East Coast Surfing and Photography

Simple is honored to be able to call Michael McKenna a friend.  Michael is a New Jersey native, an accomplished photographer, and an avid surfer.  

Mike, you’re an east coast surfing guy.....the Beach Boys never wrote about 5mm wet suits, boots, gloves, and 30mph winds? What makes you guys go into the water in these conditions?

Haha. Good question. For me personally, I would say it’s about challenging myself. I would love to say that I’m never afraid or intimidated by large waves or challenging conditions, but that’s not true. I can get pretty anxious about getting into the water when it’s big and cold. However, there are very few feelings like overcoming that fear and paddling into a big wave or swimming out when it’s heavy and capturing an image you are proud of. I know moments like that help give me the confidence in myself to overcome other challenges life presents.

There are some great surfers that started on the east coast. Does the challenge of the East coast waves make you a better surfer? Some say it’s like skiing in Vermont! Do you have a favorite surfer regardless of location? 

That’s hard to say. Great surfers have come from a lot of unlikely places in the world, but there are definitely some world class surfers from the east coast. My all time favorite surfer, Kelly Slater, is from the east coast. He grew up surfing in Florida and now he is universally considered the greatest of all time. I also really enjoy watching John John Florence surf. I’ve been lucky enough to photograph both of them in Hawaii and they were genuinely nice guys, too. I also really enjoy watching Carissa Moore (Hawaii) and Caroline Marks (Florida) surf. They are amazing. I recently had a photoshoot with them in New York City and they were really fun to work with. It will be great to watch them represent team USA in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

I’ve seen breaks in Monmouth County that look like something out of an amazing surf video. Those are real waves, right? Most amazing day you’ve seen? 

Sure are. Most amazing day I have seen was December 21, 2012. Also known as the “doomsday swell.” I remember I had a really bad cold and couldn’t go to work. I had been so out of it the days before that I didn’t even know we were getting waves. A friend who doesn’t even surf called me and was like, “get to the beach, I’ve never seen waves this big before.” So I just stood on the seawall all day taking pictures and coughing. Hahaha.

Your work is really beautiful https://www.michaelmckenna.photo/  When did you start photographing surfing and the east coast beach scene?

Thank you. I actually got into photography because of my Grandfather, George H. Moss Jr. After serving in World War II, he came home with these really small cameras and began taking pictures of the Jersey Shore and the storms that came through. I grew up looking at the pictures he took and reading the history books he wrote so I was always interested in photography. However, it wasn’t until he passed in 2009 that I really started to focus on my own photography. I started out just going for walks by myself at Sandy Hook, where he co-founded the Sandy Hook Museum, as a way to still feel close to him. I was in college at the time and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life so I guess I was looking for clarity or inspiration on those walks. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those walks with the camera were actually the beginning of my photography career. I was looking for a path that I was already on. And as a surfer, it was only natural to combine the two and photograph the ocean.

Can you talk about the challenges of actually shooting someone surfing? Any disasters? What kind of equipment do you use? Your most favorite shot? 

I would say the biggest challenges are timing and execution. You have to be in the right spot at the right time, whether your shooting from land or in the water, and then get your composition, framing and settings right. It also helps a lot if the person you are photographing is a good surfer. 

I wouldn’t say any disasters, but I did get caught inside at Pipeline during a proper swell and had a huge wave break right on top of me. It blew both of my fins off, ripping both safety straps, and blew the camera right out of my hand, along with that safety strap. I got slammed into the reef and cut my heel pretty badly. Luckily, the camera went right to a Brazilian body boarder who handed me back the camera once I got to the safety of the channel. Obviously, I was extremely grateful. I use Canon equipment and an Essex water housing. My drone is a DJI Mavic Pro 2 Zoom.

Outside of the east coast do you have a favorite place to surf and/or shoot?

North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii. The waves are very intimidating but that is what makes it challenging and fun.

Do you ski or snowboard? 

I like to ski. I’ve been to Utah a couple times as well as Vermont. I really enjoyed those trips. I tried snowboarding once but the conditions were a little icy. I could see myself really enjoying it with some good conditions.

Do you have a SIMPLE solution for anything in life that’s too complicated? 

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Hopefully they do the same but if not, wish them well and move on.