With the sky painted in the soft reds and oranges of dawn and 15-foot waves rolling in at Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of O’ahu, Zak Noyle snaps shut the waterproof casing on his iPhone, zips up his wetsuit and swims out for a spot beyond the whitewater. The Hawaiian-born and bred surf photographer is fully in his element. Few others have the guts to get into the positions he’s in, inches away from high-speed surfboards, getting dragged under massive waves, doing anything to capture the newest angle no one’s yet seen.
Among his list of accolades: Noyle became senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine at the age of 25; he won the prestigious Red Bull Illume award in 2014; he’s shot for the likes of National Geographic, ESPN and Sports Illustrated; and his photos have been featured in advertising campaigns for Chanel and Billabong.
Here, Noyle talks about the challenges of catering to the instant gratification demanded by the Internet, staying afloat in some of the biggest waves on the planet and chasing “the one.”
Where did it all start for you?
In Hawaii, you are surrounded by the beauty of the ocean, and growing up I always surfed and was in the water. My dad is a commercial photographer, but I wasn’t really attracted to photography at first. I found it later, in my twenties. When I was in the ocean, I could capture all these things that I wanted to show people who would never go into the water and be able to see.
What’s it like being part of a turning point for real-time digital media?
Everyone wants to see everything instantly these days. Because of that I have to get as instant as possible. I’m using a Canon 70D with a built-in WiFi function so that I’m able to shoot photos with DSLR quality right in the water. I bring my iPhone with underwater housing and I’m able to send the photos there via Bluetooth. I can then edit the photos in the water and send them out in real time.
Has this changed the way you shoot?
It’s a different mindset when doing the live imagery because you are trying to beat everyone to it. It works great when I’m out there in the water, and the world champion gets crowned, and I have that first photo of that person’s ride. But when I’m shooting free surfing or trying to get a cover shot, I’m not shooting with this same technique.
What’s it like doing all that on top of having to survive massive waves?
When you’re in a wave like that, it’s a dangerous place to be. I’m pulling my attention away from surviving while still keeping my eye on the horizon, knowing exactly where I am in the line up and trying not to get caught by the next wave, all while treading water and holding my camera.
How do you train for this?
I do a lot of swimming and different yoga. I did swimming and water polo growing up, which I think gave me a really good foundation for all of this.
How do you position yourself in the water?
All I’m going out there with is my camera and a steel housing made out of hardened aluminum. I’m just wearing fins and swimming. I’m not on a board because you want to be able to stay out of the way of the surfers.
You’ve credited pro surfer and fellow Hawaiian Randall Paulson for teaching you most everything you know about being in the water at Pipeline. What are the key elements that he taught you that you’d pass on?
He taught me where to sit and where to get out in the water. Pipeline is not a place you just go and jump into the water. It’s a place where I’ve dedicated my shooting career to. I sat behind and respected the guys who had been there before me and put in my time to do that. It’s just like a surfing lineup where you have to respect the guys that are from there, the guys that have put in their time there. Photography is the same way. This is where guys are making their careers. They are putting their lives on the line to get these shots.
Check out Zak Noyle’s epic shots from Pipeline>>
What is it about Pipeline that makes it the holy grail for surfers and photographers?
People are drawn to the perfection of the wave. It’s mesmerizing as it changes all day with the light. And it’s a really dangerous wave. There have been a lot of people who have drowned there and hit their heads because of how shallow it is. It’s a solid, flat rock reef, and that’s why the wave breaks how it breaks. Pipeline is the equivalent of the most advanced mountain you could ever ski.
What is the relationship between surfer and photographer?
It’s quite a special relationship. A lot of these surfers don’t do contests, so they rely on photos for exposure. That’s how they make their careers and their sponsors happy. And we make our careers by selling photos to their sponsors. If you’re not getting along with someone, you’re probably not going to have great synergy in the water. I’m trusting them because I’m inches away from their boards. If I can’t trust them, they are going to break my camera, or hurt me, or hurt themselves. That close relationship and trust is really important.
What is the visceral experience of being out there, doing what you do?
It’s my happy place. I’ll often use a wide-angle lens so I’m sitting right next to the action; the guys are coming right by me. They’re coming so fast, but those moments feel so slow because you have to be completely there. If you are not there 100% mentally and physically, you’re going to get hurt there. You’ll get bounced off the reef, cut up, pushed out to sea. It demands your attention and focus.
Best moment of your career?
At Pipeline, I’ve definitely had some great days in some pretty big waves. But I’m still after that one. That one that really sticks out to me. I’m always after something different.