Behind the Lens with Adventure Photographer Branden Aroyan

Full frame action isn't easy while swimming in a strong current and dodging surfers at a crowed point break.
Full frame action isn't easy while swimming in a strong current and dodging surfers at a crowed point break. Branden Aroyan
Made Possible by
Curated by

Simply put, Branden Aroyan is living the dream. The 40-something Santa Barbara-based photographer, after making a name for himself in the man-eat-man world of surf photography during the last years of the film-only era, has evolved into a superb lens man, shooting assignments that include monster waves in exotic locales to quiet, wild spaces thousands of miles from the sea to sold-out rock concerts, and the all the variations of the human condition in between.

Aroyan lives a short walking distance to a somewhat hush-hush high-quality wave, has a talented wife named Valerie, a disgustingly cute dog named Lucky, and counts some of the biggest and brightest stars in the surf and music worlds as dear friends. But perhaps most important is the fact that he is a contagiously polite and kind-hearted human, two things that no doubt serve him well while on assignment.

Aroyan also is an active participant in the outdoor life he documents. He fell in love with surf sliding long before he learned to love shutter speeds and exposure times, tears up the many miles of single-track in the SB foothills, and is an avid spear-fisherman, and lobster hunter. He's also a part-time photography teacher, owner of an organic clothing company called Low Tide Rising (which features some of his more iconic photos), and former champion of the hit television show Wipeout. If that wasn’t enough, he tinkers in his “spare” time on an infinite motion machine he's been working on for the past decade, a passion project he refers to as “petting the cat”.

RootsRated had the opportunity to sit down with Aroyan recently and talk outdoor photography, gear tips, and what it’s like to be the go-to photo guy for people like Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater.

Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii has been captivating people since it first popped on the radar screen in the 1970's. Here, Aroyan takes a decidedly deadly wave and colors it quite peaceful.
Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii has been captivating people since it first popped on the radar screen in the 1970's. Here, Aroyan takes a decidedly deadly wave and colors it quite peaceful. Branden Aroyan

What is your favorite part about your job?

Being on-location shooting, whether it’s deep in a forest or inside a barreling wave. Being immersed in an environment and adapting the camera to the situation. Being there while the content unfolds and reveals itself, whether I’ve been searching for it and it pops up unexpected or I’ve been waiting for it all day while pushing the boundaries of patience. Those are amongst my favorite things.

I also really appreciate the moment of moving on, when you know you got the shot and it’s ok to move and find more details to shoot or compose a new image that helps build the ambiance and vibe of the overall experience … Then there is the way a photo can take someone to a happy place or how it can fill a room with the exact energy of the ocean that I felt while swimming in it and getting the image in the first place.

The ultimate selfie by Branden Aroyan, posing in front of a giant print of a photo he took a handful of years ago.
The ultimate selfie by Branden Aroyan, posing in front of a giant print of a photo he took a handful of years ago. Branden Aroyan

Briefly tell us about your preferred photo gear. Do you have a favorite lens?

My preferred gear is a lightweight back pack filled with the essentials all minimized and sophisticated to cover a broad range of subjects and situations. My favorite piece of equipment is a streamlined water housing because being able to swim with a camera and not be burdened by it really keeps the joy of the experience intact. As for a favorite lens, that would have to be a wide angle with minimal distortion. When you are in the thick of it and surround by too much good stuff, the wide angle helps bring it together and give it away. There is also less photographic lying possible with a wide angle. They are typically very clear that the scene is all encompassing and not sliced out of context.

Canon is my main go-to for camera equipment. Right now, I’m using the new 7D Mark 2. I love the compactness and being able to switch from stills to video with the flick of a button. And the 10 frames per second is a luxury when blasting off action sequences. It also offers high definition slow motion quality video (1080p at 60 fps) and the video auto focus tracking is a heavenly thing when surfers are flying down the line straight at me while I am swimming in the water and fighting to stay in position.

As for lenses, it always has to be high-quality glass to preserve a rich sharpness and film-like tones. The Tokina 11-16mm  f/2.8 has a very wide range and doesn’t distort very much for a realistic peripheral view. For in the barrel photos I use 11mm. For wide landscapes I will set it closer to 16mm. I also have a 70-200mm lens that is good for just walking around and looking for everything from farther away lifestyle portraits and focused detail close-ups to medium ranged lineup shots.

