Surf photography can get a little repetitive—all you have to work with is water, sky, a surfboard, and a human. Which is why Russell Holliday’s vibrant, diverse surf shots are so refreshing. He isn’t just taking pictures of surfers and the sea—he’s shooting light and color, energy, personality, and the kinds of chance encounters that make your jaw drop.

The 24-year-old surfer was just an average college graduate two years ago, looking for jobs with advertising agencies and trying to figure out what it was that didn’t feel quite right about his current path. That’s when he took what most young photographers would consider the dream job: Chris Burkard’s photo editor. Now, Holliday works as Burkard’s studio manager and first assistant, a position that has his him chasing the famous photographer across the globe for commercial and editorial shoots, learning the ropes of running a photography business, and, of course, shooting beautiful photos.

Holliday’s father, a world-traveling surfer in his day, lost all his photos in a fire before Holliday was born, so when Holliday was nine, he picked up a camera and made sure not to miss anything he’d want to share with his loved ones someday. The photo bug stuck, though he shot almost exclusively surfing until his job with Burkard helped him expand his horizons. We caught up with Holliday to learn about some of his favorite shots.

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This was actually my first trip with Chris Burkard and we didn’t really have a goal besides drive through the night to shoot the Milky Way over Half Dome. We ended up meeting some pretty awesome people while we were up there, one of which claimed he would ride a skateboard with his hands. Chris and I were like, “Well, let’s see you ride down Glacier Point Road.”

This was a surf trip I did through the Oregon coast with pro surfer Timmy Reyes. We were trying to get a few waves that only break a few times a year. The conditions are so hard to get and we had a few hour window where it almost worked. We were waiting for the tide to get high enough, and just as it was getting high, a massive storm system rolled in with hail pelting us on the beach. Timmy was standing in the last sliver of light before the sun disappeared for the next week.

I have spent the majority of this year shadowing Timmy Reyes as he travels the world in search of good waves. This was in mainland Mexico and I was shooting for an editorial feature on Surfline. We ended up wrangling together an old VW Baja Bug which we used to drive all around looking for waves. We hadn’t gotten very good waves the first few sessions and I knew it came down to this session to get “the shot”. Many people resort to shooting from land because it’s easier to get more shots whereas, when you shoot water, you have very limited opportunities. I knew that there was a possibility to get something unique if I shot water and was confident that’d I’d get the shot. Needless to say there were a few epic moments.

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Chris Burkard and I were in Greece on a catalog shoot for prAna and found this epic ledge just outside Santorini, Greece. Chris and I recently have become obsessed about backflipping off of stuff into water and this was the highest one any of us had tried. I was shooting fisheye and had one of the models on the shoot, Taiana Gieffer, swim underwater as Chris backflipped. Believe it or not we got it first try!

This was shot while filming for Under an Arctic Sky, which was made by Chris and Ben Weiland. We were getting like an hour of sleep for 4-5 days straight trying to shoot this and finally everything came together. For those who have chased the Aurora Borealis, it’s extremely rare for this to be this bright this close to the horizon. To see all of the conditions align was honestly mind blowing, all we had to do get the surfers to get out in the water and catch a wave! Timmy Reyes caught the first wave.

This is hands down the best surf I’ve ever done in my life. This was up in Canada on Vancouver Island. Timmy Reyes, Justin Quintal and I spent 10 days searching for waves and ended up camping at this wave for a few days. It’s such a different experience surfing up there, the water isn’t all that cold (compared to Northern Iceland) but you must really be prepared for the changing elements and intense wildlife. While shooting this session, a mama bear and cub were combing the beach searching for salmon before walking up to me. We had somewhat of a standoff; I stood tall and locked eyes with the bear for 5-10 seconds before she didn’t see me as a threat and continued down the beach. It was a very intense few moments.

I drove through the night to meet up with my good friend Shaun Burns to surf Ocean Beach, San Francisco. We rolled up in the morning to beautiful offshore conditions and the occasional crazy wave. Paddling out here is pretty treacherous, the currents can suck you out to sea or you can get caught inside and take four or five waves on the head. Not to mention great whites. You really have to hunt the moment here, there are a few “perfect” waves that roll through every hour and if you aren’t paying attention you’re going to miss it.

Shaun Burns and I have spent a lot of time around San Luis Obispo searching for waves, many times coming up empty handed. Shooting in the water at sunset is one of my favorite things because of what the light does with the water. As the sun set, the water was glowing when Shaun would catch waves in front of me. There was a water drop on the water housing lens element, which created this weird light flare in the image. I remember reviewing the image in the water and being so bummed that the flare had “ruined” the photograph but it actually ended up being one of my favorite images I’ve shot around home.

Rolling green hills in Central California is a pretty rare sight. After all the rain, we had two to three weeks when the hills were glowing, they were the greenest I had ever seen. This wave is very finicky and needs a few days of glassy conditions before it can get good. Austin Nuemann and I raced up here trying to get here before sunset, it’s a bit of a hike to get to the wave and he suited up on the beach. This was the first wave and Austin hucked this air. In my opinion, Austin is the best surfer in area.

Justin Quintal is a professional longboarder from Florida and he was visiting Central California. We were checking the surf everywhere and finally ended up paddling out just before sunset. I saw this formation of pelicans in the corner of my eye as Justin walked up on the nose and hung heels and the pelicans passed behind him. There was no way to plan that everything would line up, but that’s what I love about shooting surfing.

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