Josh Bystrom: Kirra From One Head High

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

Drones are the photographer's modern plaything - buzzing overhead capturing the bird's-eye view - and land angles open up a panorama of choices, yet it's the watershot that brings us closest to the surf experience.

Swimming among the action, the photographer - and by extension, the viewer - is privy to moments unavailable to other lenses, particularly deep tubes and the body language that puts a surfer there. Yet proximity is only permissable through effort and a hearty serve of danger.

For the last five years, Gold Coast photographer Josh Bystrom has been on a mission to shoot big Kirra, dodging shallow water detonations and fighting the river-like current.

Swellnet: Kirra is so accesible from land. It's easy and it's visually appealing, so why shoot it from the water?
Josh Bystrom: I feel like the Gold Coast, and especially that little zone, is really saturated with photographers. You might have twenty people shooting from the headland, there might people on the groyne, people along the shoreline, they're scattered everywhere.

Being in the water kind of just gives you a different perspective.

I suppose I always just strive to be a little bit different and go against the grain of what everyone else is doing.

Your photos show viewers the Kirra that surfers talk about: below sea level, pitching as wide as it is high, and the lipline is zippering hellishly fast. Are you surprised that there's not more people joining you?
Yes and no. I mean, a lot of people that have the ability to be out there would probably just be surfing. Yeah, there's a handful of guys on the coast that are great swimmers that produce great images out there, but then there are people who might be right into their surf photography, but don't have the experience to be out there.

Bit of a yes and no to that one.

Unidentified in an envy-inducing position, but give a thought to that lip and Josh's own situation

What do you do in preparation for the current at Kirra?
I've always been pretty healthy and fit. I run a bit. I used to be right into my swimming. I grew up lifeguarding for the Gold Coast City Council. So I suppose I was preconditioned to get in the water and give swimming a red hot go.

Do you have a favoured swell direction and size to shoot Kirra from the water?
I'm looking out for probably a real big east, southeast sort of swell. Anything that's got a little bit of east in it makes it a lot more manageable to swim.

When you get those big south swells, typically Kirra's not as big as elsewhere, because Snapper sort of protrudes out a little bit, and it needs to really refract around. And the sweep during those south swells does get pretty full on.

So yeah, I suppose anything with a bit of east, and then favourably a little bit of south in there too, so it runs along the sand.

Rightio. What sort of setup are you shooting with?
I've got an SPL waterhousing. I've got a Canon 5D Mark III. And I alternate between a prime lens, which is an 85 millimetre 1.2, and then I've got a 70-200. So if it's going to be really sweepy, sometimes I'll throw that on.

Just because it's harder to hook up with surfers in those conditions?
Yeah. 100%. So I can zoom with that one, and it can pull me in from shooting, let's say, 20 metres away from someone to 75 metres. So you got a bit more room to play there.

When Kirra's thumping on the bank and the current's ripping down the point, do you play with your settings much at all? How do you operate once you're in the water and it's game on?
Yeah, I'll play around a little bit. I try not to look at the photos as such, just because I don't want to drain my battery. But let's say it's a beautiful morning and then some clouds come over, I'll definitely tweak my settings to be able to get the optimal settings for shooting in that light. I feel if you don't, you're missing out on opportunities.

Steph Gilmore delicately poised as she drives into the next section - a moment that'd otherwise be hidden from drone and land

Let's assume Kirra is a moderate six foot plus from the southeast with a heathy current. Where do you jump off from?
I'd go pretty much straight off the south side of Greenmount. Just on the other side towards Snapper Rocks. I feel like if you go out off Snapper, you get this little reverse rip, and if I'm trying to get down to Kirra, it's almost harder to get down there.

So yeah, usually I'll just take my time going out off Greenmount. I'll cop a couple on the head and let myself drift down through the inside there. Just cop a few whitewashes, and then when you approach the Coolangatta area, usually that's where you pop out, then you're right in the action.

When it comes to positioning, will you swim in towards the bank and then swim out after the wave? Or are you pretty much just sitting in one spot?
I'll sit probably between five and ten metres inside of where the surfers are, and then just hope. It also depends on the lens I'm using, but I need to anticipate where they might take the drop and where they're going to come off the bottom, and then I want to be nice and tight in that pocket there.

And roughly how long do you have when you're in the hot zone? Before you get to other side of Butter Box and flushed down the line?
Depends on the direction of the swell. If it's a straight east swell, you can be out there shooting the whole time and not have any real problems with the current. But whenever that south creeps into it, it's shaving your time out in the water in half. So if it's a big southeast swell, maybe 30 minutes, 45 minutes before you have to come in and do the run around.

