Surf Stronger Talks to Master Surf Photographer, Dave “Nelly” Nelson

Santa Cruz’s Dave Nelson has been shooting photos since a young kid and he has become one of the premier names in surf photography. Over the last several decades “Nelly” has become synonymous with the cool fisheye shots, surf-skate action, and unique perspectives from land and water that have graced surf mag covers, prints, ads, and photo spreads. Nelly is also one to utilize the flash for incredible shots at dusk or dawn that give a surreal sense to the final look. We’ve been fans of Dave’s work for quite some time. We recently stopped by Nelly’s place in Santa Cruz for some business, chipped a few golf balls in the front yard, and talked a bit of story to learn more about this legendary surf photographer.

Dave Nelson flash photo

A fine example of Nelly's radical style.

We have the Hawaiian North Shore season approaching. How many winters have you shot there and what are your most memorable?
This will be my 15th season shooting on the North Shore. All of them are memorable, but I think the most memorable would be the last time the Eddie contest was on. My Dad was over staying with me and then Flea came over for the Eddie and he stayed with me too. I put them up in our loft together for a week! It was classic!! It was cool. They are buddies now.

What was your most recent photo assignment?
My last assignment was a trip with Bruce Irons to a huge Mexican Beach break. The waves were huge- 40 feet — he was rushing!! I was pooping!

When did you first develop the interest in photography?
Always been interested in shooting photos! Been shooting since I was a little boy. My Mom gave me my first camera- a Brownie.

Dave Nelson surf shot

Surfing California with the iconic Bixby Bridge in the background.

Any photographers you looked up to when you were getting started?
I looked up to a lot of photographers. Tony Roberts was my biggest influence. Chris Van lennep, Brian Bielman the list goes on! Ansel Adams was a king too.

At what point did you realize that you could shoot photos for a living?
After I got my first poster shot in Surfing Mag– a shot from a surf trip to Reunion Island.

Has the digital age changed the way you approach your craft?
The digital age has affected evrything in my craft. It took the learning curve out, not a fan.

You have lived and worked through the film to digital photography transition. Do you ever shoot film anymore?
I don’t shoot film much anymore. I should though!

Do you have any tips you would share for amateur photographers trying to get good water shots?
My tips are swim hard and work hard and it will pay off.

Nelly nabs the shot. Archie in the barrel as day fades to night.

Outside of surf images, what are some of your other settings you like to shoot?
I love shooting everything — skateboarding – aerial photos, whatever catches my eye! I love shooting shots of my daughter.

When not on the road  or shooting locally, what do you like to do when you have down time?
I call it SSG. It stands for Surf , Skate, Golf!!!! I also like to surf with my fam, and take my dogs to the beach. My dog Nani is nuts. She’s a Lab, and she charges huge waves! I like to do stuff with my wife, Kristy — camping, fishing, bike riding. You know, living life to the fullest!!!

What surfers and skaters influenced you? Who did you look up to and why?
I had so many influences growing up: Steve Caballero,Tony Chiala, Christian Hosoi, Keith Meek on the skate side. Christian Fletcher, Nathan Fletcher, Richard Schmidt, Vince Collier, Gerry Lopez, Buttons on the surf side (RIP). My Dad always was someone I looked up to as well. A rad positive and funny person in my life. He always supported me and let me know he was behind me and my decisions. My dad rules. And my mom was the raddest, always a huge influence in  my life. She was the kindest person I’ve ever known!

Big thanks to Nelly for taking the time to chat with us. Learn more about Dave Nelson and Liquid Imagaery® and his images at:

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