Pitted – Surf photographer finds rewarding but unreliable career

Surfer+and+surf+photographer+Luke+Williams+rides+a+wave+at+Leadbetter+Beach+on+Wednesday%2C+Feb.+26+in+Santa+Barbara%2C+Calif.+%E2%80%9CIt+feels+good+to+just+get+wet+and+float+around%2C%E2%80%9D+Williams+said.+%E2%80%9CEven+when+the+waves+are+this+small.%E2%80%9D+%0A

Nate Stephenson

Surfer and surf photographer Luke Williams rides a wave at Leadbetter Beach on Wednesday, Feb. 26 in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It feels good to just get wet and float around,” Williams said. “Even when the waves are this small.”

Alloy Zarate, Staff Writer

A spontaneous decision to purchase a point-and-shoot film camera at a record shop six years ago turned into a photography career for former City College student Luke Williams.

At 24-years-old, Williams has been employed by various surf-related magazines and outdoor sports companies like Patagonia and REI.

“It’s about being able to capture a fleeting moment,” he said.

Williams traveled along the west coast living out of a truck and dove right into shooting surfing photos after attending City College.

“I didn’t have a worthy surf photo for the first year or two,” Williams said.

He learned about the conditions that influence waves by traveling around to different surf spots.

Surfing, outdoor living and “things for people to look at and feel good,” are what Williams said he enjoys shooting most.

He gets satisfaction from the adrenaline of being inside the barrel of a wave with a surfer and a camera to capture “a collection of random moments coming together” where no two waves are the same.

“You just have to be there ready to react,” said Williams. “It’s a mixture of you and the ocean.”

The biggest challenge Williams faces is having to constantly fish for new opportunities for work.

“I’ve chosen to walk the path of less common and lower-paying photographic work,” he said. “Consistent work is the ever-present stress.”

Most jobs he does are one-time freelance gigs.

Luke Williams is thinking of returning to City College to pursue a degree in ecology to focus on a more secure way of achieving financial stability later in life.

Nate Stephenson
Luke Williams is thinking of returning to City College to pursue a degree in ecology to focus on a more secure way of achieving financial stability later in life.

He emphasized the importance of building connections to the industry while in school.

“You can’t expect to get hired,” Williams said. “You get beaten down to a pulp looking.”

Fresh out of high school, Williams was accepted into Brooks Institute, a photography school, but the school was shut down before he started classes, something he found out while reading the daily news.

“I heard about it in a newspaper,” he said. “I was bummed but it wasn’t the end of the world.”

City College Photography instructor Wendy Dempsay Skiles said “It was a tragedy for photography to lose that school…which [City College] turned into a win when we swooped up some of its engaging instructors.”

Skiles attended the school herself and said that they do not hold back in their curriculum.

So when Williams enrolled at City College one week after the institute revealed it was closing, he said he got a Brooks education for the price of City College.

Williams said it’s important to have experiences that aren’t just photography, to have a sense of grounding in reality.

He had a connection to nature since childhood when he’d go camping with his family.

Luke Williams (right) and younger brother Jake Williams share a wave at Leadbetter Beach on Wednesday, Feb. 26 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Luke and Jake grew up in Ventura, Calif., and have been surfing since they were young teenagers.

Nate Stephenson
Luke Williams (right) and younger brother Jake Williams share a wave at Leadbetter Beach on Wednesday, Feb. 26 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Luke and Jake grew up in Ventura, Calif., and have been surfing since they were young teenagers.

“We used to go to Big Sur one or two times a year,” he said. “It’s a beautiful unspoiled coastline… there’s not a lot of that left.”

Having interests outside of photography proves to be useful as Williams said he doesn’t want to have to rely on photography for an income for the rest of his life.

“My dad has this thing about tools in your tool belt,” Williams said.

He said his parents have always been supportive of his career, but his father wants him to be practical. Williams plans on returning to school and adding ecology and conservation to his toolbelt.

His plan is to continue photography as a way to keep his life moving and interesting but plans to do something a little more grounded and tangible in the future.