Two Minutes With Photographer, Luke Shadbolt

  • Life
  • Ride
posted by James Willmott

The Surf Photography is a brutal, and sometime fickle industry.

Once upon a time, it could be said that the industry had but only a few major players, a handful of big personalities, with strong allegiances to brands and publications, each with somewhat of a geographic advantage over the other. Each in search of the next cover or double page spread or feature trip to keep their place amongst the pack.

Over time, surfers formed friendships with and aligned themselves with these figure heads, a mutually beneficial relationship that seemed to only continued the dominance of the selected few. Enter stage left Digital Cameras and the GFC and a new wave of hungry grommets eager to do anything to join the pack, and what was no doubt the Golden years for the ‘originals’ quickly became a vision in the rear view mirror.

People began working for much lower dollars to get a foot in the door, and even gave away their images for free to form what they thought was the next era of lifelong bonds and friendships. However it hasn’t really turned out that way, and sadly in some cases this generational change over has seen the efforts of a true art form have is value pushed down due to the sheer supply of services available to Brands and Publications.

This has caused a shift, a need for the artist to be able to diversify their talents, and more specifically their ability to survive in multiple environments and industries – a chameleon of sorts. Some have held their position, refusing to budge, holding true to their single passion. For some this has paid off, and their position on the pool room wall is guaranteed for another generation, however for others it has meant a reasonably fast uber ride to less work and a regular seat at the local pub where they vent their “When I was younger” stories. This is not to say either those who have attempted to diversify have succeeded, one must still present as the strongest candidate for the project (not all industries operate as regularly on mates rates as the surf industry), and if anything to diversify you must work harder than those who have a comfortable niche within their realm, going above and beyond in your moonlight industry to counteract your “jack of all trades” banner. And it is here in this very small overlapping area, where all the elements have combined – talent, resourcefulness, industry versatility and persistence (but above all else the ability to pull off a killer hair do and a poor taste Hawaiian holiday shirt) – where we lay our scene.

One man who we at SurfStitch think has carved himself out a man size area in this exclusive VIP room of Industry overlap is a one Mr. Luke Shadbolt. A young man hailing from the Central Coast of NSW, who is at a rapid pace forming a business network to make even the loudest of high achievers turn it down a notch or two. Brands such as Audi, Chanel, Nikon, Marc Jacobs, Tourism Western Australia, Lancome, Land Rover and most recently Michael Kors litter his recently dialed list, and for good reason – the man knows how to deliver, and more importantly stay true to his love of the ocean, his creative morals and his personal brand.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Luke this week after a quick trip to Tahiti ( with one of our very our SurfStitch staff), and what follows is 10 mins of chatter with someone we think we will be seeing much much more of.

So we hear your just back from a Tahiti trip with One of our own, Dan Small how’d he go out in the line up?
Haha, yeh we just spent two days on a working bromance honeymoon in Tahiti. It was a whirlwind trip, we packed in about a weeks worth of activities into two days. He copped some beating out chopes and he was freaking out, but he didn’t hold back. Quite impressed really! It is arguably the heaviest wave in the world after all.

We are hearing there was a late night marathon from the local Watering holes of Papeete, dare we ask?
Well, yeah. We went into town for a couple of drinks after all the work was done, only to have none of our bank cards work on the Tahitian atm’s. We had enough money for beers, but no way of knowing if we could get money out for a cab. We were pretty thirsty though, so decided to risk it. Unfortunately we had no luck at the end of the night with cabs, which resulted in a casual 8km jog back to our accommodation in a light drizzle and leather shoes. Not ideal, but all part of the adventure.

Now Tahiti is done, where is next on the travel cards?
I am looking at options for this crazy swell that’s hitting this weekend, but I’m pretty flat out with other work so I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get involved! I’m off to Paris next week for a couple of fashion jobs, then New York after that for another commercial client. I would love to get a couple of days in Indo though, looks like it will be amazing.

Two Surfing World Covers in a row, it feels like your gathering some real momentum in industry acknowledgement, can you tell us a little about that feeling?
Haha, not in a row, there was one or two others in between. I’ve always only ever shot surfing purely for myself. If other people like it enough to publish it, then that is fantastic! It would be great to be able to work on more opportunities in the industry, there are so many stories to tell but realistically it is a hard slog to make any sort of money out of surf photography. If I’m able to spend a couple of months a year exploring new waves or realms then that is more than enough for me.

So the most recent Surfing World cover – can you tell us about this day? Who was out and what was it like shooting water in those heavy conditions?
That was the first time I’d been out to that wave, I’d been wanting to check it out for years. I’d heard rumours that it was pretty heavily localised by a certain individual known as the predator, but he didn’t make an appearance that morning which was good. The wave itself is incredible, a roll-in takeoff into a racing tube, or heavy tube depending on the swell direction. As heavy as it looks, it’s still actually very rideable. Mikey and Owen (Wright) were the standouts. It was cool to see their different approaches, Owen seemed a lot more clinical and polished, whereas Mikey was more raw and intuitive.

