For our latest Good Chat, we threw the mic to our pal James Adams, to shoot the breeze with the wildly accomplished surf photographer, Ryan Heywood.

It's always daunting meeting your inspirations in real life. These encounters either live up to your preconceived notions or the idolatry yields false. As to be expected, this chat proved to be anything but a letdown. Ryan Heywood — is the real deal.

Up close and Afar

Photos: Ryan Heywood // @ryanheywood. Interview and portraits: James Adams // @thejamesadams

I briefly met Heywood almost 20 years ago. I was a teenager holding a camera and he was a young man shooting a feature for a bodyboarding magazine my friend was to appear in. Witnessing Ryan shoot with a medium-format camera blew me away. His aptitude melted the unwarranted confidence I had as a photographer. Heywood was (clearly) the real professional here.

Over the last 20 years, I've continued to admire Heywood’s photo work. So, when it came time to re-meet the man, I was almost nervous. Aside from everything being big (him, his hair, his desk is a dinner table, his lounge is practically an L-shaped bed), there was nothing to be almost nervous about.

The Queen. 8X World Champion Stephanie Gilmore up close and afar. Photo: Heywood

Inside his abode, there were digital cameras, large format cameras, medium format cameras, 35mm and point-and-shoot cameras, rare lenses, water housings, and a fortress of pelican cases. There was a ton of gear and only so long I could pretend to know about vintage lenses, so we unlocked a couple of lagers on Heywood’s wrap-around balcony. As we spoke, it became clear that Ryan is someone who has chipped away at his passion, finding his natural habitat.

With a career centred on shooting surf, his impressive balcony looks down onto the world-renowned Snapper Rocks. It’s only interrupted by a few classic Gold Coast apartment buildings and the view favours his latest past-time...

Ryan hands me a pair of binoculars and as I ready my eyes for the usual focus struggle, I am immediately impressed by the instant clarity. 

Silence falls as Heywood recognises my wonder at this levelled-up version of people watching. A man on a bike with a bag of groceries. A lady struggling to navigate three young kids over a crosswalk. A bird flying sticks to its nest in a corroded corner of an ageing building. An exercise bike proudly facing the sunset perched on the balcony of a nearby penthouse. In my wonder, I realise I need to talk, so I start asking questions...

Ryan, how long have you been taking photos?

Around about 20 years.

Nice, what was it that first inspired you to pick up a camera?

I think I wanted to take a photo of my friends at school.

Do you remember what camera it was?

Ahhh, it was a Fujifilm disposable.

What were you shooting with a disposable?

I was just shooting my mates and random things around the city.

What are you mostly shooting now? Has the subject matter or your image-making process evolved over time?

I mostly just document and frame up what I like, whether it be buildings, people, surfing, cityscapes or weird stuff. My work is mostly commercial. I think the biggest change in my image-making is that I’m not in the darkroom printing as much. Even if the process is analogue, there is a digital road stop in there.

Better to have a digital road stop in an analog process than an analog road stop in a digital process. Do you ever get downtime to work on side or personal projects?

I get a little downtime. However, it's mostly focused on getting a wave in. However, my book is coming.

On a more serious note, where do you see your hair in 5 years?

Still on my head.

When you point your lens, what do you look for in a frame?

Movement and composition – anything dynamic that keeps me focused on the art of photography.

Speaking of movement, tell us about your love of binoculars.

I love binoculars because there are no batteries to charge, no film to develop or memory cards to download, and there is no obligation to take an image. It's just analogue viewing. Also, it's optics, I love good lenses.

What cameras and film stock are you running at the moment? What's your go-to camera kit?

I’m running a Pentax 67II with a bunch of Ilford 3200 and some Velvia 100. A Konica Hexar RF with a Summicron 35mm attached and Ilford 400. Also, I'm shooting a Canon R5 with 200mm F2 lens for all longer things.  

Very diverse. What's in your Hung Supply Sidewalk Camera Sling?

I have the Konica Hexar RF in there. It’s like an auto Leica M6, it's so good. It winds so I don’t have to take my eye away from the viewfinder. Plus, a Yashica T4 point-and-shoot that’s fun for flash at close quarters.


What do you enjoy most about shooting on film?

The best thing about shooting film is the realness of it. In saying that, it feels more like a depiction of a moment rather than a facsimile of a moment. Plus, you can hold it in your hand.

Do you ever crave the safety of a 9/5 job?

The grass is always greener, but no, I couldn’t.

But if you had a full-time job and weren’t a photog, what would you do?

I think I’d like to be an animator.

What's been the most surreal place you've ventured to on a photography assignment?

The Simpson Desert.

Are there any jobs that stand out to you as the best you’ve ever done?

For sure, a cyclone swell on assignment for Quiksilver. There were pumping waves for days. 

Now I’m jealous. Which three places or cities (fictional or real) would you love to photograph and why?

Tokyo, as it is just so amazing everywhere you look. New Zealand is incredible too – everywhere looks beautiful. And Tibet. I'm not sure why, I'm just drawn to Tibet.


Can you name three Instagram handles we should check out and why. They can be photographers, friends, inspiration…

I love artists & illustrators that consider their environment photographically. Like the way that light affects nature, buildings etc. For me, these people are:

Adrian Tomine / IG: @adriantomine
Jon McNaught / IG: @jonmcn
Christopher Zanko / IG: @christopher.zanko
Max Berry / IG: @maxberry

Which three people (living or past), would you want to take on your next photography campaign and why?

I would want to take Peter Webb (RIP Webby) because he is absolutely the best. Sonny Miller (RIP Sonny) because he can talk story, and Mikey Wright because he can catch, kill and cook anything... and surf all day.  


Mikey sounds like a keeper... Will you still shoot photos when you retire/stop getting paid to do it?

Sparingly, I think. I will, however, I think I’d get a little more in the moment looking at something through binoculars.

You’ve evolved! Thanks for your candour, time and the beers Mr Heywood. I can’t wait for the book.


We ended the day with a spin through Coolangatta in Heywood’s new 4X4, visiting the places that reminded him of different parts of his life. We enjoyed another beer in a seedy smoking area in the back of a poorly renovated pub reminiscent of his time living in Melbourne. From DBah Hill we spotted the trawler that he shot an iconic boardshorts campaign, heading out the Tweed Bar. 

I observed Heywood enjoy these subtle reminders of his past. And after discussing his future book while staring through his binoculars at the present day, it’s blindingly obvious that Heywood’s vision isn’t anchored in place. Whether drawing on past experiences, living in the now, or plotting for the future, I'm grateful to bear witness to Ryan's creativity from up close and far.

- James Adams.


Check out more of Ryan's work here. Peep James' work here.

Cop a Sidewalk Camera Sling here.

March 06, 2023