Lion-hearted and hawk-eyed, perennially shirtless and charismatic, Nathan Smith brings a certain roguish heroism to the art of shooting surf photos. He’s a master of seeing little moments evolve in the seconds before they manifest, powerful moments, ephemeral moments, gold, blue and black moments, moments encountered while swimming at Pipeline on the biggest day of the season or moments in the back of a limousine with the newly-crowned world champion. Those familiar with his work can pick a Smithy shot at 20 paces, which, I suppose, is what every kid exploring the world through a camera lens sets out to one day achieve.
Reared on the wave-rich coastline north of Sydney, Nate took the “failed pro surfer” route into surf photography. “I ruined myself surfing Umina Point one day,” he recalls, “and I never looked back.” The torn pectoral muscle earned him six months out of the water, but also saw him swap a surf trip to Sumatra for an SLR camera body and two lenses. Wasn’t that just a Sliding Doors moment? It was the day his life in front of the lens ended and a new life behind the lens began. With a surfer’s eye and an easy way with water, Smithy quickly established himself as the golden boy of the surf photography world.
Over a 15-year career his images have graced magazine covers and ad campaigns around the globe. He’s worked extensively with surfers like Kelly Slater, Tom Carroll and Taj Burrow. He’s blazed frames from Capetown to New York to the sulfuric lava flows of Anak Krakatoa. His talent has spilled from the ocean into the worlds of fashion, portraiture, occasional self-portraiture and landscapes. In 2010 he traveled to Dublin to receive a Red Bull Illume action sports photography award for his image of a cobalt ‘n’ copper saltwater cocoon he took just up the road from his childhood home. But at 39, Nate feels his best shot is still out there. “As a surfer you always paddle out thinking your best wave is yet to come, and as a guy who shoots surfing you gotta think the same. Gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”