Online Surf Magazine's Interview with
courtesy of Nikki Brooks, nikkibrooksphotography.com
Art, Photography & Culture
- © Brooks / Mayer
have to admit that I was a bit nervous
meeting Nikki Brooks for the first time.
Surf photographers can be an interesting
bunch ...you're just as likely to be
greeted with a hug as you are to be
welcomed with a swift "Beat it
Kook!" Making the short trip from
Santa Cruz to her family's place in
Capitola, my fears quickly vanished
with our first "hello." After
a quick lesson from her kids about of
the joys of rice pudding, we stepped
inside her family's beautiful home for
an interview. The walls of the Brooks'
home are adorned with gorgeous prints
of Nikki's work, equally divided between
surfing and other subjects dear to her
heart. I had the best time talking with
Nikki...she's a thoughtful, caring individual
and of course a fantastic photographer.
The surfing community is blessed to
have an artist like Nikki documenting
both the ocean's waves and the surfers
who ride them. --Chris Grant
How'd you get involved in photography?
Nikki Brooks: I was at school at UC San
Diego and I needed a creative outlet and
I took a photo class with my boyfriend at
the time (who's now my husband) and I just
loved it and didn't stop. I just wanted
to keep shooting and learning about it.
I was surfing a lot so it was natural to
just take pictures of surfing. That's all,
it just kept progressing from there.
Did you get your college degree in photography?
NB: I have a BS in biology and I did a minor
in photography. I wanted to slow my pace
down...and I don't think I could have made
it through school without doing something
creative like photography.
Do you shoot both male and female surfers
and which do you prefer?
NB: It's pretty natural to do both. I think
I gravitate toward my friends naturally
and those whose style or surfing I really
like. I like shooting both short- and longboarding.
I've definitely shot girls more and that's
what I focus on ...it definitely seems most
natural to shoot with them and and come
away with unique results.
Do you have any favorite subjects?
NB: Yes, definitely! I like to shoot with
Kim Mayer because she's so funny and always
fun to be with. Lots of people from around
here ...Mikala is really fun, she's such
a good surfer, always running to the nose.
It's cool because everyone's personality
fits the way they surf so sometimes it depends
on what kind of mood I feel like shooting
or what kind of conditions I have in mind
that determines which surfers I call. It's
always cool to meet up with someone you
haven't shot with in a while like longboard
friends Steve Thomas and Tanner. Darshan's
always up for stuff. People who are passing
through town ...it's fun when I get a call
from them. I love catching up with Jamstar
once or twice a year because she's such
a personality and such amazing things are
going on in her life. I think I'm more into
the documenting part, not just the surfing
part, their lifestyle, their style of surfing,
their whole picture.
Have you shot any huge Mavericks sessions?
NB: I shot the Mavericks contest a couple
of years ago from the boat and that's the
only time I've been out in the water shooting
Mav's. It was a really cool experience.
It was a beautiful day so I think it was
a less common swell and really good conditions.
There were some good waves but the whole
lineup is regulated and you can only go
so close to the wave. I'll shoot from the
cliff a couple times a year.
Is shooting from the boat a challenge?
NB: It was a challenge. I had a 300mm lens
so I think it was the right one to shoot
with. But yes, the boat is always moving.
I was trying to do things differently out
there. Even though it was a beautiful day,
I did shoot some black and white because
there were so many people shooting the exact
same thing at the same moment. I try to
go for something different when I'm in the
mix with everybody.
Do you ever get any vibe from male photographers?
NB: No, I think I always take things kind
of slowly and have tried not to push anybody's
buttons or act like a hot shot. I've just
done a really slow progression, just plugged
away. People are more likely to approach
me. I'll go up to someone and say "hello"
but I don't pry and ask lots of questions.
But occasionally I have questions and people
are willing to help. When I first wanted
to do surf photography, I went down south
to all the surf magazines and knocked on
everyone's doors. All of the guys were so
open and looked at my portfolio of all the
stuff I'd been shooting in college with
old manual Minolta cameras. If it wasn't
for me pursuing that and asking for the
help and them giving me the foundation,
I could have done it on my own but it probably
would have cost me a lot of money. Instead,
I've done slow investments and kind of worked
my way up it seems.
Are there certain spots around here you
absolutely cannot shoot?
NB: Yes, there are some places that you
definitely don't want to name. Or if you
shoot you have to be careful of the time
of day or where you are on a certain beach.
I've had people who may not know I'm from
here walk by saying, "Put that camera
away, der der der der!" I think it
helps being from here and having that local
knowledge of what 's appropriate and what's
not. So far it's been ok.
Do you usually stay local or do you travel
NB: Mostly local because I have a young
family and the money part of everything.
There are so many good surfers in town,
and waves and opportunities and just doing
a couple day road trip here and there helps
get the travel bug off my shoulder. Maybe
once or twice a year go to Hawaii or something
like that ...I'd like to do that more. I'm
waiting for that big corporate trip or whatever
...that hasn't really happened yet.
