrise and once the US mags used a few of his the rest of mag world followed. There are so many creative photographers out there now it’s great to see more than just standard images. The mag I worked closely with in Australia didn’t even think this image was good enough to run - so, yeah, anyway.
You can find more images by Nate Smith on his Facebook Page and his Instagram Account