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Sasha Golyanova - Transition From Russian Police Career to Full-Time Surf Photographer
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Sasha Golyanova - Transition From Russian Police Career to Full-Time Surf Photographer


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Have you ever thought about starting over?

Here is an idea: quit everything and move to Bali to restart your life as a surf photographer.

Originally a Russian police officer, Sasha started her new life in 2014 on the island of Bali. Swimming skills and passion for photography have defined her current occupation. She learned to surf and never looked back.

She said in an interview for Saltwater Magazine, "Water photography is a long journey . . . It pushes me from my comfort zone . . . and forces to keep on moving."

I think we can all relate to that.

Some of the topics we cover include the following:

  • How did you go from working as a police officer in Russia to a surf photographer?
  • Why photography?
  • How did you start—did you enjoy photography when you were younger?
  • I see you have some great water shots, what is it like shooting in the water?
  • What do you shot with—what equipment do you travel with?
  • What is your favorite lens? (45mm - AP - Speed Auto - 2.2 - 1.8 - recommend 5.6 for beginners)
  • Post-production? Color correction, Adobe Lightroom 100:1 Marc 3 - full-frame
  • What is your process—many of your photos have people in them, do you like capturing humans in action?
  • You were in Bali, then Brazil, and now Mexico—can you tell us a little about your journey this past year.
  • Does photography lead you or do you lead it?
  • How does social media influence your photography?
  • What’s next on your horizon?
  • Who are some photographers that you admire?

Social Media Profiles:

Current Location: Cabo, Baja


Hello everyone! Welcome, Sasha to the Saltwater High podcast. Sasha is coming to us today from Cabo San Lucas or Cabo San Jose? Where you at, Sasha?

San Jose.

San Jose. Great. So let me get this straight. You were in Brazil last week and then you were in Bali two weeks before that, right?

Yeah, you're right.

More or less. That's a pretty nice path. Bali, Brazil, and then now here. Where were you in Bali, mainly?

Mainly in Canggu. And I think I have to mention I lived in Bali almost for 7 years and that was my base camp actually. And finally, during this crazy year, I decide to go travel and temporarily move to Baja. So it's finally happened.

Wow. You were there 7 years. So we have something in English, we call the 7-year itch, right? After 7 years, you get out of a relationship or you leave a place. What were you feeling that you wanted to leave Bali?

Honestly, it's connected with my personal story. I met a guy of my dreams.


It's really yey! And everything went very fast. We went to travel to Baja and Costa Rica. And after that, we decide that we want to be together. But because of all this COVID situation, lockdown happened. And we were actually face timing every day during 6 months, and we just cannot wait anymore and we have this mutual plan that I will come to Baja. It's way closer for him to visit me because he's from States and me also I have here waves, and I think I can easily continue my lifestyle that I left in Bali.


It is a perfect plan.

Go ahead.

We had some adventures because--oh gosh, if I will start from the beginning, my advice do not travel during the pandemic. Probably wait a little bit because it's so much stress. When I arrived to airport in Bali first, my flight to Jakarta was cancelled and no one let me know. So I have to move all my flights one day back. And I still did it. I arrived to Mexico, but I was denied entry. So I spent 28 hours in their like...

Immigration or something, yeah?

I don't want to call it jail, but it's what it really looks like. But in immigration, room for people who are denied.

In Mexico City or in Cabo?

In Mexico City. It's happened 3 weeks ago. It's very fresh.

And what was that like? Did they put you in a cell or you in a room? Does it look like a little hotel?

No, it's like a little--it's literally a prison cell with beds and mattresses, no pillows and nothing inside. And they took all of your stuff, ask you to take out the shoelaces. And it's basically a prison so very interesting experience, I want to say.

Yeah, I'm sorry.

They give you opportunity to call, but you can make only one call.

Wow. Did you call lawyer or did you call your boyfriend or?

Imagine between Russian embassy, lawyer, my parents, I decide to call my boyfriend and that was very, very right decision because I gave him a hint, which helps us out. I said that it seems like the airline company are responsible for my flight to get me back from where I came. But the problem was that I cannot go back to Bali because Bali is closed now.

Right, wow.

And Christopher, that's the name of my boyfriend.

Hey, Christopher!

Thank God he found the way. He said that he will buy the tickets for me and him and ask them where we can go. So there was only two options. It's Turkey right now, it's for Russians and Americans. And Brazil. So Brazil became our safe boat.

Did you go to Rio? Or where did you go in Brazil?

We went to São Paulo and then straight away to Rio. And I'm so happy that it's actually happened because I'm in love with Rio. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to shoot there much because of the weather and, not the best swell. But I've been there in Ipanema. I saw those real beaches and I'm super happy.

