The Life of a Burgeoning Surf Adventure Photographer

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 284d ago

Doesn't spinning all over the world, training a lens on some of the planet's most pristine setups sound like the ideal gig?

And it is damn rare for photographers to actually achieve the dizzy heights of paid for excursions, making enough coin to survive off these trips alone. For the everyday lensman with the vision, the grit and the stones to do so, there's still the chance to turn passion into sweet, fruitful endeavour.

Tom Pearsall, aka @driftwoodphotography_mr has been garnering our double taps for a while now. Starting out by shooting the diverse and captivating setups of West Oz, he's recently expanded the repertoire to that of a more surf/adventure persuasion. And we're damn glad he did.

So we decided to cast a little spotlight on Tom – who spends months grinding cash at home, to help to generate cash for his next trip. Dive into his mind here.

Editor's note: Yet, as this feature played out, a portion of Tom's $13,000 set up was stolen and he's now in need of your help to get him back on his feet. Go HERE for full details.

Tell us a bit about yourself, where are you from?
Western Australia. A state famous for its isolation, whacky characters and 12,500km of  pristine coastline. I moved from Perth to the South West (a place famous for its big swells and even bigger fish) with my family at age 17.

I was livid at the time leaving all my friends at that age; little did I know it was going to steer me on a path I never thought possible.

How did you get into surf photography?
Just like any surfer growing up I spent countless hours pouring over surf magazines and coffee table books.

Drooling at the wondrous, exotic images that seeped from the pages into my sub conscious, planting seeds that lay dormant until I was 26-years-old.

I was managing bars to support my surfing addiction at that time and I found myself becoming more conscious of the path I was on and the lack of meaning I was getting from it.

I'd always had a fascination with images and an inherent love for the ocean so I decided to bite the bullet, buy a camera and get a job as a surf-guide in the Mentawai Islands.

Your most recent images lean towards the adventure side, exploration and reward above all else. Is this a conscious factor that you set out to capture?
After witnessing the beauty and remoteness of the Mentawai's, and feeling the frustration of a paradise being overrun, I felt the clock was ticking on genuine adventure and exploration.

I met a fellow West Aussie,  underground surf explorer Luke Saranah, on a trip to Desert Point. It was soon apparent that we both wanted to find epic waves in far less populated places and he had the knowledge and contacts to get us there.

This shared passion created a surfer/photographer relationship that has seen us self-funding some pretty wild adventures.  

Safe to say at MSW HQ, we dig the adventure vibe, the throw wind to the sail and see where it leads you – has travel always been a big part of your life?
Travel wasn't really on my cards at all until it became a necessity for my photography to gain depth and for myself to gain experience and education.

After the first few trips I was hooked. Nothing compares to the rollercoaster of emotions you feel when you risk your last clams on a swell forecast; to a land you know so little about it may as well be Narnia.

The feeling of  the air of a foreign environment, soaking up the sights with eyes as excited as a toddlers is the closest you can get to magic in my mind. Their are of course challenges (financial, mental and physical) involved in getting to where you want to go, but the harder they are the more exhilarated you feel when you score! 

Talk us through some of your favourite places to visit?
Thinking about it I feel like it is desert climates, cold and hot. It's such a contrast to be in a land totally void of life and vegetation with an ocean pulsing with energy and teeming with life. These environments, such as Namibia and South Australia, are sparsely populated with humans and thus the feeling of isolation and exploration is compounded
These environments, such as Namibia and South Australia, are sparsely populated with humans and thus the feeling of isolation and exploration is compounded. It also means the people that have travelled to be there have a shared passion for that kind of adventure which creates a culture of stoke in the water rather than one of competition or aggression.

With one of the best waves on the planet at Margaret River – what inspired you to travel and not just focus on, say, The Box?
It's hard to build a portfolio based on one wave, or even one region. The routine I've developed is to be at home, saving coin and shooting home breaks, for nine months of the year and then allow three months for three separate strikes.

We'll have a vague idea of places we want to go and keep an eye on a variety of locations until one looks like it's on to fire. Our success rate has been pretty good so far which keeps the fire fuelled to do it again.

How difficult is it to stay relevant in the photog business?
Pretty bloody difficult. Their are that many photographers out there who are killing it that almost every angle or niche seems covered or already done.

You could look at that as an overwhelming fact but truth is, it's pushing photography to a whole new dimension. You could look at that as an overwhelming fact but truth is it's pushing photography to a whole new dimension

The push to stay relevant has definitely been a part of the motivation to step outside the box of traditional surf destinations for me. I'm only grateful for that because it's not only pushing me photographically but also encouraging new and unusual experiences.

The crazy thing is how quickly a relevant, jaw-dropping photo is surpassed by another.. which is surpassed by another.. which is surpassed by another.. so it's an endless pursuit. Unless you're in the top 10 per cent as soon as you rest on your laurels you're done.

How important is social media and engagement to getting your name out there?
Pretty bloody important. For photographers at my stage of development the opportunity to display work to the world for free (except for maybe the price of a little of your soul) is invaluable.

I mean I wouldn't be talking to you now if it weren't for social media. The sheer volume of content out there is equal parts inspirational and overwhelming for me.

I don't think I'm the only one who has been trapped comparing your work and judging yourself based on others achievements or likes or amount of followers. This a toxic place to be that suffocates your originality and creativity, so it pays to be careful, have faith in your own vision and use it as a tool to get where you want to go.

Talk us through your top 5 favourite shots of all time.
My favourite images aren't necessarily my "best" images. They're images that mean something personally to me, whether it was to overcome a fear, capture someone I've always revered or a reward of hard training and persistence.


Jay Davies at North Point this autumn, Margaret River. 25mm
This was approaching the heavy end bowl and I love his casual yet precise form at this critical moment. It was also a good test for my nerve whether to dive early or capture an image of the situation.


South Aus, undisclosed location. 25mm
This was a scary shoot for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was my first time down that way and I'd grown up on horror stories about locals destroying cars or equipment if you're taking photos. Secondly, it was my first swim in these parts and I'd grown up on stories of monster men in grey suits. It didn't take long to have my mind taken off all my worries with such beautiful colours, perfect waves and scenic backdrops!


Desert Point, Indonesia. 25mm
Light and action. The previous set had washed me in and I ended up in the perfect zone. I love the colours


The Box, Margaret River. 85mm
It's not often you get the chance to see Kelly Slater in the water in WA. He only got a couple while I was out there but it was obvious his approach to wave riding is in a league of its own.


Shaun Manners at North Point, Margaret River. 50mm
This was a super spooky session. It was pretty inconsistent and I was floating in deep water, far from the pack. It was getting very dark and paranoia had long set in, but it's not often I'm in the water the same time as Shaun and his style is gold so I had to stay out. I gradually reduced the shutter as the sun had set and Sean perfectly picked the gap in the clouds to create an image that is probably my favourite to date.