Interview with Trent Mitchell

We’re proud to present an interview with award-winning Australian photographer, Trent Mitchell.

Tell us about your background…

TM: I guess I have all ways been involved in creative areas in one way or another. I always used to paint and draw at school, so that energy progressed into chasing a creative career. I studied Industrial Design and taught myself graphic design after high school. I used those skills to find work in the surf industry doing what I loved.

During my years designing, I purchased a second-hand Nikon fm2 with motor drive and a 105mm f2.5 lens, together with a Dave Kelly housing. I have taken my best pictures with the fm2 setup and I still have a big soft spot for it. It’s my favourite. I knew nothing about cameras, film or exposures… I just picked up a 35mm handbook and read my ass off, experimented and visualised images and end results. It felt like a really long road with no help, but highly rewarding. I continued shooting for myself here and there getting images published in magazines sporadically as I shot when I felt like it.

After more years of design work for the likes of Mambo and Morrison Media, I took the opportunity to try and photo edit a surfing magazine, ASL. That’s when I guess my hobby evolved beyond just making pictures here and there. People saw more of my pictures, and then I took more pictures more often because people asked me to shoot for them. It is now at the stage where I take pictures for around 50% of my work, maybe more. I am now in a place that I have always dreamt of. It feels amazing and I just can’t wait to learn so much more about light and making pictures. I feel like I have just started photography, and I am full of excitement to learn more and evolve.

Trent’s best shots enthrall me, and his sculptural photographs of waves are so pure and striking I ask myself why no-one else has ever captured these moments the same way. I reckon the answer lies in Trent’s heart and soul.

Gra Murdoch, Creative Director, Morrison Media

When did you first discover your love for surfing?

TM: I don’t know when I discovered my love for surfing. Well, I ride a bodyboard, bodysurf and occasionally ride a surfboard when the waves aren’t hollow cause I’m a kook on a surfboard! But yeah, I rode waves long before I loved riding them. It was maybe after a couple of years until I really did love it. Maybe when I was 14/15. It could have been a few sessions out a local reef break, where you kind of weightlessly draw lines into the tube every wave. It was not big, but hollow for the size and I really remember being addicted to that weightless millisecond and going fast with a lip pitching over your head. I still really love that thrill. It’s so simple but so exciting! It’s a thrill that we all chase as wave riders I guess. The tube is where it’s at for me, either riding one or shooting one. It’s the aspect of wave riding that I relate to and love the most.

…and photography?

TM: Before I answer that I want to define the type of love I have for photography. I love photography like you love your family and close friends. It’s not like some two-year relationship with a hot chick that fades. Its a love that you can hate too, I find it cyclic. It’s kinda funny! It has taken me a while to draw parallels between life and photography and how they are equally important to each other for me. How they work together and how they will not work without each other. I am truly passionate about light and art vs reality. But I am by no means freakishly obsessive about it, some times I don’t shoot waves for a couple of months, I might just surf. I keep it balanced, but I love it as much as I love living and to me, it is living, a way of life. I think I only recently realised that I love photography, in the past year or so. Now I don’t know what I would do without it.

I don’t believe any amount of words could do justice to the photographs Trent captures. Images that are beyond words; now that’s something pretty damn special.

Nick Lawrence, Editor in Chief, RipTide Magazine

You shoot a range of material, not just surfing, tell us about your work, and your style?

TM: It may be perceived that my work is varied and that is for two primary reasons. One being that I am stimulated by challenges and the other having an appreciation for balance. Therefore I am constantly looking for change and challenge in subjects and light.

Now that this question has forced me to think about it further, I have come to the realisation that I love and see so much beauty in life that I find it extremely hard to just shoot only one subject or one aspect of that subject. I also believe that shooting pictures of varied subjects and circumstances balances things out and evolves your strengths without knowing it.