Ashley Lloyd mentioned to me that you had
a fun experience shooting while your daughters
are with you. Is that a challenge?
NB: Yea, definitely. Over the last 4 or
5 years I've either been pregnant, or having
a baby, or now having a two year old and
a four year old so they've definitely been
part of the whole movement. It's been pretty
cool because it's allowed me the opportunity
to be like, "This is what I'm pursuing
and giving my all to, but at the same time
I'm a full time mom." If the waves
are good or I have an opportunity, I drop
everything else and fortunately I have family
help ...my husband's really supportive,
my parents are in town, and I have friends
that help out so I get to fulfill that photo
opportunity. But otherwise, I'll go to the
beach early and shoot for a while and my
husband will drop the kids off at the beach
and I can wear one on my back while the
other one is playing or I'll call up a friend
who has a kid, "Oh you want to come
to the beach right now don't you?"
(at 8:30 in the morning) We're at the beach!"
But I'm actually taking photos. But it works,
I know they're pretty young, but have either
of your daughters picked up your camera
and tooled around?
NB: Oh yea, all the time. For one of my
daughter's birthday wishes she said, "I
want a camera! I want a camera with a mermaid
on it!" So, that's what we got her,
a little camera.
Describe your perfect day.
NB: Getting up really early on a day with
clear skies and really good waves and running
out and shooting with a couple people in
an uncrowded lineup. Shooting from the water
because that's the most rewarding and gets
me so stoked. Coming in and shooting another
roll. Then, I'm coming home and having crepes
with the family, then going to the beach
all together and surfing with my husband,
trading off in the middle of the day when
the lighting's not so good, then coming
home, having a smoothie and going shooting
again in the evening. That would be fun.
What have the opportunities been like for
the women you're shooting with now compared
to five years ago?
NB: I think it's tough. I wish there were
more media outlets for us all. There's no
print media outlets for women's surfing.
You get the occasional shot in the mainstream
guy's mags and that's cool, they cover the
women's contest in Honolua and have a great
surf shot of somebody winning the world
title but I wish there were magazines we
could submit to on a regular basis. Just
girls surfing, longboarding and shortboarding,
surf trips and surf tips ...just all kinds
of things that would be inspiring for younger
girls. I feel like I'm in this generation
of surfers that we've going through the
motions and we're used to the ups and downs
and we've already been there ...but there
are so many younger girls who I think could
benefit from seeing coverage of women's
money part of it is really hard too. There
are so many good surfers out there that
if you're really not in the top 10 or top
20 and even if you're getting coverage,
you're not getting paid or getting the right
sponsors. I have a friend who we finally
got some good shots published and some of
her friends were like, "Wow, you're
really doing great!" Yes, she's getting
recognition but how is she getting along
financially when she's chasing waves around
the world and trying to do contests, yet
she's living day to day. Other people who
are pioneers in big wave surfing, like JamStar,
I don't think she's ever come up front and
approached a sponsor saying, "This
is what I want. This is what I can offer
you." She just kinda takes it as it
comes and that's the beautiful thing about
the surfing lifestyle but to make ends meet
these days I wish more people were supported
I know one of the ways photographers survive
is by selling ad shots. Even though there
aren't that many girl companies, half of
them are still split between modeling shots
and surfers that actually surf? Even in
the same company? What are your thoughts?
NB: That's one of the most frustrating parts
for sure. That's something that really used
to bother me when I was younger in college.
For example, there used to be these big
stickers that guys would plaster on their
boards of a hot chick with big you know
what. It would make me so upset because
my friends would be riding these boards
with this sexist image and I'd be like "Aaaawww!!!"
Then, you'd look at the surf magazines and
see that and as a surfer I'm thinking, "Where
is the real surfer?" That's the image
that the companies are taking from...
by landscapers outside, microphone goes
I think it's really frustrating to look
at the magazines and see half modeling and
half, if that, surfing shots because those
companies are taking from the surfing lifestyle
yet they're not even portraying a real surfer.
Where are the women who really pursue this
as a career or passion? That really used
to frustrate me even when I was younger
looking at guys with big art stickers on
their board...with a hot chick on the their
surfboard. And I'd say to them, "Why
are you doing that? You're just showing
groms that's the only reason you look at
a girl in a bathing suit but I'm in a bathing
suit and I'm surfing and I don't want to
be looked at that way!" It's just this
cycle...as a company, they should be showcasing
the positive part of surfing and healthy
living ...giving back to the surfers whose
lifestyle they're selling.
The surfers that are getting coverage now
seem to be doing the surf and modeling thing....do
you think that's fair?
NB: I think it's fair if it's the diverse
modeling of different surfers, there are
surfers of every body type just like there
are women of every type ...but models are
usually of just one body type. I like the
idea of lifestyle ...I guess that's different
than modeling. There have been some surfers
whose modeling advertisements I did not
approve of...and I don't have to say who,
it was a few years ago ...I was disappointed
in some choices that some surfers have made.
