It was about 6 months ago that i conceived the idea for these interviews.
I sat down and hand wrote a list titled ‘Salt Sessions Dream List’ with all the photographers I would most like to interview (not being sure if any of them would ever say yes).
The name at the very top of that list was Rambo Estrada.
Today I have the absolute honour and privilege to share this interview with you.
If you don’t already know his work, a scroll through his Instagram feed will have you realising very quickly why he is right up the top of the list of my favourite photographers
Of everything I love about surf and wave photography, Rambo delivers the best version I have seen.
Light, wave form, insane backdrops, a 70-200mm focal length creating compression and isolation and then wider images taking in the amazing NZ landscape. I could study his images for hours (and i literally have)
But beyond that, and most importantly, he’s an awesome bloke to go with it and has a great outlook and mindset on photography.
From taking risks and continually challenging yourself to improve, without judgement over a single session or the time it takes. Just keep practising, make the most of conditions that are presented and just enjoy the process and the experience along the way.
He’s a super busy guy, and lots of people would want his time. So i feel incredibly fortunate that he took the time to answer these questions for me.
I really hope you enjoy this one as much as I do.
If you know of him already then hopefully there’s some questions in here that will help you learn something new.
If this is your introduction to Rambo Estrada then i can confidently say “you’re welcome” and “enjoy”
Mt Maunganui on the East Coast of the North Island in New Zealand. Voted NZ’s best beach (but not for it’s waves)
Was photography always the plan and what do you think drew you to photography and ocean photography in particular?
I really just started taking photos to document the waves I scored on surf trips, when I was supposed to be studying at university. My main motivation was to make my friends that actually attended class jealous. But it didn’t take me long to get obsessed with the art of photography. I’m so stoked that it’s evolved into my job, which is lucky, as I flunked out of 2 different degrees in the process.
How often do you shoot, and is it mainly now for work assignments or do you have some time for personal or spec shooting?
On the East Coast where I live we only get a handful of really good days a year. I do everything I can to make sure I’m there on those days, and it really stings when I miss one. But regardless of the conditions I’ll try and go for a couple of swims a week. The majority of time I shoot for myself because I enjoy it. I actually rarely do any ocean photography assignments. I just love chasing waves, and then hopefully sometime down the line I’ll find a way to make a couple of bucks from the images. But if not, I’m just happy to have them for my own enjoyment.
I’m a huge fan of the more pulled back style in your surf photography, incorporating backdrops, foregrounds and elements of the surrounding landscape. Can you discuss your thoughts around this style and its appeal to you?
New Zealand is an amazing place to live, and I love incorporating it’s beauty into my images. We have some epic beaches here with insane scenery. It is such a rad experience to be present in these surroundings and I’m really just trying to translate that feeling into my photos. I get a real kick out of working angles and focal length to accentuate those elements in the images I create.
I understand you are your own harshest critic when it comes to your images. What are the main elements you are looking for in a surf or wave image?
Yes definitely, I don’t think I’ve ever actually taken an image I’m 100% happy with. Ideally what I look for is groomed offshore conditions and I love the way that horizontal light at dusk and dawn hits the curves of the wave face. For me that’s the time of the day that I really get fired up to shoot. For water shots I like the overall image to be super clean and uncluttered so I find that shooting longer focal lengths like 70-200mm really helps to isolate the wave and eliminating other distracting elements.
Do you have specific images in your mind that you are chasing or is it more a case of adapting your particular style to the conditions that are presented?
I have images in mind that I really want to create, but when your dealing with Mother Nature you can’t just expect to rock up to the beach and for the conditions to be perfect for a particular image. So I just have a bunch of ideas locked away that eventually when the stars align I get an opportunity to try out. Often I’ll just wake up early and run down in front of my house for sunrise. I never check the surf, and I find that it’s the mornings when the waves are average that I end up enjoying the most. Then I’m not just concentrating on regular shots of waves, but have an opportunity to experiment, try new things and create something unique.
I notice you will shoot details of land based subjects near to the surf spots you travel to eg people, animals, shops, roads etc. How important is storytelling in your images to paint a greater picture than just the surfing?
Every time I set off on a trip, I’m aiming to shoot a diverse collection of images to fill a book. I never actually make a book, but that’s just how I think ha ha. I don’t like to limit myself to only just one disciple of photography. I like to shoot what’s going to look best on the day, if that’s from the water then I’m out there swimming. But often it’s not, so I’m just as happy to create images on land because I just love photography in general. I really enjoy documenting the whole journey. To me it’s not just what’s happening in the ocean.
I was super intrigued when I heard that you will print out an image if it’s one you really like and hang it in your office as a positive visual reminder for moments when you may be either frustrated or just busy with other stuff. Did I hear this correctly and if so, can you discuss a bit how it helps?
That is an accurate quote! I’m always aiming to shoot images for print. It’s the ultimate way to really view a photo. I spend far too much time stuck in my office, so it’s great to have a reminder on my wall of the reason I do this.
In a high consumption, low attention span world, do you feel any pressure to be constantly putting out new images?
Yes and no. The people definitely have an unquenchable thirst for new content but it just needs to be new to them, not actually shot that day. I’ll often bank a bunch of good images from a session then archive and drip feed them out over the next year ha ha.
Do you have a favourite place to shoot or has there been any specific session that has stood out where everything just came together?
There’s a spot down the bottom of the South Island that I just love. It’s a 24 hour road trip from my house and a couple of times I’ve done the drive solo non-stop (with a 2 hours snooze on the ferry). The wave itself is rad, but I just love the overall vibe down there, super rugged, camping out, hiking to the beach, no cell phone coverage, no shops, no worries!
Could you provide any advice for aspiring surf or wave photographers?
Initially when I got my housing I was told to not expect to get a decent photo within the first year. Turned out to be 100% accurate. There’s so many ways to fuck up a water photo, and the best way to learn is just by getting out there and making mistakes.
I took it on like an apprenticeship, and swam any opportunity I had. Not really expecting to be nailing anything I just wanted to get my skill set up to the level where when the conditions came together I had the ability to actually take a reasonable shot. Once I felt I was competent, I started hunting out the best waves with interesting light, and that’s when I began to actually create images I really liked.
The second real breakthrough for me came when I decided it was ok to take risks. Being prepared to sacrifice a bunch of potential decent shots in the quest to get weird and experimental. Instead of coming in with 15 good photos, I might only get 1 or 2, but they will be a level above. Sometimes I butcher them all, and I’m ok with that.
Dive into Rambo’s world further here