My work varies from shooting Olympic athletes, to product, to weddings, to travel pieces, to journalism, to portraits, to high action water and even large scale fine art prints. I don’t see myself as a “this or that” photographer. I just see myself as a photographer. Well, not even a photographer?! Does that sound weird? I just solve problems with a camera and occasionally express some creative intent with one too. For me, the subjects are doing much more work than myself. It is the subject that holds the beauty, I am just lucky sometimes to be there and ready when things align.

As far as style goes I am not sure. Many of my peers suggest to me that I have a strong one, but I can’t see it really. I just look at my pictures and see room for improvement. Some people say they know a photo is mine when they see it. I don’t know how to critique my style or how to articulate it… the only thing I know is when I shoot many of my decisions are driven by feel and instinct. I know I am just being myself when I shoot because I am listening to my instinct and not outside distraction. Is that a style? I don’t know? Style is so confusing.

Through an enthusiasm for his subjects and his deep love of photography, Trent captures and conveys pure joy. He has a rare eye, and working with such talent is a genuine thrill.

Tim Fisher, Editor, ASL (Australia’s Surfing Life) Magazine

Digital or film?

TM: I have twice as many film cameras as I do digital ones. I love film grain and the process of shooting film, so my personal work is 100% film. I am still shooting film all the time. I like to slow down and shoot film. I love to slow down. It teaches you lessons.

I only went AF digital 2 years ago. Before then I was only shooting manual focus film water shots. I really do love that feeling of pulling focus, shooting a single frame of a perfect lip or tube and seeing the slide on the box, perfectly exposed with amazing colour, contrast, and lovely grain. I love that process. Love it. It is completely rewarding. I only shoot those pictures for me.

On the other hand, digital is a client’s best friend. I love it in a different way. I love the flexibility and immediacy of the medium. The interpretations of a raw file are limitless really. That’s exciting. I guess I can see the purpose of both. I love the purity of a perfect slide filled with life and grain. I also love the exciting realm of digital and its unlimited potential. I love photography, they are both relative mediums. Everything has its place and purpose that is in front of us.

Talk to us about “The Short Straw”

TM: That online photo essay was just an outlet for all my “Outs” from a particular road trip with some close mates of mine. I like taking pictures of things when they happen, at all times and more often than not those images are overlooked by action magazines. There is a good reason for that as well. Most readers are highly engaged with action images and they are ultimately what people are looking for when purchasing a surf magazine. So my motivation was to take people on a little journey, to make them feel like they were there, or at least wanted to be there or wish they could do such things. And my motivation was to show people what actually happens when these trips unfold. Just to make them feel things you know?

It was just an experiment really, I ultimately wanted audio and video in there to take it to another level, but maybe next time. There is so much room to play its awesome. I like engaging a viewer and playing with what they are thinking, you’re almost making them look at things, shape, colour, words, and timing, it’s all so they feel something. Sound and moving pictures will take that to the next level of engagement and that’s what I want to do.

In retrospect, I think it was pretty long as an essay by the “rules” but it was a long and hard trip, so hell, it’s a long and hard essay to deal with too, ha! The feedback was amazing from it and I really can’t wait to push that part of surf journalism. Shoot for print and then ad the value to the magazines by presenting a well thought out and designed essay as a hassle-free bonus for them.

‘In and out’ swell hits are so boring. Maybe my taste is maturing but I am not satisfied with flying in somewhere, shooting action for two days and packing up and going home. I feel dirty. It’s fun and I always enjoy myself, but when I’m in a place I like to slow into the groove of it and just see what happens. Hopefully, meet some nice people too. Not many people want to risk stuff like that now, it’s hard to find people who really want to do that and magazines that want to risk budget too. But that’s where I usually get my authentic images when there is time and space for things to happen. But anyway, that’s where that essay is at and where I want to be.

It is not at home that we best encounter our true selves… the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who we may not be… In the middle of nowhere. Tough times. No waves. Broken equipment. Everyone shows their true colours. Missed home. Family. Mates. Girlfriend. Cronulla. Domestic luxuries. Waves develop. Mood rises. Wedge. Scoop. Boost. Boom! Content. Happy. Fun. Good times.

