Sean Davey Exclusive Interview

A master of surf photography

By alamo5000 in Photography on Aug 25, 2014

Sean Davey

Sean Davey is one of the premier shooters of surf and ocean life photography in the world. He is a native of Australia who now lives on the North Shore of Oahu (Hawaii). Back in 1977 as a teenager he took his very first photograph and has since become a legend of surf photography. He has shot in excess of 140 magazine covers over the years (an average of about 4 covers per year since he took his very first photograph). He has had thousands of shots published in publications around the world, and we've recently had the opportunity to interview him exclusively for our homepage.  We hope you enjoy!

Sean wanted to mention that he owns a Espon 9900 printer and thus prints and signs all of his work personally. He specializes Exhibition Canvas Gloss paper.  Now, without further ado let’s get down to business.

Sean, obviously your bread and butter over the years has been surf photography. That said some of your most amazing work doesn’t even feature actual surfers. Wildlife such as sea turtles and dolphins, seascapes, landscape shots, sunsets, and everything in between increasingly make up more of your portfolio. The common thread there is everything is tropical and generally centered on the ocean.

A: Well yes, the common thread is tropical, but really it's only because I live here in the tropics and do the vast majority of my work here. I really do have a yearning though for the much wilder and remote places like what you typically see Chris Burkhard shooting. My own homeland of Tasmania is one of those places. I am lucky though to be living in such a beautiful place that lends itself so well to my style of photography. I enjoy photographing surfing. It has been my livelihood for more than 20 years, but with the financial downturn, it was no longer a viable option for me to make a living from. Luckily for me, I always had a wider photographic interest than just the surfing itself so I was able to move on to other areas of photography and keep sustaining my livelihood. Sadly surfing plays a very insignificant role in paying the bills these days, but it's not because I don't want to shoot it. It's more about the fact that freelancers have been pretty much wiped out of the surf industry now. The only guys making any money at all are the guys who are working for a company. Pretty much the only true freelancers out there now are guys who really don't need to make a living…

On the surface of things it sounds almost mystical and even a bit unfair that a person would get paid to live in a tropical paradise doing what you do. With that, describe to us the lifestyle of Sean? Have you ever worn a tie in the last five years?

A:Oh no. I honestly can't remember the last time that I had to wear a tie. Perhaps at my brother's wedding, over ten years ago. It is interesting that you pointed out that I get to live and work in what most people would define as a tropical paradise, which it is. The downside of course though is that it's incredibly expensive to live here in Hawaii and so the rat race plays a large part in my day. The need to pay bills keeps me in the office many times when I'd have preferred to be out shooting. It's lucky that I have a preference for the ultra early and late hours of the day. I love the long shadows. I'm an early riser, so I can often get a cool photo shoot in even before the day has hardly begun. Some mornings I'm leaving the beach as the sun comes up. My point is that because I do live here and only minutes from any number of great locations, I can still get a great shoot in, even if it means that most of my day is spent taking care of business, which it often is. I do have a pretty strong creative streak and feel a need to create. Often many of my best images just happen totally unplanned. Those are usually the best images, the ones that just organically happen on their own.

 A surfer surfing away from the camera and towards the rising sun at Rocky Point.A surfer surfing away from the camera and towards the rising sun at Rocky Point.

A spectacular Sunset on the Waikaloa coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.    This is actually just half of the full panoramic landscape...A spectacular sunset on the Waikaloa Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii.  This is actually just half of the full panoramic landscape.

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What is an example of one of the most fun and/or epic experiences you’ve had as a professional photographer? Also tell us about one of your most fond photographic expeditions, where you went, what you did, who you were with, and so forth.

A: I've had soooooooooooo much fun over the years doing this AND getting paid for it. There truly is no better way to make a living than doing what you love to do, even if it's not very much. I'd much rather do what I love for not a lot than do what I don't like at all for much more. I may not have much money, but I do have a rich life in that it feeds my main passion on an almost daily basis. I'm super driven to create unique looking imagery. Like I'd much rather get a really cool unusual looking image say of a lumpy looking wave than just another perfect barrel shot. It's the different unique images that I chase for sure.

