Interview with Tom Woods @stimages
Firstly, can you start with a little bit about yourself and your photography career?
I spend my days with my beautiful soul mate Sherrin and my two kids, Delta and Billy. I have designed my life around surfing, travelling and photography with my family.
I grew up in Adelaide, South Australia and found surfing around the age of 14. The surfing lifestyle and magazines led me to photography and then photography led me to travel.
Sherrin and I travelled around Australia in a van for a year during our twenties. We stayed in the New South Wales mid-north coast, which became our home — gradually establishing a photography business. After working for photo labs, photography stores, portrait and commercial photographers, I began freelancing to several surfing magazines part-time.
In 2004 we set up our own photography business called ST Images and have been working full time on that ever since. We started off shooting everything from weddings and portraits, to commercial assignments.
Around 2013 we drilled down to just commercial clients and got a lot of work travelling around Australia photographing resorts, tourism and holiday parks. We were full time on the road from 2014 to 2018 but have now got a new home base on the beautiful Sunshine Coast. Our work still takes us on the road a fair bit, but we are enjoying having a base and connecting with some great people in this area.
It has also given me a chance to concentrate on my photography education content.
What equipment do you use to create your images, and why did you select it?
I have used Aquatech water housings since 2002. They make such a great product. When you take your expensive cameras and lenses into the water, you need to have the best protection, and these guys produce gear that is second to none. They have a great team backing up their water housings and are continually innovating.
With my cameras and lenses, I chose Canon back in 1999 and built on the system from there. As you would know, once you lock into a brand, very little is interchangeable with other brands. Canon had the most extensive range of lenses and the best focusing systems. While they have been getting some heat from the general public lately, I believe their product is still fantastic. The focusing, lens quality, professional build and colour straight out of the camera is still more than I could ever wish for.
All brands like Nikon, Sony, Olympus and Fuji make top-level gear, and the brand you shoot with has very little to do with your resulting portfolios. The photographer makes the pictures, not the cameras, and all of these brands will give you the tools to create world-class images.
How has ocean photography shaped the person you are today?
Well, I was a surfer and ocean lover first, so that shaped my life as a water photographer. Having the ability to see, create and experience life through ocean photography keeps me in a place of wonder and appreciation. If I can dive into the ocean each morning with either my surfboard or my camera, then whatever the day throws at me after that is all good.
Ocean photography is much like life. You have to go through a journey that involves the battles of getting your position in the line-up. Waves crash on your head, you find yourself in rips, you never know what is going to happen over the next wave. Peak moments happen when you least expect them, and you are immersed in the beauty of Mother Nature. It provides a feeling of both being a part of the magic but also vulnerable at the same time. It teaches you acceptance and trust. It teaches you to tune into your instincts and go after what lights you up.
Ocean photography has given me so many lessons and will continue to inspire the way I live as a human on land. To be grateful and accepting of it all.
It has also led me to a career which I love. I have been able to travel with my family and spend my days creating alongside my life partner Sherrin, and that is my greatest achievement.
Which photographers have inspired your journey, and why?
I have to say I admire a lot of photographers, but my journey has been my own. I haven't followed any real path, and I just made a life that suited the way I wanted to live.
I admire the personal traits in photographers like Chris Burkhard and Krystle Wright who are willing to do the absolute uncomfortable for their craft, well beyond the commitment of most (including myself).
I admire authentic humans in the photography world; people that are willing to talk about their craft and are genuinely engaged with their followers and clients.
Photographers such as Warren Keelan, Phil Gallagher, Che Chorley, Sean Scott, Phil Thurston and Todd Glaser, all of this crew have jaw-dropping portfolios but are also epic people. They have all gone down unknown and sometimes insecure roads to find their true north, and that is something I admire. I hope more people in this world choose passion over comfort. Imagine if everyone was doing what they loved every day. That would make for a fantastic world.
How has surf photography evolved over the years, what do you see in the future for the industry?
Well, I think it’s much more accessible. You can now start shooting fantastic imagery with a small action camera. The choices of water housings are plentiful, higher-tech and lightweight.
The introduction of digital cameras has made it more affordable. When I started, it cost $20 a roll of Velvia slide film another $20 to get it processed and then out of just 36 shots you prayed you had at least one keeper shot. Now with digital cameras, you can burn 36 shots in 3 seconds, and it doesn't matter if one works or not. You can shoot all day for free (once you have invested in your gear), so that's the most significant change. Having 1500 shots on my blank card when I swim out is so much better than the 36 that I used to have. Not to mention, the choices for the lens are more varied and affordable than 15-20 years ago.
