May 9, 2008



In this our first installment of our PROFILES category, we talk with North Shore lensman Jim Russi. We were lucky enough to have Jim shoot all of the action shots for our Summer ’08 catalog, including the much talked about cover. Here, Jim opens up about the pros and cons of going digital, and the future of “quality” surf photography.

As a graduate of a prestigious American photography school, how important is formal education is to a successful career in photography?
The most important thing I learned at Brooks was to finish strong with what I had started…. even when the assignment wasn’t fun anymore.

What is more important: Great equipment or a great subject?
Great equipment is important in capturing great images on a consistent basis; but the best equipment in the world won’t help you if you don’t know how to use it to its fullest potential. However, if you don’t have interesting subject matter, no one will care about your image…. even if it is perfect, perfectly boring.

Describe a “classic” Russi surf photo.
Peak of action, height of emotion, and rich warm light with vibrant colors.


Describe your general work flow.
Shoot. Sweat. Send….. Fast.

How has digital photography changed your style / work flow?
I used to be an outdoor photographer / surfer. But since I started using digital 5 years ago, I just shoot a little and spend the rest of my life in the digital darkroom downloading cards, renaming files, processing raw images to tif and jpgs, and uploading those files to clients’ FTP servers.

What does your housing consist of?
I have many water-housings, but all are constructed of carbon fiber boxes and plexiglass lens ports. We shoot every thing from 200mm to 8mm fisheye lenses to pole cams to remote-control board cams.

What was your most recent equipment purchase and why?
Canon EOS – 1D Mark III. It’s 10 megpaixels at 10 frames a second. I need the speed and the image quality. The world has embraced the megpaixel as the quality standard, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s the quality of the chip and the processor. That’s why you can buy a 10 megpaixel Canon 40D for just over $1000, and the Mark III (also 10 mpx) is just under $5000 for the body alone. There is a good reason for that—image quality.

What projects are you currently working on?
We actually produce images for the Roxy ad campaigns all year round. There’s a lot of them. I have been blessed to be a part of their program for 10 years now. I’m also working on a book project this year and am very fortunate to have Tom Adler doing the art direction for me. The Photo:Russi book should be out late this year.

Are there any projects / requests you refuse to be a part of?
Well, I don’t do any thing that I consider demeaning to women or kids—or men for that matter. I believe that my images should send a positive message. There is enough negative influence in our world. I don’t want to be a part of it.

When was the last time you second-guessed yourself in the field, and then regretted it?
Last big swell at Pipeline shooting fisheye (ultra-wide lens in the barrel), and I knew I should have chosen a long lens form the channel. The result: A few stitches in my hand from getting caught inside by a rouge set and then bouncing off the bottom. Listen to your instincts and “don’t do things just because everyone else is doing it.” My mom has been telling me that my whole life. Haven’t got it quite right, yet.

In terms of lifestyle and attitude, how does Hawaii compare to Southern California?
We choose our lifestyle and attitude wherever we are. However, I feel for a guy like me who is strongly driven and a bit of an over achiever, living in the country on an island helps slow me down a bit and is a good balance. I still get all my projects done, but I don’t care so much if my pickup truck is dirty. As long as my family is happy and healthy with clean boardshorts and t-shirts to wear, it’s all good.

You have a unique perspective on the rise of women’s surfing. Why do you feel that the American public’s interest in the sport is waning (compared to that of Australia or Brazil), despite the fact that the athletes’ skill levels are exploding?
I feel women’s surfing hasn’t been presented to the American public properly. Most of the surf companies (other than Roxy) who are profiting from the sales of their girls clothing lines aren’t putting enough money back into the promotion of the sport. They didn’t support (with ad. dollars) any of the failed women’s surf magazines, most will not sponsor surf contests, or even surf schools, or just plain fun girls’ beach and surf events. This is unfortunate, because after a flat spot in the surfing level curve, when the new kids hit 18 years old and go on the tour, the level of surfing will blow minds. I just hope the American public will get to see it.

Do you think the larger surf publications should incorporate more women action shots and articles?
Sure, if they won’t do mags for girls only…. but then again, they should even if they do.


Which photo magazines, journals, websites do you read?
All of ‘em, but I just look at the photos.

Who do you think are the next premiere surf photographers?
The guys who have passion, work hard, swim fast, and take the job seriously.

In terms of commercial / financial success, what advice do you have for up-and-coming photographers?
Unfortunately, with all the good things that have come with digital imagery, for the professional photographer, the downside is that the “gap” between amateur and professional images has narrowed quite a bit. When we shot film, pros shot slide (color positive) film used for publications, and amateurs shot color negative (print) film for snap shots. The difference in publishable quality helped maintain quite a distance between the pros and ams.

Pros had to expose the slide film within a 1/3 of a stop under or over exposed to be printable in mags. Ams could be anywhere in a 3-stop range over or under exposed and still pull a print for snap shot.

Exposing color positives for the mags took a lot of knowledge, experience, good equipment and a hard work ethic to be on location at sunrise and sunset for good “color temperature” and “direction of light” to create great images consistently.

Now with a low-end digital camera and a little photoshopping, most anyone can come up with an image that as a small jpg on a computer screen will look pretty decent.

These lower quality images have flooded the email boxes of every surf mag photo editor and surf clothing industry’s art director all over the world. With the increasing need for speed and crunching art budgets, the demand for quality imagery has taken a back seat to “fast and cheap.” It’s become a buyer’s market for the art buyers, and young people with no business experience and a desire to see their photos printed in the surf mags have thrown all business sense to the wind and give their work away for a song (or a pair of boardshorts), effectively putting an end to the occupation of “professional surf photographer.” It’s going the way of “record stores” and “typewriters.”

My advice: stay in school, go to college, take lots of business classes, and have a “back up” plan. Unless things swing back toward quality, I am sorry to say that surf photography is just for the “hobbiest.”