Todd Glaser’s job can take him anywhere in the world all on a moment’s notice
ENCINITAS — Finding waves, chasing swells, visiting exotic locales — not to mention facing dangerous conditions and keeping some of the world’s most prime surfing locations a secret.
As far as typical goes, that’s it for Todd Glaser.
Born in 1985, Glaser grew up in the Carmel Valley/ Del Mar area. The now-Solana Beach resident, who has since become known for his images capturing surfers barrel deep in a wave or through candid snapshots, can hardly know what each day will bring him — or where.
His beginnings as a surf photographer stem from surf P.E. class while a student at Torrey Pines High School.
If he wasn’t out surfing, he was taking a camera with him, capturing images of his friends. Photography was what felt natural to him, Glaser explained. “It was just the natural thing to do,” he said. “One day I would surf, and one day I would shoot photos.”
Glaser recently returned from shooting this year’s Mavericks Invitational at the famed-Mavericks site in Northern California. There is an image of Glaser shooting while in the water; only his helmeted-head above the water line is visible, appearing a minute speck in the open ocean. In the background a surfer drops down one of the monster 40 to 50 foot waves that hit the area this year.
Though, that wasn’t his perspective.
Spending 10 hours in the water, battling the cold and dehydration, Glaser was more worried about running out of film, or making sure he was using the right shutter speed.
“There’s so much going on,” Glaser said. “You’re dealing with currents, there’s seals, there’s big fish underneath you — I haven’t seen (them) yet, but they’re out there.”
It isn’t until at least the next day, after a good night’s sleep and the adrenaline’s run out, that, while looking at the photos, you realize what’s really happening out there, he explained.
And why do it? “It’s fun,” he said.
After taking a few years off from high school, Glaser was able to travel the world, at times as a professional body boarder, or from the money he saved while working at Mitch’s Surf Shop in La Jolla.
Eventually he enrolled as a student of the Brooks Institute of photography in Santa Barbara. He said he was conscious about not strictly becoming a surf photographer. He wanted to keep his options as open as possible by studying the art of photography.
“There’s aspects of photography that you can apply to shooting surfing, but it’s one of those things you just have to get out and do it. They can’t teach you ocean knowledge in the classroom; they can’t teach you how to handle rip currents…while you’re in the classroom,” Glaser said.
It’s a competitive business to be in, especially now with the limited amount of space available in print publications.
Before becoming a staff photographer with Surfer Magazine, there were more magazines available to have images featured.
Glaser said now the industry is down to only three magazines.
“It is hard to either make a name for yourself, or have your images get seen in print,” he said. “It’s really easy to get your images seen either on a web site or through social media because you have the access, you have the free reign to show whatever it is that you feel people would be interested in seeing…so you are your own editor in that sense,” he said.
“Getting your work seen in print, I still think is somewhat of a Holy Grail of photography,” he said.
His first Surfer Magazine cover came in 2009.
He remembered that it was a shoot with a couple of guys in a secret location.
The only condition to his being able to go on the trip was that he had to keep the location a secret.
Glaser recalled the time when he entered Surfer Magazine’s office for the first time ever (at their then-San Juan Capistrano location). He made mention of the trip, and the photos he had with him.
When his editors saw the photos, they naturally asked where the images were taken. Glaser’s response: “I don’t know.”
They all kind of smiled at him, he said, because they’ve all been involved with a similar experience.
At the end of the meeting, they said the photos were cool, and Glaser ended up leaving.
About a month later, he said, after dropping off another batch of photos, his editors told him without any fanfare or excitement, that he’d got the cover of the latest issue.
“It was pretty cool,” Glaser said.
The funny thing about that photo, he added, was that it wasn’t one he originally turned in.
Glaser’s work has earned him several honors, including receiving 2009’s photo of the year award from Surfer Magazine.
As much as he says photography is built on trust, Glaser hopes that the camera doesn’t separate him from his subjects. Veteran surf photographer Steve Sherman told him to always have a camera around. That way, Glaser explained, people would get used to seeing him with a camera.
“It takes a long time to earn that trust and build that trust,” he said.
He strives to tell the story of whatever trip it is they’re on, not just the surfing.
Still, Glaser’s profession is a constant balance of getting the shot and not getting in the way.
There are times when he’s been hit by surfboards, he said, but the worst situations while shooting in the water have come from the waves.
It isn’t the wave the surfer’s on that he has to watch out for, he explained, but the next three waves behind it that are about to crash down on him, at times pushing him into the reefs below.
And if something did happen under the surface, it would be difficult for anyone to know, he said, simply because he, like the surfer, isn’t attached to a board.
It all comes down to preparation, training and ocean awareness, Glaser said.
“I’ve been in some pretty dangerous ocean situations, and eventually the ocean is always going to win,” said Glaser. “You’re not going to overpower the ocean ever. Once you accept that and appreciate that, then you can go into it knowing at certain times you are going to put yourself in a bad situation, but you leave it up to your training and your past experiences to get through it and do it again.”
He knows that the surfers are risking their lives doing what they do, and what he wants to do is give that justice.
“So if that means me getting into the water to get closer and show what it’s like to be a surfer in those situations, that’s what I do,” Glaser said.
Though there are times when he won’t go in the water, and surfers respect that, he added.