An inspiring quote from “The Short Straw”

Where have been your favourite locations to shoot, travel, and surf?

TM: Anywhere between Adelaide and Perth in Australia. The vibe, light and raw ocean are just so luring. It’s my favorite part of the world for sure. Everything about it is contrasty and balanced perfectly. I’ll give a little example. Desert meets the ocean. 35 degrees out, 15 degrees in. Blue sky, red dirt. Hard locals with hearts of gold. Hot days, cold nights. The list goes on… it’s just a really appealing environment to enjoy and shoot pictures in.

You seem to always be up for an award of some kind! More recently you had 4 photos nominated for the Surfer Poll 2009 Photo of the Year Award…

TM: I am not referencing any particular nomination or award, but it’s flattering, as well as being quite surreal in the most positive way! It gives me confidence in my ability and projects a sense of professionalism to clients. But I don’t fall for it as a “truth”; you could easily fool yourself into thinking that you’re this or that when people put you and your images in high regard. That’s just foolish thinking. I don’t let my ego trick me into thinking I am more capable than the next guy.

People will dislike your images just as much as they will praise them, and that’s fine with me too. Anyway… they are just pictures… can’t take it too seriously? It’s all fun!

Now I think about it, I would much rather have respect from my peers and clients on a day-to-day basis and be surrounded in that, than walk up on a stage and shake someone’s hand for some instant gratification. Enduring respect from peers is much more important to me, even though the recognition and rewards are flattering.

You were recently 1 of 3 finalists in the 2009 Billabong & Stab Magazine‘s Little Weeds competition (a competition looking for the hottest surf industry talent in Australia)…

TM: It was pretty cool. It was nice to win a heat in the first round, many of my mates entered and I really did not think I had a look in for reasons I will not state. It was such a weird experience. I am still confused by it actually, such a strange process. It was a marketing experiment. They got lots of hits on that site.

Actually, the finals were like a really casual job interview, without the interview. So there were three of us being “interviewed” for the job, only I did not fit the STAB mould, but that’s perfect! Like I said before I would much rather be true to myself and have respect (if any) from my peers and mentors than try to fit into a mould that I just can’t fill. Being personally authentic is way more important to me than winning a prize.

I totally believe they picked a good winner for the comp’ and Matt [O’Brien] will deliver what they need, I just hope he keeps a level head; we aren’t curing cancer or saving lives, ha ha ha!

So yeah, the Little Weeds thing was the closest thing I have experienced to what I think a reality TV show would be like, minus the camera crew. It was pretty competitive, I never usually shoot when I pick up on that vibe… I just cruised, took a few snaps and met some fine people that I can call good friends, so that’s all win-win.

Finally, for fans of your work, is it possible to purchase prints of your photos?

TM: Oh for sure, people can email me at [email protected]. I like to keep my prints 100% custom and give my clients the best service I can. Each print order I have taken has been completely different. No two are the same, so my clients are getting a totally unique print or product. I customise the order to the person’s likes and needs. It’s so good that way. You can’t get my prints anywhere else other than me, this is also important to me and to my customers. I am looking at building a site just dedicated to customised prints. It is in the works so I will let you know when it’s up and running.

I just want to say a quick thanks to Club of the Waves. Cheers, you’re doing great things, Andrew, and I want to thank you for helping me out and everyone else. It’s fantastic.

Trent shows a unique understanding of the complexities of light. The relationships of tone, texture, hue, saturation that must be recognised before they can be captured.

Ted Grambeau, Photographer

On a photographic note, I want to praise Ted Grambeau for helping me gain the confidence to be myself and shoot pictures for a living. He has been such an amazing person to work with and for. He inspires me every time we talk and work, both as a person and as a photographer. A great man. I would also like to praise all the people I have worked with over the past few years that have made what I am doing right now, possible. I can’t thank you enough. Keep smiling. Peace.


Trent Mitchell



Next feature

More features

Sign up for our newsletter