SUP Photos By James Kao

Paddling on Watson Lake. Photo via James Kao. Paddling on Watson Lake.

We all can appreciate a good photo when we see one and in the Supconnect Photographer Series, we do just that. We connect with exceptional photographers in and out of the stand up paddle boarding world and showcase some of their many fantastic photos. This week, we are stoked to highlight photographer James Kao from Redondo Beach, California.

James is an outdoor sports photographer and clean oceans advocate with a background in landscape architecture at Cornell University. He spent much of his professional career as a city and urban planner before transitioning to photography. James first tried standup paddle boarding around 2008 and has since traveled with an inflatable SUP to places like Patagonia, Easter Island, the Azores and Guatemala where he circumnavigated Lake Atitlán solo in 2019. Besides SUP he enjoys trail running, hiking, camping, playing with other people’s dogs, and keeping our beaches and oceans free of plastic trash. We recently caught up with James to talk about his adventures that he's captured and chat about his photos. Check out what he had to say about his experiences below:

How did you get into photography?

Growing up I loved art, particularly sketching from real life or from photos from books and magazines. Although my parents gave me a subscription to National Geographic magazine and a few basic cameras, I did not develop a real interest in photography until my thirties with the rise of digital. I started traveling the world more on my own then and documented my adventures which I would share through my photos. I only had a basic digital point-and-shoot for many years and had it when I visited the Galapagos Islands. There I was trying to shoot a breaching humpback whale and the point-and-shoot, being really slow, missed every leap of the massive whale. Another traveler next to me was firing away on the latest DSLR, half smirking as he showed off his iconic breach shots taken at 5 frames per second. That did it for me, I needed to upgrade my camera equipment if I truly wanted to capture my experiences and soon after I purchased my first DSLR and got serious about photography. 

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    Photo via James Kao, featuring Candice Appleby

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    Photo via James Kao, from the Hal Rosoff Classic

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    Photo via James Kao

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    Photo via James Kao, from the Dana Point Harbor Hoot

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    Photo via James Kao, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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    Photo via James Kao, Adaptive Freedom Foundation event

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    Photo via James Kao, SUP Pups Holiday Paddle 2020

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    Photo via James Kao

  • James Kao

    Photo via James Kao

Did photography come easy for you or was it challenging?

Certain aspects of photography were easier for me and others were more challenging. I have a background in landscape architecture so I am used to visualizing in space and using the creative side of my brain. Composing images, seeing color relationships and pattern associations, visualizing concepts—these all came naturally. It was the technical part of photography where I struggled a bit more. Understanding the principles of exposure, how to modify the color and quality of light, working effectively with models, even marketing my work…these were more challenging topics but learning these has given me a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of the photographic art form and taught me how to value my own and other’s work.

When did you take your first SUP photos and what was the occasion?

I don’t specifically recall when I took my first photos of SUP, but do recall the first time I took photos from a SUP. It was about five years ago when I was paddling at Lake Powell with some friends. I had only started paddling two years before that so finally felt comfortable enough to shoot from the board using my more expensive cameras. I really enjoyed the freedom of shooting from the water and getting a perspective that you simply cannot get from a boat.  

James Kao James Kao
James Kao James Kao

Clockwise from top left: Itzel Delgado / Jenny Moore on Watson Lake / Lake Powell / Off Da Couch | Photos: James Kao

Is photography your main profession or a hobby?

Photography is my profession and my second career. Prior to picking up my camera I enjoyed it as a hobby while working as a city planner. In hindsight it was far easier doing photography when it was simply a hobby as I could rely on another stable source of income that gave me the means to purchase needed gear, pay for classes, and travel to far-flung destinations. I had more freedom to shoot whatever I wanted to and didn’t have to worry about finding jobs and clients as I got a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up. On the flipside, I am now my own boss and manage my own time and schedule. This makes it much easier though to get out and paddle! 

What type of gear do you use?

Although having good gear is important, it is far more important to have a good eye and brain. Having the best oven in the world won’t make you the best chef. It’s the same for photography. You have to know what to create using your tools and the camera is just a tool. How you see the world and your creative mind are not determined by the make or model of your camera. Give a great photographer a toy camera and she will take an incredible image because she knows the art of photography and has a vision. But if you must know, I have been an avid Canon shooter since I started digital photography with my 50D. I’ve used a number of different models since then and now primarily use the mirrorless R5 system, 5D Mark III, and 1DX Mark II.  

