Aired on 2020, Dec 09th  in Legends and much more! / Podcast / Surf photography

Interview with Tim McKenna

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Welcome to the 8th episode of the second series of the podcast.

Today with us from Tahiti, the legendary surf and ocean photographer Tim McKenna.

With him we discussed about his career, how to become a surf photographer, Tahiti surfing and much more!

You can find the episode in all major podcast platforms or read below the transcribe of the show (always forgiving us of spelling mistakes)


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TTOS: Aloha Tim welcome to the show, where are you today? 

I'm in Baia, which is a village in Tahiti on the, you know, the islands of Tahiti in French Polynesia, South Pacific. 

TTOS: Thank you for being on the show with us today, how the situation over there in Tahiti with the coronavirus? Are you in lock-down?

We had two months locked down, but there was very few cases, maybe 20 cases at one time, I think early may. 

They locked down all the flights and it was impossible to come in or out of Tahiti, two/three weeks later we had no more cases…. we had one month without any case and now we are in the second month without any case, and we're just reopening the flights next week.

We might gonna have cases that are coming in, but we've got to open up for tourism and stuff. 

TTOS: Today We're gonna talk about you, surf, surf photography and your future projects, but the first question that I have for you is, in your opinion, what is the most important thing in surfing? 

The most important thing surfing is just sharing a moment with nature, just being at one with the ocean and seeing nature.

TTOS: it's so powerful at the same time, so intimate, right? 

it's so simple, it's such a easy, free, simple concept, surf is so healing, so perfect and such a beautiful moment and that changes, people lives all over the world. 

Surfing and the love of ocean, you see what people are willing to do to have that lifestyle…. it's incredible. 

TTOS: I'm seeing in the social media that you're taking a lot of fantastic pictures of people surfing, but what about you and surfing? Do you surf? 

Yes, I started surfing when I was probably around 13, 14 but I've been surfing all my life and that's the passion of surfing that got me into the passion of photography and gave me my career, I guess.

Since I've been living in, Tahiti probably I surf a little less because you need to have a good level of here, you know, if you want to surf the reef breaks. 

More and more, I surf the beach breaks and not so much the reef breaks, I got to give myself more time to go into the ocean. I spend a lot of time in the ocean taking pictures, but you know, some, some free time for surfing will be good to have….

TTOS:. What surfboard are you currently surfing? 

For small waves, I have a fish, it's like a five/seven stretch board fish, I surfed on it this morning…

I also surf a regular thruster, six foot/ one and I also have a bunch of other boards, longboards and boards for the family or friends when they come visiting.

Sometimes I'll take a twin fins or something like that, but usually I surf a six/two thrusters or patrol wide. 

TTOS:. Let's talk about surf photography and your career as a surf photographer…. I have two questions in one: thefirst surf picture that you've ever taken and then the defining moment of your career, the one that that made you as surf photographer….

The first ever picture of surf was one day when I borrowed my mom's camera and took some pictures of the first ever surfing contest, professional surfing contest in France (at the time I lived in France).

I was young and I saw the pro surfers coming for the first time to France, I took some amateur photos and that kind of got me into the passion of surf photography. 

Later on, I when I was studying in Australia, I had decided I was going to become a photographer and a surf photographer and I invested in the big lens and and I was lucky too, one night I went out on the beach, there was a big swell and I captured the wave, the Kirra wave. 

It's famous wave in Australia with a sunset blowing through the wave….that made a big poster for one of the Australia's biggest magazines and that kind of confirmed for me the fact that I should continue and try and be a photographer.

Then, a defining moment is probably in 2000 when I photographed Laird Hamilton in Tahiti when he rode what people call since then the “millennium wave”. 

Millenium Wave - courtesy of Tim McKenna

It was at the time the craziest ride ever done by a big wave surfer, it broke a lot of boundaries. 

It was the advent of tow surfing and it changed also the way people measured big wave surfing as before it was just the size of the wave.

With this image, with that ride of Laird Hamilton, the tube, the gnarliest part, the wave itself how dangerous it was and how perfect it was because Teahupoo is not so big. It's just thick and wide and the perfect barrel and very dangerous. 

Thankfully he survived and he made a lot of covers and went on TV and and yeah, it became a world famous photoand he became a world famous surfer and that was a nice little push for my career for sure.

