Justin Jung: The Story In The Surf

Justin Jung

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Like a lot of photographers, Justin Jung shoots video. Unlike most, though, Jung started his professional career focused first and foremost on moving pictures, not the other way around. In fact, the surfing specialist made the initial decision to shoot video instead of stills because it presented his most likely path to success.

“I originally wanted to do photography,” Jung says, “but the amount of other photographers in the industry was high. It was pretty saturated. So I thought, ‘Okay, well, I really like to do video, too, and not a lot of guys are doing it, so why don’t I take a stab at it?’ Immediately, once I started doing it, I felt a pull from video. So I just continued with that. There’s definitely still ways to make it in the photo side of surf photography, but I thought, ‘If I can make something out of video as a career, well, then that would be amazing.’

Along with that, I’ve kept the photography. Instead of doing photography of action sports, it’s more on the travels I’m going on while shooting action sports for video. I’m just taking landscape photos and lifestyle and portraits and stuff. Mostly for me, but there have been a few times where a client will be, like, ‘Oh, wow, you do photography also,’ and I’ll start showing them some things from the trip, and they’ll like a couple of photos and use them for social media. That’s happened a few times. Mostly, my work is strictly video until they find out I do photo also; then it’s a great addition to have on the tool belt.”

Jung’s specialty—outside of an uncanny ability to effortlessly wield a Sony FS7 digital video camera in a cumbersome, custom waterproof housing while navigating waves and shooting fast-moving action—is the nuanced storytelling and cinematic eye that combine to make motion pictures work. In particular, Jung has a knack for making engaging, intimate documentary profiles of athletes. Whether the resulting film is five or 15 minutes, and whether it takes a few days to produce or months from pre-production through post, Jung is hands-on the whole way. He produces, shoots and edits. He’ll even storyboard when his clients want it. It’s all in service of telling the best, most engaging stories possible.

Justin Jung

“Being able to make sure that your audience is entertained throughout is really important and can be challenging,” Jung says. “I’ve really honed in on the skills that deal with story. That’s something that I pride myself on. It’s cool coming from shooting action sports and surfing, and now being able to also bring in these new skills; this is where I can do it for myself. I actually love doing this more. I love shooting surfing and stuff, but I love being able to tell a story in a way people can connect to or relate to.”

One of the simplest, most achingly beautiful surfing videos Jung has made is called “Fun in the Sun.” The black-and-white 90-second piece features professional surfer Tia Blanco, and it’s filled not only with stunning cinematography that evokes the fleeting end of a California summer, but also jaw-dropping, slow-motion shots where every drop of water is in perfect focus as Blanco seems to glide effortlessly by.

“That’s all Sony FS7 footage,” Jung says. “It’s a pretty heavy rig, but the quality is just amazing. I used the 16-35mm ƒ/4 on that; it’s great for the water because it keeps the shot in focus and pretty sharp throughout at ƒ/8. And I just love slo-mo, in general. With these things, these documentaries, I like shooting 60 frames because sometimes you do need to slow down. When I’m editing in the 23.996 timeline, then I just throw away the extra frames if I don’t need them. Recently, I haven’t been shooting 180 frames as much, I’ve been shooting more 4K at 60 fps, just because a lot more of my clients are wanting 4K. Even though it’s sent out at 1080, sometimes they still prefer 4K. The quality and the color look better, and sometimes they actually have them on YouTube at 4K, and for me, it’s being able to crop in on surfing or crop in on certain shots or stabilize shots and stuff. I do that all the time. Sometimes with surfing the break might be really far out, and you can just crop in and it looks really good.”

Justin Jung

Jung, just like his clients who cater to the demands of today’s audiences, favors authenticity over all else. It makes the documentary style of shooting an athlete’s story, for instance, the most fun way to work, as well. And the results are ideal for any brand looking to forge an authentic connection with customers.

“Even though it may be a brand video,” Jung says about his work, “it’s not so much putting the brand in your face. Other than the opening title and an ending title, the rest is kind of focused on an athlete or a person of interest that maybe is sponsored by them, or maybe the brand just wanted to do a story on them. And so they see that the audience sees the story as more engaging. And then people are just more willing to share or connect with it than if it was just a straight brand-only piece.”

One of Jung’s biggest and best projects, made for Saint Archer Brewing Co., focuses on its brand ambassador, renaissance man Jeff Johnson. Johnson is well known in adventure culture as a surfer and a climber, a writer and a photographer. Jung’s nearly 15-minute film about Johnson is moving, poignant and elegant—all trademarks of Jung’s work and atypical in the world of action sports. It’s also illustrative of the lengths to which Jung will go to tell a story to the best of his ability.

“The Jeff Johnson one,” Jung says, “that was a really long shoot. We actually continued to build on it as we were shooting. The more we learned about Jeff, it was, like, ‘Oh, that’s a really key aspect to your story; we should add that in.’ Originally, it was just, like, ‘Hey, let’s go to Santa Barbara somewhere around his house and talk about Yosemite and stuff.’ And then he talks about his life growing up in San Francisco and Danville, and then also living in Hawaii. It was, like, ‘Oh, wow, we need to go out and document his life, where he grew up,’ and then also a big part of his life is climbing in Yosemite, so it just starts to snowball effect, and then you have this 15-minute video and you’re traveling to several different places to make it happen.”

Along with his knack for storytelling, another thing Jung’s clients keep coming back for is his artistry. He has a refined eye and a light touch that’s lacking in much of the sports world. He takes an intensely creative approach to every project, which has led him to master techniques such as time-lapse, drone piloting and shooting super-slo-mo 4K video.

Justin Jung

“I’m honing in on what my style is and my look is,” Jung says. “I have a huge emphasis on capturing time-lapses and stuff. And so a lot of clients really like that, that I’m bringing that to the table, all these kinds of artistic touches to the piece. A lot of times it depends on the client. Sometimes they’ll let me run with the whole thing and I’ll send it back, and they’re, like, ‘Oh, we love it; let’s just make a couple of changes here and there.’ And then there are other clients who want to see different sections of the story, and so I’ll develop different areas and send them through. I definitely like to know what they want, because sometimes if they don’t tell you and they have an expectation, and you’re not able to look after it, then that can be a bummer. But when they do give you some direction, but also say, ‘Okay, go out and shoot it now, make it happen,’ that’s where I shine. Being able to let loose with the creativity.

“Most of the time I’m a one-man band,” he adds, “just a one-man guy. It’s way more intimate. And I consider myself easy to get along with and personable. I’m mellow. I’m not star-struck when I’m working with these guys. It’s cool; hang out, make a cool story, and usually they’re pretty excited to make it, as well. And it’s not like there’s a thousand cameras around; it’s very low key. Some shoots, depending on if I have the budget, I might get an extra filmer or so, but most all my projects, it’s solo. Even doing the drone work.

“You can really collaborate with the brand on a bigger piece,” Jung says. “When making a surf piece, it’s dependent on a lot of the conditions. That’s a very raw documentary. You spend a lot of time just waiting to hopefully get some good waves and good weather, and then everything connects, which is neat. And sometimes you don’t get that and you go on a trip and you might not come back with an edit because you don’t have the correct footage.”

One bit of footage Jung seems to always come back with is a time-lapse. It’s standard operating procedure. No matter who, what or where he’s shooting, he finds time to set up a time-lapse.

Justin Jung

“I have this very long-term time-lapse project going on,” he says. “Throughout all my travels, I capture time-lapses from around the world, and I’m going to put together a big project on that. There’s no end date on it, it’s just kind of once I feel it’s ready, and it’s got the strongest content. There’s still some big ones I want to knock off the list that are going to take some time. Capturing a volcano erupting, as it’s spewing smoke, that would be kind of neat. Or lightning storms are amazing, going out to the Midwest to capture tornadoes. The list kind of never ends, but it’s going to take a long time. I’ve got to be realistic, too.

“I love to capture them,” Jung says. “It always adds to the piece, and it’s something that my clients always love. It takes forever to capture [a time-lapse], but at the end of it, you’re, like, ‘Oh, it was totally worth it.’ You’ve just got to be really proactive and ready. You wake up one morning and the sunrise is there and the boys are taking their time to get ready, and it’s going slow, and so you’re, like, ‘Okay, I better quickly set up a time-lapse and capture it until it’s time to go,’ so then at least you’ve captured something. Having a second camera on my shoots all the time also helps. I shoot primarily with the FS7, and then the [Sony] a7R II is my B-camera, so I’ll just bring it with an extra-small tripod. During the shoots, like for surfing, I’ll just set that up maybe capturing clouds or the sunset. Usually, for an afternoon session, if we’re in some remote location, then we’ll surf ’til dark, and you’re able to capture that sunset time-lapse and stay focused on the surfing.”

See more of Justin Jung’s work at jungphoto.com or on Instagram at @justinjjung.

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