That was going to be my next question - if you do the run around. So you take your flippers off, run up the coast and and go for it again?
Yeah. Pretty much.

How many times might you do that on a good day?
Oh, depending on the swell, but two to three times, I reckon.

It's hard work.
Yeah. There's a bit going on.

They're not all frontline images: Charlie Leonard lands in frame but way up the bank

You've been doing this for a few years now. Do you have any favourite shots?
Oh, I've got a pretty good one at the moment that I'm sitting on. Hopefully that might come out in the not so distant future, but...

Can you tell us who it's a photo of?
Mikey Wright.

Seems Mikey's spending a lot of time in the water up there. I've seen so much footage of him and he's surfing really well.
Yeah, he's putting his time in, and it really shows out there. He's on some of the better ones of the day, and he's always right in the spot, you know? So yeah, he's doing real well.

What about when you're looking up the line and it's not a pro surfer, or even a well-known surfer, coming at you. Let's say it's just Joe Public getting thoroughly pitted. Will you still shoot them as they go by?
Oh yeah. 100%. If I was out there know, just an average punter, I'd be stoked on getting a shot. So I shoot whoever's on the good waves when they come through.

Do you ever get a tap on the shoulder when surfers are paddling back out? "Did you get that one?" 
Yeah, occasionally. I won't say anything to anyone, unless I feel like it was a really good link up. But yeah, you do get a few people, as well as on social media and stuff, just asking if you got their wave, or things like that, you know?

This photo originally ran in a Swellnet gallery, old mate here identified as 'unidentified' which set off a search to uncover who the old sea dog is. Two days later, Scott Harris, 52-years old from Tweed Heads, came forward.

You've proven yourself in the heaviest the Gold Coast has to offer. Have you got plans to take you your water photography elsewhere?
I've shot a few places. I've shot out at Pipe, and places like Puerto Escondido - Cloudbreak too. But there's a lot of really good waves in Australia that I just haven't been to, and I'd love to shoot them. I want to go to Shippies, and also shoot a place like The Box or something like that. Ours as well. That'd be a really good one.

Well, soon enough we can all travel again, so you can put those on your travel plans.
Fingers crossed.

You've got a famous surname. Do you get any of the Gold Coast old boys recognise your surname and come up and say hello? [Josh is the son of Chris Bystrom, the late filmmaker, author, and publisher]
Yeah, yeah, there's been a few guys that featured in his films and stuff - and that generation definitely knows my old boy. I suppose it's helped to open a few doors and has introduced me to some pretty cool people. So yeah, it's great to have that legacy there.

It's been quite a few years since Chris passed away. You would've been young at the time that it happened...
I was ten-years old when he passed on.

What was it that caused you to pick up the camera?
I always knew how to operate a camera because my Mum's also in the photographic industry - I had that vibe at home. I felt like I had an eye for it and I really enjoyed it too, you know.

And once I started shooting, I was always looking at different angles, and how I could differentiate what I was doing. It felt natural to me, and so I ran with it.

OK, back to the present day: Tropical Cyclone Fili has formed out near New Caledonia, and it looks like the Gold Coast is going to pump yet again. Do you have any special preparations when swell events are approaching?
Oh, to be honest, at the moment, I've just come back from shooting a car rally. So I'm just trying to edit some shots from that, and not think about this swell too much. But I suppose, I'll keep an eye on Fili and see what it does - see if it starts to strengthen.

If it starts looking like a pretty good one, I'll start to get my head around it. I'm thinking maybe Saturday or Sunday could be good.

It looks like there's going to be some south in the swell. Are you fit and ready to fight that current?
Well...I was drinking a lot of beer at this car rally, so probably not as fit as I was! But no, I feel like I'm still pretty confident out there.

Yeah, I'm looking forward to get back in the water.

You can see more of Josh's work at:
Instagram - Josh Bystrom
Facebook - Josh Bystrom Photography


quokka's picture
quokka's picture
quokka Friday, 8 Apr 2022 at 2:17pm

I stoppped into Pasta Point in the Maldives on route to Europe back in '00 and Chris was also staying there at the same time. Nice bloke, loved to talk, had some interesting stories.

SoCal Steve's picture
SoCal Steve's picture
SoCal Steve Saturday, 9 Apr 2022 at 5:05am

Great article, Stu. Photography is like art, with every angle giving a different interpretation to different individuals. This is by far my favorite angle, a lot like Talon Clemow's videos.