TTOS:. Being at the right place, at the right time,with the right camera…. it worked….

in this case, what was gratifying is that I created the right place and nearly the right time..

It was a one month trip with many surfers and it was a lot of work, I had to get financing to buy a jet ski here and we were shooting every day.

The end of the trip culminated into this Millenium Wave, that big wave and all the came out of it. 

Itwas it was pretty gratifying to, to show that hard work paid off.

Then you kind of get recognition from your peers because obviously a lot of photographers see the cover or see the images, when you see them later on, they say congratulations or stuff like that… is a nice feeling.

TTOS:. We started our interview saying what is the most important thing in surfing, but what is the most important thing in surf photography In your opinion? 

Most important thing in surf tography is patience and just being a good surfer.

You need experience in the ocean experiencing the waves and the currents and to understand how to capture it the best way possible.

Even if it's not swimming in the waves, obviously when you're doing water shots, you need to be skillful just like a surfer, because you need to assess all the conditions, just like a surfer, you should know how to position yourself, how to dive under the wave and stuff like that. 

The rest of the time, you've been shooting from the beach, from a boat or from anywhere, you kind of need to be a surfer in the sense that you need to know when the swells are, what the tides are doing what the winds are doing…. whether it's going to create on the waves….you've gotta be in connection with the nature again to capture its best, I guess.

TTOS:. I understand, it is not only about how to use a camera, if you know how to use it and then you put yourself in danger because of currents or because you go underwater or maybe you go with like a big lens and there is no swell…. that doesn’t work… right?

Definitely, you learn with the experience what equipment to use…

That's why I usually work with a lot of equipment or at least I have it available, because I really like to have what I think is the best for what day for the day I'm shooting. 

Some days you might be better for watershots, some days better than others, you just want lineups. 

I tend to like to have quite a bit of gear…I'm ready at any moment, to get a good picture. 

TTOS:. What's your favorite lens to use?

Being In Tahiti has changed my life because before,when I lived in Europe or even in most of the countries, everybody is shooting from the shore, then your favorite lens is definitively 800 or 600 mm, F4.

In French Polynesia, we rarely use those lenses, when we are in a boat, I'd say my favorite lens is a 200 millimeter F2 because you're kind of close to the wave and the way that the waves are, the surfers in barrels really close to you. 

if not in the water, my favorite lens is a 58 millimeter by Nikon and I also like the fisheye or the 14 millimeter wide angle lens for everything underwater… I really like underwater pitchers. 

You just need an extra whiteness to get light clearing….you gotta get close to the action 

TTOS:. you're using Nikon, right? 

I use mostly Nikon for my photography, I film also with Nikon, but I use Panasonic cameras too .

TTOS:. it's interesting, you know, so far, all the surf photographers that I interviewed use Nikon….nobody said Canon so far…

In concert photography (did you know that I’m a concert photographer too? Check my Instagram page( ) a lot of people use Nikon because the images are sharper but the vast majority uses Canon.

I started my career at Nikon and then for a while Canon became much better with auto-focus. 

It was the time where you would shoot a lot with long lenses and it was very important, It was a real advantage to have auto-focus with the 800 millimeter lenses. 

I switched back to Nikon after a while because everybody was going to Canon and the service was getting bad. 

In the end, I think the Nikon equipment is a little bit more expensive, but more bit more quality, more sturdy for tough conditions being on the ocean….

TTOS:. When you start with a brand and you are buying the lenses, it is very expensive to change… almost impossible….

Yeah, you start with one brand, you try and you stick with that one….the big telephoto lenses, they cost nearly $10,000 or more, for sure it is difficult to change!

TTOS:. It is the dream of all of us photographers to own the big 400mm 2.8, the issue is a $10,000 price tag…..

We were talking about taking picture from the sea, in the sea, and, as you said, you need to be aware of the conditions of the waves, and how they close on you….

I guess there is a lot of adrenaline, but also fear…how do you deal between adrenaline and fear in those circumstances?

I'm often more scared about my equipment than myself, It's a bit stupid because Ishould be scared more about me, but I've experienced, where to push myself and when not to push and just to be perfectly positioned, don't take any risks and stay very humble with the ocean, especially in Tahiti there's always, always a big wave, bigger, twice the size, that can break during the day and you never know when that can happen. 