I'm super pro-girl-in their-bathing-suits
and surfers being able to do that but I
think there's a way that you hold yourself
or what you're doing in that bathing suit
that can promote it in a more sexual way.
A lot of parents have approached me and
told me they're considering pulling their
daughters out of school to concentrate on
making the tour someday. Knowing what you
know about how the industry works, what
advice would you give them?
NB: Yes, I'd have to say, "No, go to
school!" I admire the surfers I know
who have a solid education then picked up
their surfing more professionally later
on. Kim (Mayer) and Kyla (Langen) come to
mind. I think that's the right way to do
it because if the surfing thing doesn't
work out, you still have the education.
If you could have a photo session anywhere
in the world with any five surfers, where
would it be and who would you choose?
NB: I've been to Hawaii, Mexico and Eastern
Europe so I'd have to say New Zealand. I
like places that are scenic. I'd be on a
boat part of the time and have some adventures
on land as well. The surfers would be Gerry
Lopez, Tom Curren, Lisa Anderson, Kim Mayer
and Coco Ho ...I like her name and think
she's a good surfer.
That would be a good crew to get together.
You seem to choose everyone with good style
...is that something that's important?
NB: I think that's something I really appreciate
..really good style. Hand placement and
where they are in the wave in that moment.
I think my photography's more like capturing
that really cool moment where other surfers
know and recognize it but you don't always
see it. Shooting with any of those surfers
you'd get the opportunity to capture their
style. It would be super fun.
We hear that you shoot both digital and
film. Do you have a preference?
NB: Yes, film. I like film. Digital is cool
and it has its benefits. But something about
saturation of the slide, and the colors
and not knowing what I'm going to get back
is a rewarding experience in itself. It's
like this precious little treasure I put
on my shelf and get to go drop off, then
pick it up and and look at my little light
table, then write on the little box. It's
just such a process though ...because you
digitize it anyway. I have to scan it and
figure out what I'm going to do with it.
It's similar to digital but I like the way
the film looks better.
Is it a harder process to get things published
...going from film to digital since many
are using digital?
NB: I feel I have a good idea of what's
expected. I try to give them whatever it
was, slide or digital, in a more raw or
natural format. I think a good shot is a
good shot either way so you don't want to
manipulate it. I'll scan it and if I put
together a submission and they're interested,
they don't even ask me if it's film or if
Do you find it artistically offensive that
images are altered so much in photoshop...like
NB: Yes, well I think it's because they
can take a crappy shot that someone from
their company shot with their big fancy
$10,000 stack of equipment and then take
it to the art department and mess around
with it and tweak it and make it look kinda
groovy and do some cool graphics and there
they go. I can appreciate that that is a
style and form of art and everything but
I think it's harder for the photographer
who's trying to get that shot and sell it
...it definitely makes it more challenging
because the company already has a B-roll
shot that they can use and make work for
their needs for a lot less. It's rather
If a young girl, say a high school student,
comes up and wants to pursue a career in
surf photography, what advice would you
NB: Go surfing lots ...but then when you
want to do photography, you have to give
up surfing lots. Shoot a lot. Read some
books and take some classes because you'll
learn a really good foundation of all the
technical stuff. Whether you're taking a
landscape or a portrait at a wedding, there's
these fundamentals that apply to photography
and that you can apply to surfing. Also,
shoot many things besides surfing because
you get better doing that.
When you shoot water, do you feel closer
to surfing or do you wish you were on a
NB; Over the last couple years, either when
pregnant or just at home with the girls,
just getting in the water for me is so rewarding
I don't even care if I'm just shooting because
for me it's really exciting. There are times
like, "The waves are so good!"
A week or two ago I was shooting with Ratboy
and Tasia from Morro Bay and I was doing
surf-ats, then Ratboy said, let me take
pictures of you so I gladly went surfing.
As a surfer yourself and as a water photographer,
have environmental issues like water pollution
touched your life in any way?
NB: I don't go out if it just rained. Where
we live, there's a creek that runs right
into Capitola and that is the same creek
that I grew up on. So for me, it's all totally
related. That's the creek I take my girls
to play in during the summer and to think
that if it's dirty, it's just all part of
the watershed. In the wintertime, I won't
go out for a couple of days ...it's just
not worth being sick, I can't risk it, there's
too much going on. But ...sometimes if it's
really good you make an exception (laughs)
...in that case I just try to not to get
worked too much.
Any parting thoughts?
NB: I think it's really cool that you're
documenting girls. I think it's awesome
and I'm thinking someday we'll have an outlet
for all this fun stuff. I think it's really
important that people on both the girls
side and the guys side of the surf industry
talk about where it's going. How images
are used of guys and girls and how the surfers
can benefit, and how the photographers can
benefit and how the companies can benefit.
I think it's important for everyone to talk
about it together.
Thank you Nikki!
NB: Thank you so much.
*For more information or to contact Nikki,
please visit www.nikkibrooksphotography.com