James KaoFeaturing Kelly Huck on Lake Powell. | Photo: James Kao

What do you hope to say with your photographs, and how do you achieve that?

A photograph is a unique form of art. It is a two-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional reality. What I mean by this is that the subject being photographed is a three-dimensional object caught in a specific moment of time which is the fourth dimension. This moment can never be repeated so has to really say something to the viewer, something of importance. I want people viewing my work to connect with my subjects, to put themselves in their place and to feel their thoughts and emotions. I want them to sense the scale and grandeur of the environment surrounding the subjects, or to feel the intense energy of the moment. I achieve this through carefully composing my subjects in the frames where they garner the most attention by the viewer and stand out from the background, often by placing them in the best light. Also making my subjects feel at ease so they can just be themselves naturally and do the things they do best.

James Kao James Kao
James Kao James Kao

Clockwise from top left: Soryn Preston / Pau Hana Rapa Nui / Dana Point Harbor Hoot / Dana Ocean Challenge | Photos: James Kao

What has been your favorite event or location to photograph?

I’ve had the fortune to photograph in a lot of amazing locations but one of my favorite places in the world is on the tiny remote island of Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island. I’ve traveled there three times and during my last trip there in 2019 I lugged an inflatable SUP with the goal of doing a photo shoot inside a small lagoon at the bottom of an ancient volcanic crater. I had two local friends help carry my board down a very steep trail to the bottom where we inflated it and my friends served as models dressed in their indigenous tribal attire complete with body paint. At one point during the shoot I somehow fell into the shallow water shooting from a spot close to shore and nearly destroyed my camera but instinctively raised my arm holding it high enough so it didn’t touch the water. It was quite an unforgettable experience!

What's your favorite part about shooting SUP?

SUP to me is an ultimate sense of freedom. There’s no other sensation quite like floating on water. Though I’ve shot SUP from land, air and water, there’s no better way for me than shooting on water from another board. It is trickier and riskier than shooting from a boat, but I can get lower angles and I have a connection with my subject paddlers. I feel everything that my subjects are feeling, every wave and current. I feel that’s a crucial element to establish between the photographer and subject and results in better images. When I’m on the water shooting, I’m also enjoying my experience SUPing so for me there’s nothing I’d rather be doing, making images of something I really love doing myself.  

James KaoPhoto: James Kao

What do you think would be an ideal location for a SUP photoshoot?

I think there are many places that would be great locations for SUP photoshoots, and many places that you wouldn’t even normally think of as they are not places where you can usually paddle or where paddling may not even be allowed. Just last night I attended an event at a local university performing arts center and to get there you take a walkway that crosses a manmade lake. The lake is deep enough to paddle so I thought it would be a cool setting for a SUP photoshoot even though it would likely be prohibited. But it would make for an incredible image! Or why not the lake in front of the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas? This is where my imagination runs a bit wild. For more practical and accessible locations, I’ve always wanted to paddle and photograph in the canals of Venice, Italy. I’d get my models to dress up as gondoliers. High alpine lakes are also ideal locations for the snow-capped peaks and challenge of transporting boards to such remote locations.

Other than your own, whose photographs do you most admire?

I admire the work of National Geographic photographer Stephen McCurry, commercial photographers Erik Almas and Tim Tadder, adventure sports photographers Michael Clark and Chris Burkard, outdoor adventure photographer Quin Schrock, and my mentor, instructor and travel photographer Scott Stulberg. Each of these photographers has developed their unique style and vision that has influenced my own work.

James KaoPhoto: James Kao

What can we expect to see from you in the near future?

Expect to see a greater presence in the SUP scene covering races, working with individual athletes, and documenting expeditions. In 2019 I spent eight days solo paddling around Lake Atitlán in Guatemala and really enjoyed documenting my adventure on the water and terra firma. I’d like to assist other paddlers who are planning expeditions of their own to document their trips and tell their adventure stories. I also would like to work for more SUP industry brands and to have work featured in the leading sports magazines. Thank you SUPConnect for featuring my work and story!

Follow James on Instagram @jameskaofoto and check out www.jameskaofoto.com to see more of his incredible work. To see more SUP photos in our Photography Series, click here.

Do you have SUP Photos and want to be a featured photographer? Send us an email!

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Last modified onFriday, 05 January 2024 12:46

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