Photographer Zak Noyle spends most of his time chasing a wave’s eye view of the world. He’ll fly halfway around the globe at a moment’s notice to photograph surfers dropping into monster swells. Take, for example, a trip he made last year. He had just returned to Honolulu from Los Angeles when he got word a big swell was going to pass over an offshore reef in Indonesia. He grabbed his packed bag and hopped on a flight back to Los Angeles to meet up with surfers. They flew 13 hours to Taiwan, where they caught a flight to Indonesia. Then they drove for 14 hours. Then they hopped on a boat, which they rode for ten hours. “This was not a luxury yacht,” he said. “This was a fishing boat. It was so tiny.”
When they arrived at the forecasted spot, the wind switched. They sat and waited for three days. There was no electricity. There was no cell phone coverage. In the end, they got two hours of good waves. “Which was very worth it to me,” said Noyle. Then, he made the same trip back home.
Noyle grew up the son of photographer Ric Noyle, but his father didn’t push him towards the craft. In high school, Zak brought home a B+ in photography. “My dad wasn’t mad,” said Noyle. “He was just like, ‘Well it’s not for you. Do whatever you want to do.’” The ocean brought Noyle back to his dad's art. A state champion swimmer who spent a lot of time in the breaks, he started taking a disposable camera into the water at Sandy Beach. When he brought home images to show his mom, she couldn’t believe them. He went into bigger and bigger waves with his dad’s borrowed film cameras to see what he could get. Having only 36 exposures each trip out made him a selective shooter. Now Noyle swims into monster waves with a 32 GB card and a digital camera, sometimes shooting for up to eight hours at a time. Each time, he has one thing on his mind. “I mean, 99.9 percent of people won’t go into the water where I do,” he said. “To be able to capture what I see and bring it back and share it is my goal. It pushes me. It drives me.”
That he now has a career as a surf photographer really came down to one moment, which is where we drop into our conversation with Noyle—right before he hopped on a flight to Tahiti.
So you went off to college and left after a year. Can you explain the transition from school to photography? Did you take photography at school?
No, I didn’t. The last thing on my mind was photography as a career. But I went to school and I found I was like, “Oh, the swell is up. I gotta’ go shoot the swell.” Or, “I want to go on this trip with these guys and shoot.” So I started to see college as something where… I had to pick one or the other. Luckily, my parents didn’t force me to stay in college. They said that now could be the time where I would travel and live my life, and that that could be much more valuable than college. They wanted me to learn, and grow, and do what I loved. They saw the value of travel, my dad having done that himself. That was a very lucky thing. Some other parents might have been like, “You gotta stay in college. Maybe after that you can go and play and travel.” They saw the opportunities I had been given and my abilities growing. So, I was very lucky.
When did you get your first photo published?
I would say 20 or 21 maybe. It was just a local surf magazine in Hawaii, and, even at that point, I was never really even dreaming that I could get in the big surf magazines. But I just kept at it. I sent some photos off and got a great response from one photo editor. I still remember getting the call from that photo editor and just being completely blown away. Everything at that moment was just like, Whoaa. He wanted to run a bunch of my photos, wanted to help me, wanted to teach me more. He just saw the potential in me. I owe him a lot.
What photo did you send that photo editor, and what happened?
It was Pipeline, and it was fisheye in the water shots. It was just something that they hadn’t seen, I guess. Just the colors I had and my position in the water. I still remember the photos and where I was and everything. It really changed my life.
What was that magazine?
It was Transworld Surf, which sadly went out of business. The photo editor was Peter Taras. He would send me old skate magazines and point out portrait shots and say, “Look at the lighting in these.” He totally brought me in and got me more jobs with them.
How did you get to the point where you started traveling and shooting?
Just working closely with that magazine really opened all those doors to travel. I was invited on work trips by professional surfers. The magazine started paying for trips here and there. I started paying for some out of my pocket, but it all totally came together. Once you get something in a magazine, it gives you credit in the eyes of other photographers and surfers. Surfers know that you’re capable of getting the right shots that they need, for the right exposure.
What are you looking to capture in your shots?
I don’t shoot it very technical. A lot of photographers will shoot the action very tight and get that power look to it. Or they’ll look to get the wave crashing. I like to put the viewer in the photo. I want them to feel like they’re in the place that I shot it I want to give them a sense of the land, of the lighting. Something they can really identify and say, “Oh, that’s Zak’s photo.” That’s my style, I guess. I want to show them something that will make them stop on the page. There are so many photos in a magazine that if I can have even one or two per issue for Surfer, I want something that people will be surfing through the pages and then stop and go, “Whoaa.” That wow factor that puts them in that place and makes them go, “I wish I was there. I wish I felt this one.” I want to give them something they almost don’t comprehend, but the photo is there.
There are two photos that stand out to me: One is that vertical shot of that guy coming down the face of a wave—
—those are some angles that aren’t easy at all to get. With the fisheye, you’re inches away from the guy’s rail as he’s coming up. You’re just ducking under. I’m watching his line of where he’s going, where he’s coming from, how the wave’s breaking. It’s a little bit of a calculation in your head to see where you can be without getting hit. Yes, you will have those accident times where he moves or you miscalculate, but luckily nothing like that has happened. You’re getting right underneath the guy’s rail and trying to give a perspective that’s not normally seen. It’s one of those things where, when you look at it, you kind of have to pull back because you think you’re going to get run over by him.