I love Rio. I actually lived in Rio for 6 months, a couple of years back. Yeah. And there are two places that you need to go. One is Itacaré, which is in the north, right, which is outside of San Salvador. And the other one is called Floripa, which is an island off of southern Brazil. There's so many things to discover about Brazil. I'm glad you went there because now you have a little taste, right? And now you know to go back.

Oh, definitely.

That's amazing. So you went to Brazil and then finally they let you into Mexico because you're there.

So, yeah. What's happened next we were preparing to do the last move. And we also were scared that something will goes wrong. But long story short, I had someone with the same name who were denied entry from US and we were alerted by US for some kind of, I don't know, criminal thing or something like that. And they finally figure out that me personally, I'm fine. So I have nothing to be scared of. So after 3 weeks in Brazil, we finally went to Mexico and all good, all fine. And I'm in Cabo now.

Great. I love Cabo. Cabo's great. Yeah. So that's awesome. Okay, that takes us to the present moment. Let's back up a little bit and talk. I read on some article somewhere, you're from Russia originally. I imagine you didn't grow up near the sea surfing. Right?


And you also were a police officer. Is that what I read?

Yeah, that's true. It's all true.


I wasn't like a badass detective or busting people. But I also wasn't a person who just work with papers. I was something in the middle. I think I was, the easiest way to say, I work in preventious fear. So I did a lot of lections and a lot of talking. I also were on TV and I was working with the rehab organizations, so it's kind of a public face. But also, I joined some operations and the coolest part was that according to laws, a female can be checked only by female. So I had my police badass experience by checking certain food and drugs.

Wow, that's amazing. That's such a great story. So, and then did you wake up one day and say, "I want to learn to surf and become a photographer"? What was the thing that happened to you?

With photography, I was familiar already. So mostly I did like social photography reports and reportage for my work. And also, I shoot friends but I never thought that I will be a photographer one day. And with surfing, it's happened probably through snowboarding, through my interest to snowboarding. Because in 2014, I joined the Winter Olympics project. So I was lucky to work a little bit there as a staffing supervisor. That time, I already finished my police work and I was kind of very open to new and I started snowboarding. And I think when the snow started melting, it was in April, I decide that I want to try surfing. People in the mountains were talking about Bali all the time because European snowboarders, they love to go surfing when there is no snow and then they go back. I had a lot of people who live like that, season by season.

So you kept hearing on the slopes. "You got to surf or we're going to Bali." And then you decided, "I'm gonna do that."

Yeah, kind of. So I have this idea that I want to go with photography, with surf photography specifically. And I bought not expensive, like a plastic case for my Canon 6D?

6D, yep. I have one of those.

And so when went to Bali and my first pictures I made in the ocean, they actually were made with iPhone because I was very worried that something going to happen with the camera. I started with iPhone photography and then shift to a proper one.

But how did you shoot with an iPhone in the water? Is there a special case?

Yeah, I also have a casing. It's a waterproof casing and now I still have a casing for iPhone, but it's way cooler.

Nice. So you transitioned eventually. Well, you went from iPhone to the 6D and then I saw some photos of it looked like a super advanced camera or casing. What are you shooting with now?

Oh, so I'm shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III and I'm mostly using only one lens. I used before 50 millimeter, but now I have 45.

Okay. A 5 millimeter difference makes a difference?

It's not a big difference but it's more like, better kind of a prime lens but not like Canon prime lens but tackle. So it gives to my mind more artistic, more beautiful bouquet and colors and whatever, but I still keep it very simple.

What I love about a lot of your work is--so there's people, you have people in quite a bit of your photography that I've seen, but the angles that you select, right, so it'll be a person on a surfboard, but then a super awesome wave in the background or it'll be just the hand of somebody and the shoulder and then, a beautiful kind of landscape. So I love the way you blend the close-up shots with kind of the, I guess the environment, if you will, of what you're shooting. Can you say a little bit more about how you think about setting up a shot?

Yeah, I'm actually very happy to hear that. That you noticed that I pay attention to details a lot. And I think I'm trying to find, every time, a new angle. I'm trying to make it more creative as much as I can. Because if we talk about surf photography, mostly it's just sport capture and it's hard to bring something artistic into it especially, for example, it's a commercial photoshoot. And you, in the end, have to deliver a high-quality image.

Yeah, so interesting. So if you're going out to shoot and you're looking like--do you pre set-up the scenes or is it more spontaneous?

I'm trying to keep it spontaneous. But I have few settings which I always use, set them before. Are you interested in that? Do you want me to...

I am, absolutely, yeah.

Okay, so let me see. My camera is...

Yeah. Pull it out.