You just got to keep that in mind permanently, because, you know, you might be positioned for a certain size, but if this big wave arrives, then you're not in a good position and you might not be able to dive under the wave. 

You always got to keep that in mind and make decisions like that, but also try not to think too much about it, otherwise you will not have fun.

When I'm in the water shooting, I'm shooting a surfer in the tube, I'm having nearly as much fun as the guy in the tube. That’s why I like to do it…

TTOS:. For that reason, I was saying about adrenaline….it's not a negative adrenaline, it is a positive one….it's challenging yourself. 

What is very important, is that only professional people do that, you can’t just try, especially in Tahiti I guess, don't trythis in the water, it is very dangerous

For sure! There are some waves where you can try and at worst, you just get washed to the beach or to the sand, but here, when you try sudden waves, it can be tragic for your equipment and for yourself 

TTOS:. Who were/are your references in surf photography?

Hans Feurer, who's a fashion photographer, David Doubilet famous National Geographic ocean photographer, Ernst Hass my favorite landscape photographer, then surf wise, I really like surf photographers, that could do not do just surf photography. 

People like Art Brewer do some great studio works in portraits, they can do commercial work too, surfing shots or others, like Ted Grambeau , he is really good  surfing watershots, but also shoot some fashion, some lifestyle.

Guys like that, that I look up to 

TTOS:. How do you see, sustainability of photography? If I make a comparison, for instance, in music photographytoday, nobody makes any money unless you are a big superstar…. Every single photographer has to do something else in order to sustain himself , or then, you'll do it only for passion, 

The magazine industry is disappearing, everything is online… it's possible for a younger surf photographer to do a career today or everything changed….. How do you see it?

That’s a very good question, honestly, I wouldn't know…..

The industry has changed so much and I think it's possible, in certain niches, to live off the regular surf industry like the surf brands, the surviving magazines, five/ten guys, the top guys of the moment, and then maybe some manage todo prints at side, they shoot waves, they do weddings or others…

Photographers that do a hundred percent surf……I don't think it's possible to have a career nowadays or for the next 40 years…..I don't think it's even happening.

I don't think it's going to happen, especially when you see what's happening to the professional surfers. I've seen the last couple of years, it's, doesn't look like they're finding a proper way to market surf. 

The magazines are all disappearing, the websites are the future and, maybe, filming is something possible, you know, doing a YouTube channel or doing filming, or taking pictures, probably even pictures of tourists, you know, that probably makes more daily money than in anything else. 

To be honest, I really don't know how the young generation, or even the older generation managed to survive just on surf photography.

That's why myself, right from the start, I pushed myself not to only do some photography because I knew there was no way I could have a career doing that, it would have been too hard. 

Right from the start, I did a lot of fashion, a lot of commercial work, a lot of stock photos and, just generally, even when I started surfing photography, I was doing a lot of other action sports, snowboarding, skiing, motocross, kite, wind surf. 

I was more of a action sports photographer than just a surf photographer, I used to do a lot of snowboarding photos too,I made sure he kept quite a few. 

It's hard to do that because you need more equipment and to be good in various fields just means more work and it's actually hard to sustain that, but that's probably what I'm the most proud of to be able to sustain such a wide variety of of photography over the years.

TTOS:. It's an interesting point the one you just said, as people ofter prefer to be radical,  in a certain sense….. “I am a surf photographer, sI don't do weddings, I am a surf photographer, I don't do videos. I'm just a photographer or I'm a music photographer, I don't do a fashion shows or other things”

I think it's part of us, right? Is part of each one of us… “I'm sticking to what I decided I going to be” right? but the world actually is not going that way….

It's definitely getting harder to do that for sure, especially now you need people to be able to do everything, that's where the market is going. 

If you want to be the best at one thing, you got to stick to only that and try and be the best at that, but on the other side, you know, things are pushing you to so many areas that sometimes is a bit hard to find the right balance. 

TTOS:. Maybe trying to have your style in the way you take a picture, no matter if it's like surf or fashion or anything else, maybe people can somehow relate to your style. 

I know it's difficult…

The style now is probably gone into post-production. 

The style of a photographer or today is no longer his photography it's more in the post-production of his photography. 

That's a change for sure from the first years I started where it was more, the way you took pictures, Today there are so many tools to make things different and to help you do photography, but on the other hand, it helps other people to do it also.

It has just broadened and brought photography to the masses. 

