Growing up on Hawaii's North Shore, 20-year-old John John Florence has been in other people's viewfinders since he was a grade-schooler. But as he gained ground on the tour, getting behind the lens became a much-needed relief-valve. Over the years Florence has amassed his own camera collection and more importantly, honed his own taste in images—surf related and otherwise. How much does he geek out on cameras these days? The first two places he took his mom and brothers upon arriving in New York City for a screening of his new surf film, "Done," were the Leica Gallery and B&H Photo, a mega-sized camera lover's mecca. "I told myself I wasn't going to buy any more for a long time," says Florence, laughing. "I have way too many." The current world number four says his film and photography goals are pretty simple: he's taking the pictures he wants to see, and trying to shoot the films he wants to watch. We caught up with Florence in NYC with him to see what caught the surfer's eye in the city.
What made you want to get your first camera?
I'd always be like, God I really want to take a picture of that. I always kind of had that feeling. I got a video camera when I was about 12. The first time I had it was on a ski trip. I shot my friends and family and everything about it was fun. When I see cool things, I just want to take a picture.
What impresses you or makes you think, "Hey I like the look of that"?
I'll see a cool angle, a point of view of a building, a person, a tree, or a cliff, or anything really. There's always cool angles.
How do you feel while you're taking pictures?
You kind of get lost in time. It's an escape from the world I live in, the whole surfing world. That's year-round and almost every day of your life, and I love it. I would never want to do anything else. But it does get a little bit tiring. It's fun to be able to do something else.
What's the most recurring theme in your photos?
My friends and family and just the places we go. I like to look back and go, Wow, that place was really sick. Places that are really different from what I'm used to are really cool, like Japan. Scotland was a good one—grass fields with castles on top of hills, 1,000 foot cliffs -- it's just dramatic.
There are a bunch of surfers who are into photography–how would you describe your efforts in the genre?
I think I just do it for fun, as a hobby. I'm not trying to be a photographer. I have a full hard drive of photos that nobody's seen. I don't walk around with my camera in my hand all day, I just carry it around in my backpack and take it out when I want to take a picture of something.
Do you follow the photography of any of the other surfers?
Yeah, for sure. Kolohe [Andino] has his own style, he does nighttime shots, and they're really cool. Same with Dane [Reynolds], he has his own style of what he wants to take photos of and some of them come out really cool.
Is there anyone you'd say is a mentor?
None of the surfers, really. I like everyone's stuff equally. But there are a couple of photographers in the surf world that I like a lot, like Daniel Russo. He'll swim deeper than anyone else and put himself in the worst possible position, like he'll get really worked on a 10-foot wave just to get the shot. Other photographers will sit way back in the channel with a longer lens. He'll be underneath your rail getting the shot.
What are your thoughts on surf photography, past, present and future?
It's always changing and you don't really know what's gonna happen with it. I enjoy trying to do things different. You can go online and look at a surf clip and almost every single one's gonna be that same thing: a person a waxing a board, walking out, putting their leash on. So, I'm just thinking outside that box and being like, Well, what I would like to see in a surf video? I think that's what's really gonna help it, people thinking like that. I want to build a team of people that I think can make the best creative thing, rather than going out to do a film and having someone tell me, Ok, put your leash on.
What are your goals with photography?
When I'm older I just want to be able to look back at it and say I'm glad I took all those photos. You're always gonna look back on photos. Like they say, a picture says a thousand words.
Everybody usually starts out shooting with a junky, cheap camera. Take me through your camera progression.
Ok. In order, I had a film camera that pretty much didn't work, I can't remember the brand. Then I got a Leica M7. It's my favorite. Then I got a Nikon F2, a Canon A-1, a Pentax point and shoot, and a Fuji X-Pro1. For video cameras, I've got a Canon 7D and now I have two Red cameras, the Scarlet and the Epic. We shot Done on the Red Scarlet. I use it all the time. It's really fun, especially with the slow motion. There's just so many candid moments, whether it's my brothers doing backflips off the sand hill in front of my house, or them shooting bow and arrows in the yard. Just random stuff like that.
How would you weigh the importance of video vs. stills at this point?
What I've always wanted to do is take the most creative surf photographers and do what they do, but with video. If you could do that, you would take it to another level with video. With all the technology, it's about getting your hands on things that other people don't necessarily use. You can take a [Canon] 7D and do amazing things with it. But then if you really want to do something right and get the right equipment for it -- and then you do what you would do with a 7D, it's gonna look that much better and bring that much more creativity to it and push things as far as they can go.
What's next on the film horizon?
I'm going to start another movie project this year. "Done" was a straight amped up surf video and the next one I do, I'm definitely gonna do with a storyboard and probably take a couple of years to film it. Have fun with it, really.
What's your guiding philosophy in the water?
Really it depends on the day. Sometimes you feel like you just want to go out and just get worked, and go over the falls and get a big wave but not make it. There's just like that adrenaline rush that gets you going. Especially when you're with your friends, sometimes it's like the more worked you get, the more fun it is. You come up from getting worked and you're just so happy and like the feeling you get is pretty crazy. And sometimes you want to go out and you just wanna cruise, not even paddle out and just take off on the inside waves and just ride them. It depends on how you feel. Just going with the flow.
How about out of the water?
Just take it one thing at a time. When I'm at home I tend to disappear and go surfing with my friends all day and I'll come back at night and the phone will just have blown up while I was gone.
Carmen R. Thompson is a senior writer with ESPN the Magazine. Follower her on Twitter at @CarmenRThompson.