When did you first decide that photography was a thing you wanted to make your lifestyle? Did you have to study?
I studied a bachelor of visual communication at newcastle uni, which is a fancy way of saying a graphic design degree, which had elements of photography in it. That was where I met young Daniel Small from the surf stitch team actually. Best lentil burgers on the planet at the Ourimbah campus. After working in design and art direction for a few years, I started playing more with photography and ended up buying a water housing to get in the water, which I fell in love with. From there I have worked as a creative director and photographer, which is amazing because they are mutually beneficial industries with completely different environments. I love being able to take inspiration from each and apply it to the other.

Can you tell us some of the most challenging aspects regular people wouldn’t realize are involved with surf photography?
I guess the most challenging is understanding the environment. I’ve been in and around the ocean since I was 4, so having that understanding of how basic things like tide, swell, wind, currents etc and all the elements work is invaluable. All that second nature stuff that you just pick up over time is what people wouldn’t comprehend. Then you add a few kilos of glass and plastic and all the variables that that add’s to the task at hand. Not to mention the mental fortitude to be out in the water on your own at times, hundreds of metres out to sea at the mercy of the “locals”. There’s a lot that goes into being able to capture a surf photo, from the water at least.

Is there one day out in the water you will always remember above the rest? What was the highlight?
There are a few sessions that come to mind. Probably the best single day ever would have been the first and only time I went to shipsterns. There were so many highlights that I’m just going to put them into point form;

• The hour and a half hike out to the wave through some pretty breathtaking scenery, complete with all the horror stories about sharks and killer whales frequenting the lineup.
• Jumping off the rock platform as a 12ft swell rolls up and over the ledge.
• Seeing what was at the time the biggest barrels I’d ever looked into and the tiny humans that were inside of them.
• Having Kelly Slater rock up unexpectedly and show that he was in fact human. He spent the first half an hour of the session bogging rails and not doing all that well, then changed boards and proceeded to dominate.
• Shooting/Swimming for around 8 hours because I didn’t want to miss a single set.
• The hour and a half walk back to the car, stopping at an apple orchard and sampling some of the crispiest and juiciest apples I’ve ever tasted.
• Having a cover, feature spread, pull-out poster and a few advertising campaigns come from that one day.

What about specific images from another Creative, any single image that is your current Benchmark or inspiration driver?
Oh there is so much inspiration in the world, the internet has seen to that. It’s a love/hate relationship with the internet actually. I love the diversity, the ability to draw inspiration from so many sources and then the challenge of applying it in unconventional ways.

Apart from surfing and the ocean, what are your favourite things to shoot?
My main photographic fields are travel / lifestyle / fashion / surfing. Outside of that, I love working on conceptual stories, which I’d like to do more of, but they are hard to categorise because they vary. I’m not the sort of person that is always with a camera trying to document everything, I need time away from it to keep the spark alive.

So apart from taking photos – what makes Luke Shadbolt tick?
I love to learn, so I try and soak in as much as I can just in the general day to day of life. I love basketball, hiking, breakfast food, coffee, beer, animals, language, trying to understand how people think, I don’t mind the odd night of karaoke, wide open spaces. I’ve never understood how people can be board to be honest.

So we hear your off the market, a recent proposal to your long term love? How did that go down?
Yes, officially off the market. I’m pretty happy with how it all went down, I got the answer I wanted so that was the main thing! I’d always wanted to propose in Japan; Nicole (Warne) is half Japanese so there was some heritage value there, plus it was where we went on our first overseas trip together years ago. We’d been trying to do a trip to see the cherry blossoms for a few years, and I had just got the ring from the jeweller the week before we decided to go over, so timing was perfect really. We took a little paddle-boat out on a lake with cherry blossoms all around us and I dropped the knee as we passed under an overhanging branch. She had no idea it was coming either, which was great.

You two have covered a lot of the globe together, something a lot of only dream about, but I’m sure people who follow your Instagram’s forget a lot of it is work. How do you manage to balance the personal relationship and the creative/ commercial partnership when working together?
We’ve been so fortunate to be able to travel the world together, and 90% of the time it is probably just as amazing as it seems on instagram! In saying that, we do clash at times when we are working together; We’re both passionate and stubborn people, and if we don’t agree with each other it can be testing at times. Or if she makes me wait 10 minutes to eat a meal because she is taking an instagram photo of it! It’s always in the heat of the moment though, we kiss and makeup before the day is done.

To date, what has been the image/ project your most proud of and why is it your fondest?
There is a few that spring to mind;

1) The passing through project. In 2013, I spent the year travelling with a team of bodyboarders shooting a coffee table book and movie project in conjunction with Le Boogie Magazine. We managed to score in every location we went, had an amazing time and ended up selling out of the book within the first month. Great team, great times.

2) The infinity wall series that I shot earlier this year in Hawaii. It was an idea I’d been wanting to try for over a while, but the conditions hadn’t shown themselves. The clarity this year in Hawaii was incredible, so I knew it was a good opportunity to make that project happen, I just needed the right wind and swell conditions. The last day of my trip presented just that!

3) The pink lake editorial I shot with Nicole in Western Australia. Being able to explore remote parts of the world and experience such drastic and interesting landscapes is a true blessing.