It's great because you see a lot of talents that come out of nowhere, but it's harder for the professionals. It just makes it harder as there is so much content out there and it makes it harder for you to stick out. 

TTOS:. I totally agree with you, even if I think having a good sense of light and composition, if you have a very artistic side, your pictures will stand out automatically….

The artistic side is something that could be pursued also, there's probably maybe more opportunities there then on the commercial side, but it takes a long time and a lot of work, also the artistic side, to do prints, galleries…different venues….

TTOS:. Looking back at your career, would you have changed something? Would you have done something differently ?

I’m pretty happy like this, at the beginning, I was interesting in filming,when I was very young, and I'm kind of glad that I stuck to just surf photography for so long, because now I'm doing so much of it and filming might have been a distraction because now it is complicated. 

Often I find myself saying “Oh, today, should I go stills? Or should I film?”

At the beginning, I just knew photography, but now the cameras can do both and pretty good….it’s a temptation….my days, I feel they fill up better because I know I can do both. 

Sometimes you think a photo would be worth it , sometimes a video is doing the job…. it's cool. 

I like switching, it's a different approach to, in a different way to tell stories. 

TTOS:. And is also a challenge for you,right? 

Because yes, definitely a it is, it's a different set, but as I said, I was so used to change from the mountain to the beach, to the water, so to change from photo to video is not that hard. 

You still need great composition, good light, good subject need all the basic elements. 

TTOS:. What are your future projects? 

Right now I have a little short film. 

I want to film it underwater with a famous freediver that should be later on this year, also we got a few documentary projects filmed around the world, but with some parts in Tahiti, I have a book project , a second book on Teahupoo as the first one I did 10 years a go is now sold out.

I'm slowly working on that and but I'm giving myself a little bit more time because the Olympic Games are in 2024 In Tahiti  for surfing the French Olympic games and that are going to happen here, it'd be a good time to bring out a book. The first Olympic wave….

TTOS:. I need to tell my wife, I'm going to Tahiti in 2024… I'm gonna take two weeks off….LOL

First time I went to that wave was in 96 and to think back then that it would be an Olympic wave in 2024….It's crazy…..just like I used to go to Sothci to do snowboard photos, long time ago and before it was a small village, there were pigs in the street and there was not even a ski resort. 

We would take the helicopter to do snowboard and heli-skiing and six years ago, there was the Olympic games with hotels and in this proper ski resort… it’s crazy to see how the world changes. 

TTOS:. I hope in 2024 they will bring good things, but they will not come and destroy the nature of Tahiti…

The locals wouldn't let it, I think hopefully the Olympic games are changing the way they approach things. I think they're going more into more sustainable structures and not building crazy, crazy things that people use only one yearand then they take you half a century to pay back.

TTOS:. We're going to finish our interview with a short Q/A session, please answer the first thing that comes up to your mind. 

The best surfboard that you have ridden….. 

It was a Pacific Dreams. It was a board made by Matt Hoy's father shaper

TTOS:. Your favorite photo, but not yours. 

My favorite photo I think is called the “the earth rising from the moon” shut by the NASA in 1968/ 69. It was a picture taken from the moon and you see the, see the planet earth. That's great.

The Hearth from the Moon Nasa 1968

TTOS:. That is an unique shot, you don't have competitors, right? 

That one is not like an Instagram shot you post and everybody copies it over the next two months…only Elon Musk orRichard Branson….only those guys could do it….. 

TTOS:. Your favorite song….

I love jazz. Just like jazz music.

TTOS:. Favorite surf spot….

To surf personally, probably the Snapper Rocks, Rainbow Bay on the Gold Coast, if it wasn't so crowded. When I was studying at the university back in the days and I would have some really great sessions….I still have those in my mind. 

If not for shooting, obviously taking pictures, Teahupoo, you cant beat that!

TTOS:. your favorite surfer today. 

Kai Lenny is pretty incredible, just because of all the stuff he can do, he's an amazing athlete and to be able to be good at all those disciplines is is pretty amazing. 

But then obviously, you know, we were lucky to have a genius in the name of Kelly Slater, he is incredible and has been that for the last 30 years, amazing longevity.

TTOS:. The last question has nothing to do with surf or surf photography….we want to know your best relationship advice. 

To listen more than to speak….

Recorded in July 2020

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