Just about every trip that I have done I have very fond memories of. Even the skunkers where we didn't even get good waves...I have fond memories of those too. I've met and made friends with so many really great people over the years. I'm thankful for all of their friendships. It's enriched my life beyond belief to have travelled and befriended so many truly great people. Just about every surfer I've traveled with to any extent has been a totally awesome person to be with. I think surfers generally are great travelers though, certainly most are who do it on a regular or even professional basis. I have fond memories of one trip that I did with Kelly Slater and Eddie Vedder, Joe Curren and Derek Hynd back in 2001 to this tiny little farming community on an island in Australia. It was a totally relaxed and completely low key deal, just roaming around craggy headlands and over rolling green hills in search of frosty offshore delights and they found them on several occasions too. I had a long time friend on the island called "Wire" who lived on the island his whole life until a couple of years ago when his ticker finally gave out. He was a special old guy. He and Eddie in particular became really close mates and I've always felt really good about that because they are both truly great people.

How do you see your style of photography connecting to people who aren’t really connected to surfing or the beach? I mean there are people in Iowa somewhere who are wearing surf gear right now. Literally ‘the image’ seems to have almost created the industry for all that. It seems like sort of a mystique. Visually speaking if you put a photo of a pristine tropical wave with a surfer deep in the pit and beautiful Reef girls standing around – even people in Siberia are going to get it and find it appealing. How have you seen the ebb and flow of the popularity of beach life and surfing evolve over the course of your career? How do you see photography as having played a key role in the marketing of all that?

A: I've always been well aware of the fact that there are folks out there who have never even seen the ocean in real life and in a way that has helped shape the photographer that I am today because I often will ask myself things like "Will this image appeal to regular non beachy folk too?" And so, I often shoot with a mind to appealing to a much, much wider audience than just surfers or even beach-goers, even more so now with the internet making the world a seemingly smaller place these days. Certainly before the world financial crisis in '09 surf culture had reached beyond saturation point. Mates in England were telling me that even small English towns had like four surf shops in them, in England of all places. So yeah, it was certainly marketed to the masses there until '09. The soul left the surf industry when Quik and Bong went public. So little organic energy remained after this. Of the big three, only one remains a strong viable company and that is Rip Curl, who chose not to go public. Turned out to be a good move by the look of things. Right now it's like back to the 70's. Heaps of small vibrant companies opening up while Quik and Bong fade away. The cool stuff is all the new labels. New growth, new energy, new ideas. Photography played a major, major role in the surf industry. One of the biggest! Without our images the surf companies would have no way to show the masses the all encompassing experience of being a surfer. It's the most creative photographers that do this the best too. You need to think outside the box if you want your work to stand out, and when it stands out it gets used by those companies to promote their message. Make no mistake the surf industry’s very existence would not have been possible without photographers, period!

I've always loved shooting waves right from my very first photograph. particularly inside of them, but I'm open to all kinds of wave, even ones that don't tube at all..."I've always loved shooting waves"

Tell us how over the years your choice of gear has evolved including what you use now? Also I understand back in the day you were a big time Pentax owner and shooter. We have a lot of readers who still shoot film with classic Pentax bodies and lenses. It’s pretty much an industry in and of itself. Talk to those guys for a minute. Give some tips for that era if you don’t mind.

A: I started with a Kodak Instamatic in 1977, then a crappy Practica L camera from Russia which just fell apart. Then I embarked on a pretty long association with Pentax, starting with a Spotmatic, then a K1000, then the MX and finally I was so stoked to be using an LX with all the extras. I even had the sports finder head for long lenses. (You could remove the head on the camera like a 120 camera)

A burglar relieved me of all my gear in the late 80's leaving me at the time with just a Century 1000mm lens. I didn't shoot for eight months until someone gave me his old Nikkormat which I was able to use on the Century (lens). From that point on I never looked back.

