Legends Behind the Lens: Timo Jarvinen Interview

In the Legends Behind the Lens series, supported by Nikon, we talk to celebrated action sports photographers about their craft - and their all-time favourite shots

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Timo Jarvinen has earned a reputation as one of the best-respected surf photographers in the business – no mean feat given he hails from Helsinki in Finland, not exactly known as a surfing Mecca. As Quiksilver’s staff snapper, he regularly shoots the world’s best wave-riders, and has enjoyed a particularly fruitful partnership with a certain Kelly Slater down the years. But while he may be a water photography specialist, Timo’s oeuvre extends beyond the ocean – as his six favourite shots (which he talks us through below) show.

I quit school at 16, after 9th grade. I started working in the repro department in a printing company and I learned to operate a massive repro camera. That made me learn what shutter speeds and f-stops mean.

I got a shot published from the very first roll I ever shot. My grandfather gave me an old Nikon F from Japan that he bought back in 1966 to try. After two minutes of fiddling around with it, I realised how it was all the same as the five-metre long horizontal repro beast. I took it away on a snowboard trip straight away and got a shot in print.

It’s easy to get lost in all the gear available but it was clear as day for me from day one that I needed build a system rather than jump from brand to brand. So I started building my kit around that old F body. I’ve now been collecting Nikon kit for 25 years and now have enough glass to cover everything from fisheye to 500mm. It doesn’t necessarily mean things are easier though, many things are actually way more complicated when there are so many options to use!

I understand there’s a need for it but I’m not the biggest fan of showing poverty or sorrow. I like to shoot positive images. Most of us love to see images which are out of reach and then try to put ourselves into those situations. I want to show people something they would love to experience themselves.

I get inspired by light and water – the shades, shapes and reflections in it. That said, although my main subjects are in and around the ocean, I don’t want to put myself into corner and label myself as just a surf photographer. I love to shoot action but sometimes it’s good to slow down and focus on steady subjects.

I’d love to have shot Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. Imagine the stress though, there’s no re-shoot!

Both my father and my grandfather were great dark room techs – they’re my photographic heroes. They never pushed me to grab a camera but they did awake my curiosity and encourage me.

If I could have shot one photo that I didn’t, it would have to be the first images of man on the moon – Neil Armstrong taking the first steps. There’s something eerie about those. Imagine how stressful that would have been though, since there’d be no re-shoot the next week.

Billy Kemper at Backdoor, North Shore, Oahu. December 2014. Shot on a Nikon D800E, 10.5mm f2.8, SB 800, CMT Waterhousings custom flash housing

Water shots with flash are hard to dial right and even harder to nail without any flaws since flash lights up tiniest bits of spray and therefore can mess up an otherwise perfect shot. Also not being able to use the burst mode and blast 10 frames per second but just a single shot puts extra pressure on anticipating the right moment. But because they’re hard to get right that makes them that much more rewarding. As soon as I got my Nikon D800E I ordered a flash housing for it – for shooting single frames it’s really hard to beat that body.

Kelly Slater, Rip Curl Search Puerto Rico. November 2010. Shot on a Nikon D3, 24mm f1.4, CMT Waterhousings custom D3 housing

This was the photo I wanted to get of Kelly Slater’s historic 10th world title.

When Slater was on a hunt for historic 10th world title, I was a part of the team documenting his journey – this was the photo I wanted to get. I have shot this same moment when the horn marks the end of the event and winner celebrates his/her victory many times over; it’s a tricky one to get since they might catch a wave and surf all the way to shore and celebrate there instead. But I had this in mind as soon as I heard about the mission. I wanted to be the first one next to him when horn went off.

It was a logistical nightmare with 100K screaming surf fans covering the entire beach. But when his title deciding semifinal was over I swam right next to him and somehow it all came together. I shot him high-fiving with me and then I asked for ten fingers. It was a gamble to go with a 24mm lens, something longer would’ve given more options with more reach than the wide angle. But I wanted to get that beach scene as a backdrop and that little risk paid off with a photo which tells the story way better than something tighter cropped would.

John John Florence, Tahiti. August 2013. Shot on Nikon D800E, 16mm f2.8, CMT Waterhousings custom housing

The water here was extremely shallow so there was no margin for error – being on the wrong side of a breaking wave meant instant contact with the sharp reef. But John John surfed here for close to seven hours and didn’t touch it once – he broke a few boards but it was like he was invisible to the reef. I had been staying in same place as John and his filmers, and since my surfer had left the same morning they invited me to tag along with them. I opted to shoot underwater since I didn’t want to interfere in their frame with my head and housing. It felt really special to watch his art up close.

Empty Wave, Hossegor, France. January 2013 Shot on Nikon D800E, 10.5mm f2.8, SB 800, CMT Waterhousings custom flash housing

Sometimes Mother Nature paints a perfect picture and humans would only interfere with her brush strokes.

It was -5 degrees celsius on a January morning and there was not a soul on a sight when I swam out to shoot this. I was fresh off a plane from Hawaii and suffering from jet lag. Being up early I checked the swell and thought that there might be few empty waves to shoot. I suited up at home [in the surfing Mecca of Hossegor] and drove to La Graviere in the dark. These peaks kept folding over my head and I ended up staying in the water for close to three hours.

Not a single surfer showed up but that was all right. Sometimes Mother Nature paints a perfect picture and humans would only interfere with her brush strokes.

Iouri Podlatchikov, Laax, Switzerland. January 2015. Shot on Nikon D800E, 10.5mm f2.8, Profoto B2.

Iouri’s riding was as stellar as you would expect from an Olympic gold medalist

I used to shoot a lot of snowboarding before surfing took over completely, but it’s been quite a while since I pointed my lens on a snowboarder. I’d met Iouri at Quiksilver photoshoots and we’d always planned to do this. He contacted me in late January to say I should come to Laax in Switzerland for few days because half pipe was in excellent shape.

We shot only straight airs and not a single trick with a spin- just the way I like it. Iouri’s riding was as stellar as you would expect from an Olympic gold medalist; fast with lots of height. This Indy to fakie ticked most of the boxes – great style, the sun behind him and a curious paraglider checking out the action from the sky. It felt good to nail few snow images after such a long time away. Halfpipe riding isn’t the hardest subject to shoot, but the snowboaders go so big these days that it can get tricky to make something which stands out from the pack

Clay Marzo, Outer Atolls, French Polynesia. May 2007. Shot on Nikon D200, 10.5mm f2.8, Dale Kobetich custom housing.

When Nikon’s 10.5 DX fisheye came out it gave us Nikon shooters massive advantage over the Canon guys. It was a proper, sharp and fast full frame lens for crop bodies. In fact it was such a good combo with the D200 that many Canon shooters bought the set up just for their fisheye water work. It was the dream set up which didn’t interfere with your swimming at all.

Clay Marzo showed total commitment for this shot, something a photographer has to appreciate to the max. It comes from an O’Neill-sponsored freesurf event which ran for three years straight – I was fortunate to be on board as a staff shooter for all three of them. It was basically a trip to paradise in a luxury yacht! Clay was the only goofy footer in the group of eight invited surfers and he opted to go solo on these left-handers which ran straight into a dry reef. He managed to kick out every time before running into the dry coral heads, which is not always an easy task if wave is really hollow one.

Follow Timo on Instagram at @gotfilm & @lagaleriekaikai to see more of his incredible shots.

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