Daniel Russo Interview - Professional Surf Photographer

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Daniel Russo is one of the biggest names in surf photography today. 

Having traveled the globe with his camera many times over, he is a world-renowned photographer with a world-renowned portfolio. There’s a good chance you’ve gawked at one of Daniel’s photographs if you’ve ever picked up an issue of any major surf magazine. He is the only photographer to shoot the cover image of three surfing magazines - Surfer Magazine, Surfing Magazine, and Transworld Surf Magazine - within a span of one month. If you’re in disbelief and need to read that sentence twice, feel free.

From Nathan Fletcher to John John Florence, Daniel has photographed the best of the best in their natural environment. Many consider the barrel of a wave to be a lonely place, but if Daniel is in the water, expect him to be right alongside you as he gets the shot. As a native Hawaiian, he has learned to become a skilled waterman. He knows the water, perhaps, better than he knows himself, and when this knowledge is paired with his expertise as an ace photographer, the outcome is astounding.

Beyond the surfing world, Daniel’s photographs have made waves on the Internet. His Tumblr receives hundreds of daily visitors, and his widely followed Instagram allows his fans to glimpse through the eyes of a photographic genius. As if the Ansel Adams of the ocean, Daniel Russo captures nature at its most stunning regardless of the dangers he may have to encounter before the shutter clicks. In the transcription below, Daniel and I talk about his photography and the path he took to achieve his dream of becoming a professional surf photographer.

Where are you from?

I am from the north shore of Oahu. I grew up in Haleiwa until I was five, then moved up the coast to Sunset Beach. We lived on an old chicken ranch farm house across the beach on the mountain side of Log cabins.

Who are you currently shooting for?

I am currently contracted by Vans to document and produce content of the Vans Surf Team.

How old were you when your first picked up a camera? Did you know you wanted to be a professional photographer right then and there?

I was around 8 when I first started shooting photos. My mom had an old Nikon f2 and I shot some photos around the house. But it wasn't until I was about 19 when I first started to get into photography seriously and thought about maybe being a surf photographer. When I was about 21 I realized that if I worked hard I could make surf photography into a career.

Are you a surfer turned photographer? Photographer turned surfer? Or just a surf photographer?

I would consider myself a waterman that got into photography and applied my waterman skills to my photography in the water.

Apart from shooting water sports, what are some of your favorite subjects to photograph?

I enjoy shooting in the snow. Alaska has been one of my go to places each winter/spring to shoot when I have time off from shooting surf.

What was your first photography gig?

My first photography job was with Nalu Underground Surf Magazine. It was a youth magazine from Hawaii. The owners Curt and Mike Smith gave me my first foot in the door.

Who (or what) are your artistic inspirations?

With Instagram, you have access to so many great photos and it's rad to see something new everyday. But I still enjoy looking through magazines and books. I have a subscription to Frank51, Vice Magazine, and National Geographic. Those three magazines are great for visual stimulation.

Can you tell us about your progression from aspiring photographer to professional?

Time goes fast and I feel like it was just yesterday when I first started. It all happened based on hard work and networking. When you shoot everyday, you get better and you have work to share with people. That's what I did. I would shoot everyday and share my work with people so that people knew I was serious.

Where has your work taken you? How have your travels affected your perception of the world?

I have been around the world with my work. Traveling to other parts of the world opens your mind and gives you a grounded perception on life.

The world becomes smaller the more you travel.

Did you have any mentors who helped you to become the skilled photographer you are today?

I had photographers that inspired me but never any mentors that helped me out. I had to learn on my own. In my world of photography the older guys didn't want to share anything because it was a small industry and they didn't want new photographers taking their work.

Do you have a favorite photograph you've taken?

My favorite photograph is of Will Dillon in Puerto Escondido.

What do you hope to accomplish through your photographs?

I'm currently doing what I love but I really want to work on a book. I think doing a book would be the greatest way to convey my work.

What's your typical gear setup?

Camera: Nikon d4

Lenses: 500mm, 16mm, 50mm, 70-200mm

What sets your photography apart from photographers like you?

I try to not think about what others are doing so much and just focus on what is happening in front of me. It gets too hectic if you worry about other photographers.

Can you elaborate on your partnership with SEE SALT?

SALT optics and I started collaborating about a year ago. The goal was to share stories through images that describe the sea. We recently created some limited edition prints to help raise money for chartitywater.org. It's been really fun giving back and working on this project.

Most memorable experience in the field?

Standing on the rocks in west Australia waiting for the waves to calm down so I could swim out to this wave. I ran out to the edge to jump off and a set came in and knocked me on my ass. I got up and ran out again to jump off the rocks and into the ocean. As I'm swimming out a high back whale swam next to me about 20 yards away. It was the most surreal thing ever.

What tips can you offer to aspiring surf photographers seeking a position like yours?

Don't give away your work for free and don't give up your day job.

What compels you to continue taking photographs? What's your motivation/reward?

I continue to do it because it's challenging and you can never be done with photography. There is so much to learn and do. My reward is when I see others happy with the images created of them. It's rewarding when you give your hardest effort and see the happiness of others through your work.

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Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and NoMiddleman.com, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.