On our latest Elements Series, we caught up with Luke Shadbolt an award winning photographic artist and creative director based in Australia.
Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first get into Photography?
I dabbled in high school and university, but I took it up more seriously around 2009. I was art directing a bodyboarding magazine at the time and had finally saved up enough to get a digital slr and water housing setup. I then followed every swell I could up and down the east coast of Australia, shooting surfing and bodyboarding and the landscapes and the people. I basically had a camera in hand most of the time, which I think is the best way to learn.
You live in North Avoca now, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Terrigal, just over the hill. The Central Coast in general is a pretty great place to grow up I must say, well not that I would know any differently. You’re surrounded by nature, the waves aren’t too crowded and it’s just over an hour into Sydney. Being a regional hub, it’s a good balance between living in a city and that more relaxed, coastal lifestyle. We are seeing a large influx of people moving here from Sydney lately, especially since COVID with everyone working from home.
When did you realise you could make a career out of it?
I’ve been fortunate to have a few different careers that cross-over. My background is in graphic design, which works well with photography for many reasons. Having a regular income when you start pursuing a creative outlet is very handy, especially when it’s a complimentary skillset. I think any career in the creative industries is a constant evolution, both in respect to new technology and commercial opportunities, but also subjectively in terms of interests.
What’s your go to set up? (Camera)
I rotate between a Nikon D850 as the main workhorse, and then a canon Eos 3 and a mamiya RZ67 for shooting film. It all depends on what I am shooting. To be fair, I probably shoot mostly on my iPhone these days.
You won the incredibly prestigious Nikon Surfing Australia photo of the year in 2017. Can you tell us about this shot?
That competition has always been the benchmark of surf photography in my eyes. There are certain images by Ted Grambeau, Peter Joli and Trent Mitchell especially that stand out in my mind still to this day, that all originated from that contest. I actually first won it in 2014! I remember getting the phone call, I thought it was a prank.
The first image that won is called Salutation. It shows a surfer sitting on his board, throwing his arms up in front of a giant explosion of water that I shot in Brazil. It looks like he’s about to be completely engulfed. He was totally fine, the long lens condensed the image. That was possibly the first image I shot that felt like it was more than just a photo of surfing. I liked that it had a broader perspective; was he saluting the wave, or was it a mocking attempt mimicking control over the water? It’s open to interpretation.
The second image that won in 2017 is titled Maelstrom 1. It’s one of the most interesting and bizarre displays of ocean I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve exhibited it in Australia, Berlin, London, New York and Miami and it is the cover of my recently released book, also titled Maelstrom. Photographing that image and the series that goes with it has helped me understand how I see the world a little better.
You spent a fair amount of time in NYC, do you prefer the bustling city life or the more chilled coastal beach life more?
If I could, I would probably do a 2/3 split between the two. August to November in New York, December - July in Australia. Coastal life still wins out, but the New York life is amazing. I was dubious before we moved there if I was going to enjoy it. I had a mini-freak out the first morning, but from then on I loved every minute of it. It’s a constant source of inspiration, opportunity. It’s incredibly eye-opening, you see every spectrum of person around the city and they are all just living their lives with absolute freedom of expression. It also didn’t feel like the huge, intimidating, bustling city that it’s often depicted as. Each enclave feels like it’s own little world, which helps break up the enormity of it all.
Having a background in graphic design how has this shaped you as a photographer?
I think to start with, I was always shooting photos with magazine page dimensions in mind. When I was working in magazines on of my roles was photo editing, and it was always such an annoyance when I’d receive incredible photos from contributors, but the subject would be right on the centre line. I feel like once I’d seen an image in it’s entirety, cropping the image would take out too many supporting elements. I became conscious of that when shooting, that understanding of the end result being printed on a page and the parameters around that. Unfortunately, it’s not a style that necessarily translates so well when looking at images on a phone.
You shoot a lot in the outdoors and in the elements, has this always been a passion?
Yes absolutely, the main motivation for getting into photography was to be out in the elements. To be able to combine a creative pursuit with being in nature has always been the dream.
How important is story telling when you are shooting for the outdoors industry?
It’s unavoidable. Photography is all about story telling.
You put yourself in some fairly dangerous situations getting some of these shots. Has it ever taken a turn for the worse?
Theres been a few close calls, but to be honest nothing too major comes to mind. There have been plenty of times things could and should have gone wrong, definitely a lot of luck involved there. I do think of myself as being very lucky in general, but maybe that’s m perpetual optimism. I can tell you one of my favourite stories though, when I got caught out in New Zealand by a building swell and king tide. I was over there shooting a magazine editorial and we’d just sent a bunch of riders out for an afternoon session. I’d scaled over some rocks to get down the beach for a broader scenic angle. After shooting for an hour or two, I came back to see the rocks I’d climbed over were now being barraged by 3ft waves with the incoming tide. I was fully clothed, the sun was setting and there was no other way back to the car. I waited for a lull, ran towards the rocks and tried to launch up the sheer face, only to be engulfed by elephant kelp at the base of the rocks. As I struggled to get out of the seaweed a set hit me, somehow the only thing I managed to keep dry was my camera. I ran back over to the beach, completely soaked, shivering, with no way of getting back to the car. The sun had long set. I tried to go around and above the rocks, but ended up in a field of spiky plants and nearly walked off a shear cliff. Nearing a panic, I stumbled through a clearing and was surrounded by a group of sheep*. As the flock closed in around me, I challenged the leader to one on one combat. We ran at each other in a furious duel. After wrestling the beast for several minutes, I pin the sheep to the ground and claim victory, as well as the respect of the pack. They then lead me to a secret path back to the cars, and 3 hours after I’d left the rest of the group, we were reunited. I waved off my newfound friends and went and had a beer at a nearby pub.
*In reality, I saw a group of sheep in the distance, figured I’d follow them for no other reason than instinct and watched them disappear into the bush. As I got closer, I realised they’d actually turned down a fairly hidden track, which ended up leading me right back to the cars.
You have worked with some of the biggest brands in the world what makes a good client?
Anyone working towards sustainability is a good client. Creative exchange is always great, too. Ultimately though I think it’s about the people. Working with good people makes it less work and more fun.
You have shot at some of the most beautiful countries in the world. Which has been your favourite?
I’m actually currently going through my archives of the last ten years of shooting with my wife for a book project, so this question is fresh in my mind. Other than anywhere in Australia, some other highlights include; Japan during Cherry Blossom season, Hawaii in winter, New Zealand in Autumn, hiking in Norway in the spring, summer in Sicily (actually anywhere on the mediterranean in summer). I do think it’s less about the countries themselves and more about experiencing life outside your own bubble.
You shoot a lot of Surf photography, do you surf yourself?
Yep, I love it. After not surfing so much when we were in New York, I’m fully back into it like a grom now that Im back in Australia. We’ve kind of had a pretty amazing run of waves over the last year and a half as well. I try and get in the water as much as possible especially at the moment because of COVID. Not just for the “exercise”, it’s great for your mental health, you get to be out in nature, it’s a social thing if you want it to be, or it can be meditative, great for thinking time.
Lastly any quick bit of advice for someone who wants to make a career out of photography?
Find yourself a mentor, someone you think is a great photographer and an even better person. I’ve been lucky enough to work closely and learn from one of the best in Phil Gallagher. Be open and friendly with everyone you can in your industry, or just everyone in general, networking is a huge part of building a career.
Lastly finish this sentence: I like getting back outdoors into the elements because….?
It keeps me balanced.
See more of Lukes work here: