Is This the Best Pipeline Shot of All Time?

This timeless photograph captures why surfers, surf

By Mary Anne Potts

A photo can say so much. And for the world’s best surfers, this one captures why they surf. Featuring Kohl Christensen on a perfect barrel at Hawaii’s Pipeline, captured by his best friend Daniel Russo, this photo is what it’s all about. Just hours after this photo, Kohl’s second daughter was born. When the legend himself Kelly Slater, who was also in the water that day, shared the image on his Instagram account on January 25, it ignited a huge response. “This picture sums up why we surf,” wrote Kelly. “And nobody seems to be more in tune with the ocean than Kohl.”

We caught up with Kohl and Daniel about their epic session at Pipeline. See the two interviews below.

“I think more than anything, the wave chooses you.” -Kohl Christensen


What were you thinking was going to happen that day?

Kohl: The whole month of January had been one of the best Januarys that I can remember. We had been having this run after run of swells and epic weather. On this particular day, we knew it had the right conditions for Pipeline to be epic.

Because we were one or two days past my wife’s due date, I figured it might be smarter to go down on the Jet Ski. That way, we would have a phone, and if something happened, she could call Russo, and we could say, “Let’s get out of here!” Russo sometimes likes to shoot from the ski because it’s a different perspective.

So, we went out and were hoping to score the Pipeline right away. But the winds were a little off, so we went and actually surfed another wave. We knew we were going to come back a little later, and hopefully, it was going to turn on. And it did. We came back, and that’s when I jumped off the ski and paddled out, and Russo hung back, shooting photos.

Of course, it looks like the perfect moment, in the photo. But did it feel like the perfect moment when you were actually doing it?

Kohl: That’s a good question. A lot of times in surfing, you’ll get a wave, and your buddy or photographer took a photo, and in your mind, you’re like “Oh, if we got a photo, it’s going to be sick!” Right?

But almost 99 percent of the time, the photo doesn’t meet the expectations you’ve created in your head. There have only been two photos that have exceeded my expectations, when I actually saw them. And one of them was this photo. I was like “Wow!”

I didn’t think it was going to be that awesome of a moment. It was an awesome moment for me, on the wave. But it happened so fast, whereas a photo is timeless. It’s interesting, how you can capture that one moment, and create a timeless moment with something that happened in a few seconds.

Photo by Daniel Russo

Is Pipeline a special wave in your life?

Kohl: Oh, yeah. Especially growing up here in Hawaii, Pipeline is like the pinnacle of our sport, in regards to catching the most incredible wave you can. We have some other waves that are really dear to me, but there’s really no other place like Pipeline in the world.

And to get a wave, and a moment like that out there, is super special. I’ve been surfing for over 20 years, now. It becomes kind of a lifelong commitment. You grow a relationship with her, or Pipeline, however you want to say it.

You’ll have days that you won’t get anything. You’ll have days where you may get one wave. Two years ago, I hit my head and my back. I had to go up to the hospital. I’ve had a really dear friend pass away out there. Every year, almost, it seems like it takes lives.

But it also draws people back, because of how beautiful the wave is, and what can potentially happen out there, like the magic that can happen.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a wave like that. I usually take my time, and be patient. I think more than anything, the wave kind of chooses you. You don’t really have much say. Usually, there’s a lot of people out, and the waves are moving all around. I like to look at it like you get blessed with a moment, and that moment was kind of my blessing, right before the birth of my child.

How long after was she born?

Kohl: She was born the next day.

That’s so cool! How large would you say that wave was? I know it’s hard to say.

Kohl: I would say it was wider than it was tall. It was a beautiful, big Pipeline barrel.

What time of day was that, approximately?

Kohl: Yeah. What happens this time of year, when the sun is setting, and this picture was taken in the sunset, is the sun will dip toward the horizon, and it will shine through the back of the wave, which gives it that incredible illumination, a backlit moment that created this bubble and vortex, highlighting the subject.

My wife is Hawaiian, and our first daughter has a Hawaiian name. So, we wanted to give our second daughter a Hawaiian name, and our friend helped us come up with the name. It’s pretty cool, because the literal translation of her name is “the glittering wave that breathes white.”

Do you think that your daughters will be surfers, too?

Kohl: I’m not going to make them. Maybe longboarders. They’ll probably be around the water, just because mom and I are. At the end of the day, it’s ultimately their choice. My older daughter is almost two. I take her out on the longboard, and we paddle around.

For you, as someone who surfs every day, and is so deeply connected to the ocean, are you worried about what we’re doing to the oceans, and their future?

Kohl: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I think there’s a huge concern, and a huge desire to leave the world a better place than we found it, so they can enjoy it. Now that I have children, I look at it differently. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy our beautiful planet, and to do the things we can to keep it that way, is definitely on my mind.

How? There’s lots of ways. I think you just start with yourself, and do the things you can, and go outwards from there.

Have you seen, as a native Hawaiian, the ocean change at all?

Kohl: The biggest thing that I’ve seen, growing up, in my lifetime, is the amount of lobster and fish. We used to dive, and get lobster. It’s definitely overfished. We almost have a million people on Oahu, and a lot of them dive. We organize cleanups with Patagonia, once a month. I think those are awesome, but a lot of the trash is left from people going to the beach on the weekends. And a lot of stuff that’s blown in, is blown in from other places. I think it’s great, and we need to do it, to keep the beaches clean. But it’s more of a band aid than anything else.

I think there’s bigger things we can be doing, to help prevent. Like getting people in the mindset, like I think, art. I think we can do some art installations out here on the north shore, like people throwing away trash and other things.

Russo is a great friend of yours. Did that add to the moment, that your best friend captured that image?

Kohl: Absolutely! For sure. It was almost like I knew he was going to already do it. It wasn’t like “Oh, I hope he got the photo!” It was like we were there together, and it happened. Because the wave itself was awesome, and that would have been enough. And the wave, just to be clear, there’s been better waves running up Pipeline this year, and over the years. It wasn’t the best wave I’ve had or anyone has had, by any means.

It was a great wave, and there was a great moment captured, that really tells a story. I think that’s what’s so cool about photography, because what he captured was a moment in time. And then, there’s a back story behind it. And it created a memory for myself and for him, and then now, for my daughter.

Photo by Daniel Russo
“It created a memory for myself and for him, and then now, for my daughter.” — Kohl Christensen


You shoot waves around the world. What makes Pipeline different from other waves?

Daniel: It’s one of the most consistent waves in the world. It breaks all year round, even in the summertime. It’s a wave that people can enjoy from one foot to 20 feet, you know? It’s one of the most well-documented waves in the world and has such a history in the surfing world as far as great surfers making a name for themselves, at that location.

From a photographer’s standpoint, it photographs so well. Just the barrel itself has this uniqueness to it. Compared to other waves around the world, I think all of those elements. It’s knowing that the energy in the swell has traveled so far across the Pacific to come into this part of the coastline.

Can you give a play-by-play of how got this shot?

Daniel: I was sitting on my jet ski in the channel. That day it was like a lake. It was really calm. When I saw the set starting to cap off the back, outside, and starting to break, I couldn’t quite see Kohl yet, on the wave. The first wave was standing up, and I didn’t know what was behind it. Then, as I came over that first wave, I saw he was on the wave, and he was starting to drop in, and then make his way to the inside.

Where I was, I was a little too far out, for a little bit. So I gassed my jet ski, more in toward the beach, just so that I could position myself for the framing of how it actually ended up. Otherwise, I would have been a little bit too far back, and I might not have been able to capture everything in the frame.

So, he caught that wave, and then almost simultaneously, I’m kind of driving my jet ski from maybe about 200 yards, between me and him, was the distance. I’m almost kind of chasing, going parallel toward the beach, as he’s coming down on the wave.

Then, I just stopped and I turned. I pulled up my camera.

I was shooting with an 85-millimeter. Then, right when I stopped, and from experience, I knew I was in the right location, so that when the wave hit the first reef, I would be kind of looking dead on, straight on, at it. So, I just stopped. Then, as he came into that first reef, and the wave set up, I started looking through my viewfinder, and shot a sequence.

It happened so fast, that I knew it was a really good wave, but I didn’t look. I was shooting with a digital camera, but I don’t have an option to rewind anything, to look. It was kind of weird, because I was like “I think that was a really nice wave!” I could tell.

Then, as people were paddling out from the beach, and coming past the jet ski where we were sitting, everyone was complimenting me, and saying that was one of the best waves of the winter, and “Wow! That was insane!”

I started thinking in my head, I was like “Well, shoot! I hope the photo tells that story, because everyone seems to be really giving that wave a lot of appreciation and saying it was one of the best waves of the day, and stuff.” So, I was like “Oh, okay!”

Sometimes, images don’t quite show the true size or show the true beauty, or show a representation of exactly what happened. It’s hard to get that, sometimes, in the image. The naked eye always seems to be a lot better.

Photo by Daniel Russo

But this time, do you feel like it did?

Daniel: Yeah. This time, when we got the camera out of the water housing, after we got back to land, we started to look for the sequence. And then, as we found it, we started scrolling through. I mean, you’re looking at a little two-inch screen on the back of a camera. Sometimes, it’s kind of weird. But we were both like “Whoa! There’s something here. This is amazing!” Kohl definitely was really happy and excited, just because he felt like it represented what he experienced.

You mentioned an underwater housing. What kind of additional gear do you need, to be out on the jet ski like that?

Daniel: There’s camera water housings, to keep your camera waterproof. The camera sits in, there’s a casing for the body, and there’s like a lens port. It all kind of connects together, and fills up. But ideally, to be equipped, from a photographer’s standpoint, I like to have a dry bag, with an extra body and lens inside of the dry bag.

Basically, make sure that your jet ski is running pretty good. I like to have my swim fins on the jet ski, just as like a safety, in case something happens, I can swim to shore.

And make sure the phone is fully charged. Sometimes, I have a two-way radio, when the waves are a lot bigger, and we’re working as a team, and there’s multiple jet skis out and about. It becomes like a workstation, but it also becomes a safety tool, too, in case anybody gets hurt.

That’s one of the other reasons why we’ll take the jet ski down, because maybe we’re getting out there before the lifeguards start, and after the lifeguards end, because we’re chasing the light and the conditions. A lot of the times, it’s early in the morning or late in the evening. If something did ever happen, we’d have the jet ski there to do a rescue.

For you as an artist, what do you like about this image?

Daniel: When I got into photography, I used to always look at a lot of snowboard photography. I just really enjoyed the scenic side of their world, and the different layers. You have the rider, the snowboarder athlete, really small, and it’s like this big world, little person. It really captures what’s happening in that environment.

In surfing, sometimes a lot of people tend to focus on the athlete itself and the logos. They’re not really trying to look at the whole environment, and take it in. So to me, this image kind of sums up my photography career, in a sense.

What I’ve really been actually trying to achieve and capture in an image of Pipeline, is the pure beauty of the landscape, Mt. Ka’ala in the background, and the coastline, coming down the beach. Also, the swell angle of the wave, you can see there’s Kohl and there’s the barrel and there’s the lip line. But then, you have the tail, the energy of the wave, the whitewash running behind it.

You can really see the angle of it, and how it’s just sweeping down the coast. And then, it’s the light of the day. Pipeline has this beautiful backlit light. There’s really nowhere else in the world that has the beauty of this big barrel, and this backlit. When we have the trade winds, the east winds, it creates this texture on the face of the wave, and the spray goes really high, off the back of the wave.

It’s gorgeous.

Daniel: I think what really drew me, or what I appreciate from this image, is it kind of sums up Pipeline. It also sums up the pure joy of surfing. I think it’s an inspiring photo for people to enjoy, not only the core surf audience or the hardcore people that surf these big waves. It has this calmness that makes you really see the beauty of the ocean, and being able to draw to it, and why we tend to really be in the water and stuff.

What tip do you have for an up and coming surf photographer, from what you’ve learned over the decades?

Daniel: I think the best thing for an up and coming surf photographer, if they really want to pursue it as either a hobby or a career, would be just to shoot, and not really ask anybody anything about equipment, or questioning this or that. But actually, just to go out and be in the water, and to shoot.

Because the one thing that comes from, being specific about water photography, the one thing that people don’t realize until they actually do it is, when you’re in the water and you have your camera, and you’re by yourself, and you’re in the ocean, and you’re shooting either empty waves or you’re shooting surfers, there is this calmness, this emptiness, calmness that you really forget about everything else that’s happening, say on land.

Maybe you have different thoughts, or maybe those thoughts, you’re able to kind of have a calmness, to be able to process things. It’s this really beautiful feeling that you get, when you’re in the water.

I think if you’re going to get into surf photography and water photography, enjoy it for what it is. Enjoy the feeling that you get out of it. Don’t do it because you think that you’re going to make lots of money, or you’re going to become famous. You’re doing it because you enjoy the ocean, and you enjoy the feeling that you get out of being in that environment.

Check out our next interview with Meg Haywood Sullivan, POW ambassador.