The quality of surf photography has improved, in my opinion.
Instagram has made photography cool, back 20 years ago; photography was far from cool. So that's a funny observation that I have noticed with the evolution of photography.
Now that it is a trend, there are far more photographers around, but also more opportunities. A single photo in an advertising campaign would last for a year or maybe more. Now the images have to change almost daily, so companies are hungry for content.
Photographers need to realise even if they are starting out; their imagery is worth good money. They should be rewarded for their work like anyone else. The general public and companies profiting from their creations must learn to value photography for the art it is. Asking for what you are worth will earn respect; it will get you long-term clients and led to a career. A credit on social media will get you nowhere.
I feel the future of surf photography is bright. It won't be in the same as 10-20 years ago, as it's always evolving. Anyone in the industry will need to think creatively and be innovative in their approach.
As far as surf images, I think it will be the same as surfing; it will progress to levels beyond what we can imagine right now.
What do you feel has been the key to your success?
Not having a plan B. If I had a backup plan, I would have quickly fallen into that and just become another regular person in society with a 9-5 job. I'm not suggesting everyone should go and quit their job today to live their dream, but for me, I had to commit completely.
If crew do want to live outside the normal, then make sure you do something every day towards that dream, even if it's just a 10 minutes a day.
Success in the photography world, I believe, is as simple as being a good human and treating everyone you come across with respect. In addition to doing your best no matter what job. If you take a photography job, do it to the best of your ability and treat it like you are shooting it for your own business.
Also, the ultimate goal of working side by side with my partner Sherrin was all the motivation I needed to keep this photography thing going.
I could have done so many things differently if I had my time again. Which is why I am keen to help upcoming photographers learn from my years of trials and experience so they can develop their craft quicker. If I can help some crew get on the path that sees their dreams come true, then what better thing could I be doing with my time than that?
In your opinion, what makes an image go from good to exceptional?
Creating a story, so the viewer feels something when they look at your work, and it inspires them to seek that feeling themselves. An interesting composition, the correct lenses, evocative light, and using angles all help to create a story.
I have just written and filmed an extensive section on composition in my upcoming water photography online course. Taking a regular image from okay to exceptional, and many of the theories aren't what you would think. I would say consider your composition above everything else - many surf action photographers often ignore it - and if you want to learn from me, check out my website.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a photographer?
As far as the actual photography side, there are many challenges with getting your vision into a picture, but that's part of the fun I reckon.
Water photography requires a good level of fitness to keep yourself safe and in good condition to stay out long enough to get the shots. It can be challenging, and I work on maintaining good health every day and enjoy that process.
With the business side of photography, it would be consistency. I think a lot of photographers have experienced the famine or feast scenario. At times you are getting paid so well, and you are turning down work, and then you will have weeks where you don't have any work at all. So it can be up and down at times. In the past, this has probably come down to poor time management my end. I have now put in systems to safeguard against this after years of just thinking this is the way it is.
It is all a work-in-progress and just like any career, you have to be on it and shifting with the times constantly.
I don't think any of this is exclusive to photography, it’s just part of owning your own business.
You recently created an online surf photography-training can you tell me a little about this?
Yes, I'm so excited about this, and I love this process of creating the tutorials and getting feedback from photographers that are keen to learn.
I have woken up every morning for the last year and had ideas to pass on my knowledge that I have gained from 20 years behind a camera lens. I can't get it out of my head, so I know that it's what I am supposed to be doing. With teaching, you have to be ready. I was asked for many years to teach photography, but it wasn't the right time.
About a year ago, I had an overwhelming urge to start to write, and the stuff that poured out of my subconscious on to the keyboard really surprised the shit of me!
I am currently filming a course called "Pro Water Photographer" I am hoping that it will be out by the end of October. It has been a year in the making and the time that has gone into it is just phenomenal. The course will fast track a photographer in their goals to be the best water photographer they can be. It contains the skills I obtained from the last twenty years of photography.
I hope these teachings help the next generation of photographers evolve from beginners to advanced.
If you are interested in the ocean photography course. You can enrol in my free mini-course called - "Transform your water/surf photography" right now and get some super helpful and actionable teachings.