Interview with Nik West – professional surf and fashion photographer

By Marie-Luise Bernartz - Jun 12, 2017

Nik West – one of the most talented and respected water photographers based in Sayulita, Mexico- tells us how he got into surf photography and reveals the challenges involved in getting that perfect under water shot. But first, we learn a little bit about Nik’s beginnings. 

How did it all begin for you:

I was born in New Zealand and moved to Canada at 13 years. After graduating from University in Victoria in British Columbia with a BA in Economics, my now wife, Mariette and I traveled through South East Asia, and New Zealand. We then settled in Australia where I got into surf photography. I shot a lot of longboarding and enjoyed working with the McTavish crew in the late nineties and early 2000’s. Mariette and I had two kids and then in 2006 we moved back to Canada where my focus switched to editorial and advertising photography. Nine years later it was time for a new adventure and so we came to Sayulita. Mexico. I really missed warm water and waves and missed shooting from the water. I wanted to make some surf art and Sayulita seemed like an great spot.

1. You’re originally from New Zealand. Since when have you been coming to Sayulita? Through the lens of a photographer what do you find fascinating about this bohemian Surf Chic hotspot and its surroundings?

We first came to Sayulita in November 2013 and I thought this might be a great place to photograph surfing and surf culture. In October 2015 we came back and have spent most of our time here since. Sayulita has a charm about it…colorful, small size, interesting people, great beaches, and a real buzz of activity. There are always festivities in the plaza during holiday celebrations like Dia de Los Muertos. All this lends itself to photo oportunities.

2. How would you define photography style?/ What has influenced your style the most: Fashion, traveling, surfing?

I have probably been influenced by all those as I’m looking at all that imagery.
I think we all have an aesthetic we are drawn to and I definitely like minimal, simple, clean imagery for the most part. I’m always trying to simplify an image…leave things out that add clutter to my photo.

3. If any, who are your idols in photography? Is there a photographer most admire?

When I first started I was interested in nature and wildlife photography and I liked what Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting were doing. I went travelling after University and got more excited about photographing people and places. As I began photographing people more I started following Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, David Allen Harvey, and William Klein.

4. What is your biggest challenge when trying to capture the perfect moment when you are in the water? 

The biggest challenge in the water is getting in the right spot at the right time. You want to be in the right position when the surfer makes a critical manouvure. Not too far away or too close to the surfer. The current or the consistency of the wave can make this a challenge.

5. What is different between water and surface shootings? What kind of preparations do you have to do?

Shooting in the water you have less control. The ocean has the upper hand so you need to understand the conditions you are entering and make sure it’s suitable for your skill level. Other than that you need to have your camera set up properly in your housing, have comfortable swim fins, and get swimming. On land you have more options and control over how you want to shoot your subject.

6. When you work with newcomer models who are less experienced and nervous, what do you that they feel more comfortable? Any tips?

I have often worked with people who are not used to being in front oft he camera. I start out by just having a conversation. Get to know them a little. They get to know you a little. You need to build trust as quickly as possible so you need to create a connection, find common ground, have laugh. You need to be open and accessible to them in order to build a relationship…however brief.

7. Who would you love to shoot once

I am interested in so much of the world and with so many great characters out there. There is no one person that comes to mind. I will be excited to photograph the next subject that is presented to me.

8. Editing images is a key element in photography. What are you doing for post-production? 

Generally for post production I will do the basics. Digital images can be flat so I add contrast, color saturation, and sharpening. Sometimes I will get a bit creative and play with some toning and add film grain. I also like black and white a lot so I will give it a treatment based on films I used in the past. I will add the film grain, dodge and burn as you would in the dark room. I may want to bring out detail in the sky, or create a sillouette.

9. You recently published a photography book. Tell us more about it.

I published a book of images from Sayulita and San Pancho. I had created so many images in a short period of time and wanted to do something with them. I didn’t see anything in the marketplace but I also really just wanted to make a book for me. Something I would want. So it has a lot of surf images, some colorful street scenes, and daily life. You can view it and buy it online. Sayulita Book.

10. What’s next? Any dream or new project you would like to undertake?

I am offering a new service. People often ask me for help with photography basics and I tend to really get into answering their questions, so I thought it would be fun to take someone for a walk, with cameras in hand and help them improve a little from the level they are at. This is my Photo Walks service.
There are many places I would like to go and many subjects I’d like to photograph as I like so much different subject matter…so to be able to travel at will to new locations, spend some time, meet good people, and make a book about it. That would be a dream life.