I went with Canon who were moving ahead with the T90 at the time, then of course onto EOS for a very long time, and now I'm halfway between brands with the recent acquisition of a Nikon D800 and a Zeiss 21mm. That combo is the bees knees for landscape photography. I can say though that I never ever had bad thing to say about the Pentax gear. All their gear was made so well back in those days. I had this magic Pentax M Series 20mm lens. It was a total jewel. All manner of magazine editors would comment on the quality of the pictures from it. Also the Olympus 21mm from that era was phenomenal.

Back in the day when you were shooting something such as surfing and you are using manual lenses and had no autofocus, walk us through some of the basics of what you typically would do to get those classic images?

If you know anything about golf you'll know that it is good to visualize what you are going to do before you walk up to the golf ball. It's a little like that. Take for example at Pipeline, back in the day before fisheye's became so numerous, the chosen lens by guys in the know like Aaron Chang, Jeff Hornbaker and Don King were typically in the range of 80 - 135mm because those lenses do the best of of showing the true size of the wave. Wide angles actually make it look smaller than it is. So yeah, you'd typically have a lever on your housing that you can move back and forth to follow focus the surfer with. On top of that, you'd also be monitoring and adjusting your aperture and/or shutter speed with the constantly changing light. All that while your paddling around in the line up trying to avoid being run over as well as clean up sets from the north. Then of course, you had to be patient and try not to waste your film because you only had 36 exposures. Yep we had to swim out and back in all for just 36 exposures. It was way harder back in those days.

Do you think technology has spoiled the photographer? Does fast focus, auto everything, and 11 frames a second sometimes make for a generation of shooters who don’t think through what they do?

A: Yes unfortunately. Here's the thing. The more powerful the cameras get the more is lost in the true art and knowledge of being a photographer. I've heard that some of these mirror-less cameras are doing 30 frames a second now. They might as well be using a video camera if they are going to do so many frames a second. That in itself is an omen of things to come. There will come the day when everything will be pretty much video cameras cable of everything that we do now. Then photography will truly begin to be lost as a true art in the sense that we know it as now.

Obviously technology is something that had to be embraced, but name a few of the timeless basics of a good photographer that cut across technology? Do you ever miss the good old days? Speaking of that I recall being extremely impressed by some shots you took with a point and shoot. Can you share one of those images just for a reference?

A: I do miss the magic of throwing a new batch of slides across the light-box. That used to be way cool. I can say that there is a real feeling of satisfaction in using a totally manual camera including focus.

This is how I approach using my Nikon D800. The lenses that I use are both completely manual focus. It's a lot more satisfying to take pictures this way and strangely it is a way that the vast majority of "photographers" out there will never even get the opportunity to do. It's good to exercise your inner artist, by stripping it back to manual controls.

During the late 90's, Yashica released a relatively cheap and affordable point and shoot film camera called a T4. What made this camera way cool was the lens which was the same as the Leica Minilux lens apparently. I grabbed a couple of them and used them a lot throughout 2001-2004 in particular because I always got amazingly sharp images on them. It was very cool also on black and white film. Here's a couple of sample images from the Yashica T4 point and shoot.

Sean used this type of camera to capture the following two images.Sean used a camera like this one to capture the following two images


Boat 2

Give us a snapshot of what some of your most involved photo shoots were. Swimming around the ocean in massive surf has to be challenging. I have seen shots of you hanging out the door of helicopters. Paint us a picture of some of the potentially dangerous or exciting situations you have found yourself in to get shots.

A: It never felt dangerous in the helicopter simply because I was working my ass off, trying to make the most of the $1000 per hour price. It's super exciting to shoot from up there though. I really dig it. Swimming in big surf is the most dangerous for sure. I remember one time in the mid 90's when I was swimming pretty big Pipe and Derek Ho caught this insane wave from half way over to Off The Wall. I was sitting in the pack but at the end of the line, closest to the beach, which actually gave me the best shot. Problem was that his wave drew all the water off the reef and the one behind was bigger. Man, I got rag-dolled all the way down to Pupukea before I could get out of the water. That was kind of scary, but I've had equally scary moments out in the middle of nowhere too like this one time on the Cocos Keeling Islands to the North West of Oz. It had been so big the past few days that no-one really knew for sure what size it was until the guys finally paddled out one morning with me swimming behind them with a water housing. It was tough making it out there, but then once I was almost out a massive set came through and broke outside of me. I remember thinking this is every bit as scary as being caught inside of big Pipe. I had another similar situation in Tonga once as well where a cyclone had just passed and whipped the surf up to ten feet or more. I remember floating out through a keyhole in the reef in a pretty fast current wondering if I'd make it back in. Those scary moments are just that usually. Just moments.

Name some other types of photography (other than ocean or tropical related stuff) that you admire? What kinds of stuff do you like to look at? What are some of the other non surfing related things that you like and why?

A: I've always been into landscape photography and more recently I've taken that into panoramic photography which I've always liked. I've been increasing the quality of my work in this area and recently I went to "the dark side" and purchased a Nikon D800 along with a Zeiss 21mm. The quality of my landscapes now is just off the Richter…

Describe what you do now in the way of your art. You’re shying away from pure surfing photography, but tell us about your medium, your presentation, and generally what kind of artistry you provide and where you are at professionally. Injecting a little bit of my own opinion here, your work and part of the reason I like it is that it provides a bit of hope. The world is a beautiful place. Your images to me are an outlet of happiness. The world can be a dull place if you let it, but there is something else out there. Waking up to see a Sean Davey image hanging on the wall to me says ‘today is going to be a good day’ and is a reason to smile. Yes, obviously you can take my commentary as a compliment.

A: You nailed it right there. That is actually what I try to present to people who buy my art. I like to create imagery that makes people stop and take a second look, and as you say, conveys a feeling of appreciation for this beautiful planet that we live on. I work on both photo paper and canvas which is my specialty. I really like to present my images in several panels too. Those really seem to get people's attention. I think it's because an image split into 3 panels can subliminally resemble a set of windows, looking out into a beautiful scene. I actually went all out on producing my images into art just after the world financial crisis because I could see that the only person that I could truly rely on at that time was myself. I just came to a point where I felt that I already had so much cool imagery and that I needed to start marketing that myself, which is what I did. That was like 4 or 5 years ago now and I'm still doing it using mainly social media and my website at

Lastly, what is your favorite food?

A: There is so much good food out there and I like all kinds really. I was brought up on meat and three veggies in Australia and I still enjoy those meals a lot, but probably my favorite is Thai food. Those guys know how to make food taste so good and usually at a very affordable price too.

 "Banyon Surfer"      A random surfer passing by a huge banyon tree in Honolulu."Banyan Surfer" A random surfer passing by a huge banyan tree in Honolulu

A letter cone shell on the shoreline at Gili Lankanfushi, in the Maldives
A letter cone shell on the shoreline at Gili Lankanfushi in the Maldives

The biggest wave I ever saw at Waimea Bay was the day before the last Eddie that Greg Long won. It was so big just before the sun set that they apparently rescued 12 surfers around that time.

The biggest, I ever did see Waimea Bay was the day before the last Eddie that Greg Long won.     It was soooo big just before the sun set that they apparently rescued 12 surfers round that time

I've always loved shooting waves right from my very first photograph, particularly from inside them, but I am open to all kinds of waves, even ones that don't tube at all.

Want to ask Sean a question or comment on his work?  Drop a note in the comments section below, and he might even stop by the site to reply!

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