Life Underwater feat. Justin Mack

This month, in the spirit of summer, we interview Justin Mack, a surf photographer who hails from the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  Justin met up with us for coffee in his hometown of Kailua to talk story about shooting surf, fish, and living the life of a pro photographer.

Justin, how did you get into Photography?

Like most kids in Hawaii I grew up with a big passion for the ocean. Surfing and diving have always been a huge part of my life.  It started out with an injury, stuck on the beach while my friends surfed. I “borrowed” my buddy’s dad’s camera without him knowing. He found out when I couldn’t take the film out and he processed the film. He saw my images and ended up giving me my first camera at the age of 15.

That is pretty cool way to get into it.  Now that you are all grown up and do this for a living, what is your typical gear setup for a day in the water?

On a typical day shooting in the water I usually have my Canon equipment. I usually take out my Canon 1D, a fisheye, wide angle, and a zoom lens. All of my equipment is protected and made accessible in the water thanks to Aquatech Waterhousings. You will usually see me in a wet suit because I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold. Dafin swim fins are good and give me that merman-like agility in the water.

Talk us through a day in the life of a surf photographer.

Usually my days start pretty early. I’m up at 4:30am making coffee and checking the buoys. I’m usually crashing at a buddy’s house on the north shore so I don’t have to make the hour drive from the windward side of the island. I’ll load up my gear and head down to Off The Wall as my first check. Luckily the boys at the RVCA house allow me to post up there and leave my gear there for safe keeping instead of leaving expensive gear in the car. I’ll drink a few hydrating drinks, eat a bunch of protein bars, and stuff some in my wetsuit. If the waves are on and pumping, I’ll swim out before the sun pops around 6:30am. I’ll usually be out for 4-6 hours shooting and come in for a break in the mid afternoon. Usual lunch stops for me are pupukea grill or make some acai smoothies. Then I’m back out in the water around 2:30pm till the sun goes down, logging in around 8 hours in the water. I’ll head in around sun down back to the house and breakdown gear. Guys get pretty pumped to check out images, just like myself, and go through a first look of the photos there. After that long day of shooting it’s off to the computer, export images, quick edits, and emailing all night to get the photos out there. I’ll pop open a couple beers or a coconut water and I’ll be down for the night… repeat the very next morning if there are still waves.

What is your favorite spot to shoot at home?

As crowded as it is with photographers, I love shooting pipe. The power and energy is overwhelming, and it’s overloaded with emotion.

What’s it like to shoot on a heavy day at Pipe?

Shooting a big day at Pipe is always mixed emotions for me. I get so excited and nervous before jumping in the water. Once I’m in, I’m just in awe of the beauty and power. Fear and joy get mixed in my mind and butterflies rattle in my stomach. The adrenaline overcomes all emotions and as hectic as it may be, it just feels peaceful, in a weird way.

What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to you while shooting?

I’ve had quite a few crazy moments shooting. The one that sticks out the most was about 6 years ago. I was shooting flash at night with some friends at an undisclosed east Oahu location.  The lifeguards had closed the beach two days before due to a shark sighting. They reopened it the next day and I didn’t think much of it. Just before the sun went down we saw a shark swim in a wave, which isn’t unusual as it is their home and I was so set on nailing some shots with the flash. After a half hour of shooting in the dark we could see some splashing around and it seemed like it was our big fishy friend. I decided to call it a day and swim in. As I was swimming in I gave something a little kick and there was a splash from the tail of the shark in my face. I started swimming with a faster pace and as I did I would shoot off my flash so I could see around me. I think the shark was intrigued by the light or something electrical like the flash going off in the water. It kept coming in and bumping me and I just kept kicking and yelling for the boys to surround me. Luckily we weren’t far from shore and I made it in totally fine with my tail in between my legs and a good story to tell.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your career?

I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about photographers is that we just show up somewhere and snap off photos. It takes so much planning for shoots, hunting swells, being in the right place to capture moments, a huge understanding of light, creative angles, etc. Then after shooting all day we stay up all night importing large images, editing photos, and emailing images out. It goes way beyond just shooting the photos.

What do you do when you are not taking photos?

When I’m not shooting, I’m spearfishing, fishing, surfing, or BBQing with friends.

What are your Photography goals for 2015 and beyond?

For 2015 I’m just looking for new projects to get creative with, to be exploring taking on new adventures, and having a ton of fun.

Any advice for aspiring photographers?

Best advice I could give would be to have fun! Your fun, love, and passion will show in the work you produce. Passion will continue to give you the drive to be creative and to be always having the desire to seek new adventures.

Shout outs? 

My family and amazing fiancé have always supported me through thick and thin with my work. They have always pushed me to live my dreams and never give up. Zak Noyle, Bryce Johnson, and Brent Bielmann have always pushed me to go big. Those guys have been amazing friends and people I really look up to as photographers. It’s really amazing to have such creative and passionate friends like those guys around.

Thanks Justin.

You can check out more of Justin’s work on Instagram and reach him via email.

Interview by

All Photos Courtesy of Justin Mack.

Follow @JMACK808 on instagram.