The right or wrong backpack can really make or break a trip. The best I have found to date is the Lowepro Dry Zone, which has an easy access and waterproof lower compartment that is divided up with padding sections for different lenses and two cameras.

Sometimes it isn't the photo or moment that you are there to capture that actually ends up being the keeper. Aroyan was on a surf trip in Mexico when he noticed this horse and it's "sea horse" shadow.
Sometimes it isn't the photo or moment that you are there to capture that actually ends up being the keeper. Aroyan was on a surf trip in Mexico when he noticed this horse and it's "sea horse" shadow. Branden Aroyan

Without giving away too many secrets, what is your favorite outdoor location to shoot in the Santa Barbara-area and why?

Santa Barbara has a diverse geography with a ton to offer, that’s why I love living here. Rincon is probably my favorite place to shoot as it has a little bit of everything- great waves, energetic locals with fascinating stories, fast changing light, and endless amounts of nooks and crannies.

What is your best advice for someone who just wants to do a bit better of a job taking pictures of the great outdoors?

To take better photos of the great outdoors, simply find a subject that interests you and only show the area around it that supports why you love it. Use discipline and only one lens to shoot it and then shoot it from a handful of different angles and distances including different foregrounds and shutter speeds. You will learn some important lessons if you do that.

Shot on film while working for Patagonia a number of years back, this photo of Punta Lobo in Chile is one of Aroyan's most sought after prints.
Shot on film while working for Patagonia a number of years back, this photo of Punta Lobo in Chile is one of Aroyan's most sought after prints. Branden Aroyan

Why do you think that household names like Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater, two people who could be shooting with just about any photographer on the planet, are so fond of working with you?

I think Jack and Kelly like working with me because of trust and respect. They, along with most high-profile people, are private about their personal lives and don’t want to jeopardize that. Further, when working with someone in the ways that I do, you often end up essentially living them for a short time and Jack and Kelly and others know I won’t exploit it. They know that I know what it took for them to get where they are. I really try and keep it clean, clean living, physically tidy camera equipment, unobtrusive interactions, clean thoughts, positive attitude, and productive. Being simple is not easy, and simple is nice.

Not everyone gets to see things like this, let alone pull out a camera and capture it. Jack Johnson fine tuning his set list before a show.
Not everyone gets to see things like this, let alone pull out a camera and capture it. Jack Johnson fine tuning his set list before a show. Branden Aroyan

What's better and why, a sunset or sunrise on the ocean or in the mountains?

Well, I am a fan of reflections and they are plentiful on the beach at both the beginning and ending of the day. The moments they present are fleeting and transformative, like slow-motion fireworks. The mountains, on the other hand, at both sunrise and sunset, have a solid and grounding feel to them where the connectivity to the earth feels stronger and the sounds of wildlife and birds are like a symphony. So yeah, I can’t really pick between the two. I need both.

Perfect surf in a perfect location. Would you rather shoot or ride?

To shoot or ride is an age-old question but to shoot while riding solves the problem for me. It is not the easiest thing in life to do, kind of like juggling while walking a tightrope, but it is certainly rewarding. A life lived in balance is really the ultimate goal for me, balancing both the physical act of surfing and the mental act of work and play. When you are seamlessly shifting back and forth from play to work to play and back to work it can be very invigorating and life affirming.

Working as the photographer and occasional videographer on a recent Jack Johnson tour, Aroyan waited all tour before staging this picture on the last night of the tour in Johnson's adopted hometown of Santa Barbara.
Working as the photographer and occasional videographer on a recent Jack Johnson tour, Aroyan waited all tour before staging this picture on the last night of the tour in Johnson's adopted hometown of Santa Barbara. Branden Aroyan

Describe your perfect Santa Barbara day spent outside?

That’s easy: surf, surf, surf while shooting along the way. Small protein breakfast and a nice dark espresso, walk to great waves, breakfast number two then surf again followed by a picnic lunch on the beach in the shade with friends and, of course, surf again and shoot the sunset and then a bonfire and then home to a hot shower, download some footage during dinner, and then edit the favorites while drinking a beer.

Any final words of wisdom?

Know how to operate your camera well so you can make quick adjustments in the heat of the moment. Always stay hydrated and, above all else, have fun.

If you're interested in learning more about photography, here's a short 3-minute video with some great beginner tips for understanding composition, and setting yourself up for the perfect shot.

Last Updated:

Next Up