The other one is from Teahupoo, where you can see the reef and how close it is to the wave. You can see the details of the reef. I think Danny Fuller is surfing in that photo.
Oh, yeah, you can see the guy ducking under as well. So there’s this special port that I’ve been using for several years now, and it’s been blowing up. It’s actually a giant film port. You’re shooting above and below the water. It’s beautiful lens for shooting small waves, flat land, and all of that stuff. But what people don’t understand is that shooting in waves like this, it is difficult because the port is so buoyant. You’re having difficulty diving under the waves. You’re getting tossed over the falls. That is one of my all-time favorite shots, because it shows a guy duck diving underneath the water, and the clarity of Tahiti is just so special that you can get that with that lens and camera.
And the reef’s right there?
It is so shallow there. It kind of stays that depth, no matter how big the waves are. They come from such deep water and it’s a shallow reef. It sucks all the water, like a tsunami almost, sucking the water to build the wave—and then it breaks.
What has been your toughest shot?
Pipeline. Pipeline is definitely my toughest. It’s just a dangerous wave. I have one shot in my mind and it’s very similar to the vertical one you mentioned earlier. I haven’t put it on my Web site, yet. It’s a vertical shot of Jamie O’Brien, and he’s standing up backside, which is already difficult. It’s when your back is to the wave and you’re facing land. I’m underneath him, and we’re looking out of the barrel together. It’s the greenest glow. Just the positioning of him, the way the other guys are all down the line, it’s one of the other tougher shots I’ve gotten.
What shape do you have to be in physically to do this?
I treat fitness and working out as my job, because if I’m unable to swim and stay out in the surf, I’m unable to do my job. I work out everyday. I do three days of swimming in a pool, lap swimming. I’ll swim with fins so my feet are conditioned to that. Sometimes I stay out in the water for six to eight hours when it’s good, because you never know when it’s going to be good. It could be junk the next day, or three hours later. You don’t want to be exhausted, because that could increase your chances of getting hurt. I also do power yoga. It helps me to calm myself and stretch. I’ll do that once or twice a week. I’ll do the exercise bike every day for about 30 minutes, just for my cardio. I also eat healthy. My body is what helps me get my shot. If I didn’t take care of it, I wouldn’t be taking care of my equipment. It’s like taking care of my camera or my housing. It’s a tool that I rely on heavily
Describe what you are doing as an athlete when a wave is coming in.
This isn’t any shore break. You’re not standing on the sand. The majority of the waves I’m shooting are over a hard reef. It’s definitely not something I take lightly. That reef break has killed people before. You can get injured in a multitude of ways. You’re constantly treading water. You’re heading out into these waves with a ten-pound camera and just fins on. There’s no board. You’re just in the water, constantly treading water, watching what the other surfers are doing, and watching the horizon to see what the next wave is doing.
And, there’s almost a pecking order for surf photography. You’re not just going to paddle to a place and go in front of the guys you don’t know, guys who have been out there before or are locals. It’s kind of just like surfing, where you wait your turn. You have to prove yourself. Having your stuff published, or being known, is really helpful. For the first few years that I shot Pipeline, I sat behind guys and never really got any good shots. I put in my dues. I don’t know if it’s still like that today, but I sat behind the other guys. I looked up to them. I knew their photography, and, little by little, they started to see my stuff. But I always respected them, and that really went a long way, and they gave me my spot to show what I could do.
Have you been injured or had any close calls?
I’ve had some close calls. I wear a helmet, which is a smart thing, because the camera’s very dangerous. The reef? Photographers have passed away from hitting the reef. I’ve bounced off the reef. I wear a wetsuit, which definitely helps. I’ve had cuts in my wetsuit and ended up with a bruise, but it could have been much worse. I’ve cut up my knees and legs pretty bad from bouncing off the reef, but luckily, nothing really bad.
What usually happens that an injury occurs?
It’s getting caught inside. You’ll be shooting and a bigger wave will come and you’ll be a little bit in too much. Being that we’re just swimming with fins, we can only swim so fast to get out of that area. It’s very shallow and very dangerous, to the point where, when the wave breaks, you can’t even go underneath because it’s so shallow. It’s like a truck flying into you. It can push you back maybe thirty, forty, fifty yards underwater. Once you get in it, things calm down. But if you’re in the zone where it’s breaking, it’s very dangerous. There are sharp rocks. It’s definitely not a place where you want to be on the inside, but you do get pushed and you have to swim right back out.
Do you have a favorite shot?
I really love a rainbow shot, The Perfect Day. That’s not a traditional shot of mine. I used a fisheye lens, and normally I would be a lot closer. But I just saw that moment and kind of moved back to capture it. It all kind of came together. It’s one of my favorite images. It’s really calming. You see the mountains and the perfect wave and the rainbow and it’s more about the scene there, and the beauty, rather than the power of surfing. Some people would have probably shot it tight with the barrel, but it’s more about just putting the viewer there to see the beauty of being there.