Last month we put together a list of 6 tips for aspiring surf photographers, covering both ways to improve your work and advice on how to eek a living out of it.
Most of the tips applied to surf filmmaking as well, however, for a fuller perspective than a stills-lover could provide, this week we decided to hit up British surf filmer Seth Hughes for a bit of moving-image specific insight.
We’ve had Seth pegged as an exciting up and comer for the several years we’ve been working with him but in the last twelve months or so career has taken off. In 2018 alone he was dispatched on filming missions Indo, Hawaii, New Zealand, South Africa, France and Ireland and he kicked off this year with more of the same.
Now, everyone knows surf filming ain’t an overly lucrative game, but, like in any creative field, there are ways to make it work and from where we’re sitting it looks like Seth’s got them dialled.
Last year for example, we went on a trip with him to a remote British isle and every evening, after a long day filming in the horizontal rain, he holed himself in the corner of a pub or on his bunk bed and spent hours editing youtube videos for a celebrity cooking vlog.
Recently, we dialled him in during a down day in Hawaii to ask some questions about his career so far. Here’s what he told us:
LG: The other day I watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘Given,’ about a surfer who just travels the world carefree with his wife and kid. It’s all terribly romantic and lovely. But it did leave me with a burning question: ‘How the fuck does this guy afford this lifestyle?’ You’ve travelled as much as anyone in my feed in the last year, so people might look at your Instagram and ask the same thing. Can you shed any light on it?
SH: Tom Daley helped a lot.
LG: Please explain for our dedicated readers
SH: Well, I spent 8 months working for him. Plus when I’m home I stay at my parents so I have very little overheads which means I can use all my income for trips- although all the trips I go on have expenses covered, and most are paid as well. Right now I’m in the Quik house [on the Northsore] so I don’t have to pay accom and my flights out here were covered.
LG: Can you elaborate a little more on how world champion diver Tom Daley has helped facilitate your life of surf travel? What work did you do for him?
SH: I filmed and edited all his youtube content, two videos a week for about 6 months, and being in that environment kinda allowed me to meet more people who employed me for similar work.
LG: Are you finished with that gig?
SH: Yep all finished now, ironically because I wasn’t in the UK enough and therefore couldn’t shoot with him, but I still do bits of work for the same agency in London.
LG: Are you a five-year plan sort of guy, or do you just take stuff as it comes and feel confident if you do well it’ll lead to more work?
SH: I wouldn’t say I’m a 5 year plan guy, because everything has changed so much in the last year in ways I couldn’t foresee. I’d say I’m more of a one year plan kinda guy. I try not to set my sights too far down the road so I don’t miss other potentially more interesting stuff that’s happening now.
LG: Ok, so what are your plans for this coming year then?
SH: I’m actually super keen to spend more time at home and doing missions around the UK. At first, when I started travelling more for work I used to love being away and never wanted to go home, now I really look forward to getting home and seeing my mates. Without a doubt, my favourite trip from 2018 was the trip to Scotland with WL and it also happened to be the one that was closest to home. However, I think I’ve got a few trips to further afield lined up for next autumn.
LG: And do you feel, after seeing so much of the world, that the UK is still a worthwhile focal point surfing wise?
SH: The more I’ve been away and seen more famous surfing destinations, the more I’ve realised that novelty value, in anything, not just surfing, actually can make things more interesting. My favourite photos and videos I see on the internet aren’t huge barrels at Pipe or crazy Snapper swells, it’s places that you’ve never heard of before, regardless of how amazing the actual surfing is. Like I just saw a clip of longboarding in Kamchatka in Russia, the surfing wasn’t mental but I just really frothed out on the clip
LG: How key is being adaptable to new and different types of work to making it as filmer now?
SH: I think there’s always multiple avenues you can go down to reach the same place. For the last year I felt like I was ‘sticking my fingers in lots of pies’ kinda thing and I think that happened to play in my favour, but now as I go on more and more trips I realise that specialising in one subject is a good way to go. So I think being able to adapt and do it all can really help at the beginning but as I get older I feel like trying to get really skilled in certain areas is better.
LG: Do you think that applies to specialising in one type of surf filming too? (ie. land, water, drone)
SH: Well in terms of drones, I think that could be seen as something to adapt to because of how popular they are now. Don’t get me wrong, I like drones and think they’re very valuable, particularly for personal use. But when I had one (now it’s sat in a cave at Backdoor) I realised that in order to use a drone for commercial work you kinda had to specialise in it and be ‘the drone guy’ otherwise it wasn’t really worth your time or money. So now instead of being the guy who shoots water, drone and the rest, I’d rather specialise in one of those areas and be known for that I guess.
(ed: I think this is just Seth being bitter about crashing his drone into the Pacific, especially since he’s definitely the most cautious drone pilot I’ve ever encountered. The incident has undoubtedly cut him deep)
LG: So you’re in Hawaii right now getting kind of skunked right? I guess you’ve had a few missions where you haven’t scored much in the last year, how do you cope with getting skunked on a surf trip?
SH: Generally, I’ve found surf destinations are great when there are waves but pretty bad when there’s not which often leaves you twiddling your thumbs a bit when you get skunked. Shooting lifestyle and that kinda stuff is a good way to fill the days up so when the swell does arrive you can focus just on nailing the surfing clips. It’s rained a lot since I’ve been in Hawaii so I’ve been flicking between the US office and photography tutorials on youtube and going out to try new stuff with my camera. I’ve been taking a lot more photos than I normally do on this trip so its fun to learn more about that side of things.
LG: Finally, what are the three core things you need to make it as a surf filmer in 2019?
SH: Firstly, story telling is always gonna be the top dog, regardless of the year or the subject matter. So learning as much as you can about telling interesting stories is the biggest thing I reckon, and something I really need to work on.
Secondly, don’t forget you’re a surfer and try to get in the water as much as you can. (Obviously not all surf lensmen are surfers too, but swimming and taking water shots is super fun and highly recommended for anyone in the field.) In the last year I’ve subconsciously started to consider myself as a ‘filmer’ rather than a ‘surfer’ and barely surfed as a consequence. But being just as comfortable in the sea as the people you’re shooting, especially in bigger/heavier waves, is obviously super important if you want to get crazy water shots.
Thirdly, really respect and listen to your ‘elders.’ I sometimes forget that surf photography and filmmaking have been around for much longer than I’ve been alive and way longer than things like Instagram and I’ve potentially been a bit arrogant as a result. The experience of those photog/filmers is GOING to outway the limited social media trends that I’ve witnessed in the last two years of shooting surfing. So going back to basics, having the ability to swim in huge waves and tell amazing stories aren’t going anywhere fast, so I’d like to get much better at those.