Tony Roberts, or “TR” as he is known in the surf community, was one of the first surf photographers to utilize the fisheye lens, using inspiration from skateboard photography to bring close-up action shots to surfing in the 80’s and 90’s – coinciding perfectly with that era’s turn towards aerials and big, powerful maneuvers. Known almost equally as well as an extremely fluid, strong surfer, TR has used his experience shredding in the water to better dictate shoots and really execute choreographed surfing. As Tony says, it takes “a rare work ethic” to stay out of the water and shoot photos when the waves are pumping, but the process produces better images thanks to the absolute understanding between subject and photographer. TR has done stints at both Surfing and Transworld Surfing magazines, but left the US surf industry for the good life in Costa Rica, where he now shoots for Quiksilver Latin America, surfs and skates everyday, and tends to his daughter Xia. TR has also shot visiting surfers up and down Central America, and will bring his years of experience behind the lens and in the water to SGT Cabarete from November 3rd-20th, where he’ll be gathering images for SGT and getting shots of our guests. “The last few years I have worked the beach at Playa Colorado, Nicaragua, shooting traveling surfers producing magazine quality images for normal surfers. They are so appreciative compared to pros and it is very satisfying for me to shoot the best photos of someone’s life!” We’re honored to have him on board and hope you’ll take the chance to get shot by a surf photography legend this November.
How did you get started as a surf photographer, or a photographer in general?
TR Productions started by making super 8 movies and shooting photos of my friends surfing and skating when I was a little kid. I would hold slide show events in local grange halls with projectors, a fat home made sound system with wooden speakers, and narrate live while mixing on the fly. By the time I left high school I already had my career! Then it was on to conquer the world!
How did you get the idea to bring the fish-eye lens to the water?
I would study J Grant Brittian’s skate images in Trans World Skateboarding magazine in the mid 80’s and work with the surfers to attain the same angles and technical perfection in the water. It had never been done so it was gratifying to accomplish what we did and then see the results in Surfing magazine, and then see a lot of other photographers and surfers trying to do what we did.
What were some of the initial difficulties trying to get closer skate-style shots in the water?
So many variables out there, the main one is that one drop of spray hitting the lens will ruin the shot and when you are a couple feet from the subject at the peak moment, one really has to be aware of where the spray is going to fly (as well as one hundred other variables happening in that millisecond). We are talking about actual choreographed surfing, not many surfers can do that. My peer group (Ratboy, Flea, Barney, Ackers, Loya, etc.) are so talented and were actually innovating skate style surfing at the time, that we were so hungry to succeed that we hammered on it non stop until we got the results we were after.
Where has your focus shifted to since leaving Surfing Magazine?
To become a top level surf photographer the goal is to build your name through the magazines (which do not pay photographers much) so you can one day work for a major brand. In the 90’s, I had my editorial covers, posters and spreads in Surfing, and then TransWorldSurf (I was the first photographer hired at the launch of the magazine). Once my name was strong enough I started working for Quiksilver first on the Metapysical video in GLand, then I was on the Quiksilver Crossing as principle photographer for three years. Now I am Quiksilver staff photographer for all Latin America, responsible for all of their marketing and advertising images and covering their events in this region.
How long have you been living in Central America and how has your life and career changed since moving there?
I have been down here full time for 15 years. My life and career have changed dramatically as down here truly is the good life and back in the states life was pretty tough. In my free time I get to surf and skate a lot and discover new surf spots and build cement stuff to skate. The warm water and amazing climate is something I never take for granted. As for my work, coming from Santa Cruz, California restricted me to working for mainly wetsuit companies, now I work for surfwear companies that are bigger brands with a lot more budget to spend on photos and want the best. I shoot a lot of variety now, lifestyle, studio, as well as all angles of action, whereas before I was known as mostly a water photographer. I used to sell a lot of my own video titles, now videos are free on the internet so that changed a lot too.
How has the experience been shooting and working for Central Americans (shooting local pros and for Quiksilver Central America) versus your work in the States?
Well Quiksilver Latin America is actually based in California so I don’t work for Central Americans. As for the Latin American surfers, besides a few exceptions there is not much motivation/application to reach one’s next level beyond hometown hero. In the real world, pro surfing is based on photos and videos, down here they still have more of a futbol mentality and just focus on competing which doesn’t really promote the brand they are sponsored by. Once they get a sticker on their board, a European chick and roll around their tourist town in their 4×4 they “made it” and don’t really put any effort into shooting. In the US, Hawaii, Austraila, etc, there are so many great talents that only those who “get the shot” get (and keep) a contract.
You have the reputation of being a pretty good surfer as well. How does that relate to your photography and helping people to get better shots of themselves surfing?
First off most top surf photographers are not good surfers: it takes a rare work ethic to shoot instead of surf when the waves are good when you surf at a professional level. That put me in my own category my entire career. When it comes to timing I know the best moment to shoot a particular move. Also it’s hard for people who don’t surf to realize how frustrating it is when you are surfing to have someone shooting miss your best wave. Therefore I am completely focused on the job at hand to insure I don’t miss anything. (TR ripping in Nicaragua on the left)
What was it like being a subject of a documentary (Gusto, Tony Roberts)?
Amazing! I was so stoked that they focused a lot on my surfing and skating and I got the opportunity to show what I can do! It’s weird to see yourself talking on camera but I think they did a great job and I was happy with how I was portrayed. The end message of the film was to follow your dreams and I hope I inspired a lot of people to follow theirs!
What gets you excited about shooting and surfing in the Dominican Republic?
Oh, I’ve been to the DR many times and it is one of my favorites places I’ve ever been to. The water color, lighting and backgrounds make stunning images. Aside from the variety of great waves and beautiful beaches the place itself is incredible. I love exotic music and Merengue and Bachata are actually from this island, so that flavor is everywhere and there are plenty of locals willing to help teach you how to dance it. I love baseball and it seems everyone on the island is a true student of the game. From pickup games to the professional league, going to games here is quite an event. The local people are super friendly and really value tourists and tourism which makes you feel welcome.
How do you perceive the Caribbean surf scene being different from the scene in Costa Rica and Central America?
Well the conditions are tricky in the Caribe, a lot more fickle so one really needs to be on top of the wind and ever changing conditions and having access to local knowledge is key. As for the scene it’s pretty similar, you have the tourist towns with a lot of partying and surf talk and you have the country zones where you are just out there in the jungle with the waves and nature.
Have you worked much with traveling surfers before and what makes you excited about working with SGT?
Digital photography has opened up this new aspect of surf photography for me as in the past I could not use the magazine or company’s film to shoot non-sponsored riders…now I bring a lifetime of film expertise to this new medium and I love it!
The last few years I have worked the beach at Playa Colorado, Nicaragua, shooting traveling surfers producing magazine quality images for normal surfers. They are so appreciative compared to pros and it is very satisfying for me to shoot the best photos of someone’s life! SGT travel is bringing the concept of surf travel up a full notch by offering a variety of innovative experiences and travel concepts, it’s a lot of fun and I’m excited and honored to be capturing it!
TR will be joining us in Cabarete from November 3rd-20th to surf and shoot our guests in the water. Want to surf with TR and get the best photos of your surfing or kiteboarding career? Click the button below to inquire about availability during TR’s time with us, or click here to head back to the Cabarete main page.