Spencer Hornby has been a dedicated surfing shooter for over ten years. In that time the gregarious photographer from the NSW, central coast has landed cover shots on a range of mags and chiselled a reputation as a passionate and highly professional lensman who is not afraid to take on challenging subjects, whether they be waves, locations or big personalities. With a diverse body of work behind him, Spencer recently opened a gallery near The Entrance on the NSW central coast. Below he discusses his journey as a photographer over the last decade and explains what compelled him to curate his archive in a gallery setting.  

To be a successful surf photographer you need to have technical skill, creative vision and also plenty of self-confidence. How important is the last part? 
Confidence is huge, it took me a long time to figure out the type of confidence needed and I think there’s definitely a certain strand of confidence that rubs off the wrong way on people and a type that will benefit you and hopefully help you attract interest and gain some motion.

Obviously you are going to have a different connection with different people, in particular editors and the magazines. My biggest hurdle was learning how to keep my head up and press forward when my work would get knocked back. Confidence comes in all shapes and forms and you need it for a lot of things like persisting to better yourself when that does happen. It’s also pretty cool when publications (like you guys) are always open to my ideas and opinions on what could be done here and there with my photos or what’s coming up. 

Koby Abberton will push photogs to go outside their comfort zones.

What’s the boldest thing you ever did to get your shots run? I remember one trip with Koby Abberton when you were starting out that involved some pretty high risk swims through sharky waters and some helter skelter antics?
That trip will stay with me forever. Anyone’s first trip will…especially one like that. That trip with Koby and the boys kicked it all off for me with you guys, from memory I think it was a twelve or ten pager? We were at two opposite ends of the spectrum in life and set out on this little quest to get something done. I basically had no idea and he had no patience. But thankfully it turned out ok. I think that trip away first up was beneficial and helped me to ‘man the fuck up a bit’ in many situations since then.

Which surfer have you had the most fun with? 
That’s a good question. I’ve always loved shooting Richie Vas’ (Vaculik) because he is such an animal in the water. He lays it all on the line and is most probably the nicest guy I’ve ever met, but whilst we’re here I really enjoy shooting Mick Fanning too. 

Richie Vas' beneath the detonator during the Red Bull Cape Fear event at Cape Solander in 2016.

Who has been the most challenging to shoot? Any stories that you can divulge?
Probably Koby Abberton has been my biggest challenge. But I mean that respectfully. He’s a brutally honest person who can play on you a bit, especially when you’re a bit younger. In saying that though, it does push you and we have had some good times too. Other than that - shooting the top guys and getting that access in general has been tricky. I remember when I first started I walked up to Mick at D'bah and asked him if it’s sweet if I swim out and shoot and he told me, “Yeah, but stay well back and don’t get in the road.” I was about 19 at the time and was kinda expecting him to be really happy and say, “Sure!” But he gave it to me straight and it rattled me a bit. He was probably just having a shit day. Think I stayed on land from memory. 

Mick Fanning knows how to deliver money-maker moments for the photogs.

You have always juggled surf photography with other jobs. What else have you done to keep the dream alive?
Yeah, I’ve done a few things. I used to waiter tables, wash dishes, worked at a nursery garden, couple of surf shops when I was a grom. In my most recent years I have assisted a high-end fashion photographer named Todd Barry. He’s living in America now but he comes out here during the summers and we link up. He and his wife Chrissy are a great team and they are really fun to work for. 

Were the pay days bigger when you started out? From companies and mags. What was your biggest payday for a single shot or campaign? 
They were certainly more frequent. There was a point there where I sold a couple of shots back to back; both around the three-four thousand dollar US mark, pretty quickly. I was a lot younger then so I thought I was flying, hahaha.

You have had a couple of Tracks covers and a few other mags also. What’s your favourite? No pressure, ha.  
I set myself a little goal that I wanted ten surf covers whilst being still in my twenties and thankfully I reached it. I’ve never been good with keeping my goals, but for some personal reason I wanted to nail that one. You never forget your first one and I’m happy with every one of them since. The favourite for me was one of Mick Fanning back in 2010 on the south coast that you guys ran. You rang me and told me over the phone and I remember getting pissed with my old boy that night. Mick was always my favourite surfer growing up; even before I shot photos and I used to look at him in the very magazine that I had him on now. Solid feeling.  

In an age of image saturation on the net and social media, a cover shot still means a lot for the photog and the surfer.

Any other shots that you are really proud of?
There are shots I push when people ask to see my profile that I guess you could say I prefer to show. 

Do the surfers thank or compliment you when you get a good shot? Is that a big part of the intrinsic reward?
Always. I’ve always loved that about the job and it’s a very fulfilling aspect – for me anyways. I think people have that in them as a manners thing anyways. I will always make sure to thank a surfer for his or her time, too. 

You love getting in the water. Why is it so satisfying? Some say it’s the closest thing to surfing because you are anticipating the surfer’s and the ocean’s next move so closely.

Mark Mathews helping to make the point that a good water shot can be the next best thing to riding the wave.

Absolutely. I’m not a good surfer at all so you can imagine what it’s like to still be able to sit in a huge pit when I swim. It’s like getting to spend time with the talent I never received. For me, pulling off a solid water photo is hands down the greatest feeling in the world. It goes way deeper than anything to do with selling it too. For me it’s a slight, brief and powerful moment in my life where I truly feel that right here, right now, for the time being at least, I’m right where I need to be and that there isn’t something else I should be doing.

What prompted you to open the gallery? 
I had some photos that I wanted to show in print and I had wanted to do something like this for a little while. My mate Damien Pepper makes his surfboards from a little factory type lot in Long Jetty and some space came up for me to start something there. Together we ordered in some gyprock, re-surfaced the floors and painted the walls. From there we got our mate who is a sparky to install some downlights and then I moved my prints in. That final part was pretty cool. 

Is it rewarding to see your best work framed and hung on a wall?
Yeah it is. It’s slightly uncomfortable having random people come in and look at them but that’s the whole idea isn’t it? For years I’ve had my work shown in the magazines, which is great, but you’re never really prone to people’s initial reactions and opinions right in front of you when they see the photos like you are when they walk in. Some people stop and stare at certain images and seem to really like them, whilst others might walk straight past them and back out the door, it’s a weird experience. 

 Was the set up costly? What about the overheads?  
I got away with it pretty cheap. I didn’t have a great deal of money at the time and it’s incredible what you can achieve even when you’re half broke. I think I spent around two grand getting it done. Rent is ok too because we are tucked in behind a few things and not directly on the main road. Pepper and I are halves. When we first opened we threw an opening night and invited our local friends down and put on a couple of kegs and some wine with catered food. By 7 o’clock we had to do another keg run and it turned into a raging party that I really didn’t anticipate. One of the boys let off fireworks, there were people everywhere and it was so fun. We got in big shit for that too. 

Which shot has been the best seller? 
There’s a few that sell a bit more than others. There’s a lineup shot of my home-break absolutely firing; another one of Jughead from the RedBull competition last year and other ones here and there. Jug’s probably gonna want some commission now hahaha. 

Jughead taming a brown beast at Cape Solander.

Have you had much interest in your work from non-surfers? 
Yeah I have. People of all walks seem to love the ocean. There’s much more demand for photos with nobody in them when it comes to non-surfers.

Swaying palms and tropical blues are in demand from the non-surfing public.

What advice would you give to aspiring surf photographers? Or would you say quit, the market’s saturated. Ha.
I would never say quit. I’d say enjoy it and have fun out there doing it. It is saturated, there’s no denying that. Travel the world with it, meet and connect with people through it and don’t get in the road! haha.