So what I do of course, first of all you should have a right drive mode. So it's when you can shoot a lot of pictures just holding the button sequence. I think it calls like sequence...

Sequence shooting, yeah.

And so you have your camera ready for that. And I use--if speaking about programs, I use aperture priority, if I'm not mistaken.

Yeah, AP.

And basically that's it, that's what I need. And the rest I'm going with different tricks all the time. Of course, it depends what time you're shooting, what's the light. Light is very important.

Do you want to, just for people who don't know, explain a little bit what aperture performance means?

Oh, okay.

For people who don't know about the aperture settings.

So it's hard for me to explain it easily.

Yeah, I know that's why I asked.

Oh gosh, let me think.

Because you're basically, are you playing with the light or the speed of the aperture in that setting?

Okay. So I'm leaving the speed be adjusted by camera. Depend on the--like in the automatic mode.

Yeah, got it.

But my diaphragm like the...

Diaphragm? Yeah.

We call it hole, yeah. It will be open always at the same position. And usually, I open it a lot. I keep it at 2.2 or even 1.8 because I'm mostly aiming portraits. So I need to like--I'm shooting one object, it's a surfer, and the rest is I'm not really interested in those details, so I'm trying to remove them or artistically blur them. But I think if I will have to advise someone what settings is better, I probably suggest to use 5.6 for the beginning so you will have everything sharp no matter what in your picture.


And then sometimes when you adjust it to 2.2 or 1.8, then you can, if you just start, it will be very hard to do a photo like a nice photo. They kind of can end up all blurry.

Yeah, not getting the focal point in the right spot.


That's great advice. Awesome. And what kind of post-production are you doing on your photographs, if any?

Yeah, I do. And I pay attention to it a lot because on the side I also do commercial photography and sometimes I do fashion campaigns and I learn all my editing from there.


Of course surf photography don't need all these tricks and things that they usually use for editorial photography, kind of skin retouch or something specific like that. But color correction is very important. I do mine in Adobe Lightroom and sometimes goes to Photoshop if there is something like detail I need to adjust. I remove surfboards from my shots and other surfers whom I'm not concentrated on. So I do a little adjustment on my photography.

Interesting. Little manipulation if needed.

But not much.

Not much, yeah. And so if you get a great shot or what would you say the average, because most people don't understand, to get a great shot, sometimes you have to take hundreds of shots. Right? What do you think your average is? For every great shot, how many shots did you take behind that shot?

Oh gosh. It's hard to say. On one hand and on another hand, it can be a lot. It can be one hundred shots to one.

One hundred to one, interesting.

Can be. So sometimes you can nail it straight away. Depends. But I like to have a backup, so I rather shoot a lot of and then we'll sit and edit a lot than just do one and that's it.

Because if you're shooting in the water--if you have a photoshoot on land, you can kind of adjust as you go. But if you're in the water, I can imagine that you're not adjusting the settings, are you?

I still can adjust few, but I cannot change everything. So I remember there was few times when I went in water and I messed up the setting completely. And I still keep those photos because, you know, they look very artistic. But I didn't publish them yet, maybe.

Nice. So is this your main gig now or are you--I mean, you have some fantastic work. I'm going to put your links in the show notes to the podcast and I really recommend anyone or everyone to go and look at your work, because it really is--when I first found you, I was like, "Wow!". You ping me about a Cabo article, not even about photography. And then I looked at your profile and I thought, "Oh, I have to get you on the podcast to talk." Because I think there are a lot of surfers out there that consider themselves amateur photographers, right? And so it's always like any kind of advice you can get to take better photos is that's just a skill set everyone needs in today's world.

I think my main was--like I can give an advice, my main thing that I learned, I guess, through years was check the focus all the time, check the focus because if you missed it, that's nice photography, but you can never go like on a commercial level with that. My good friend teach me. She's a stock photographer, so she always pay attention to that. And I think that's a great lesson I learned from her.

Yeah, that's great advice. Always look at the focus. How much of a difference when you had the 6D to the Mark III? Is that a huge jump or?

For me actually, yes. Because even the first one is actually a sport camera. If I'm not mistaken, I think I just mess it up, I had 7D, a crop Canon which made for sport photography.

Got it.

Yeah. It was 7D, exactly. 6D is more new. So for me, shifting from a crop to a full-frame was very big. It's different. It's like these photos can be like printed huge or published in the magazines and I'm not worried about the quality. When you have crop frame, that's it. The quality is a little less and you cannot crop when you edit because then, you're losing even more quality. So the shift was big, but at the same time, I get rid of a lot of lenses and the Bali climate though, pushed me to do that because if you're not paying attention to your equipment in Bali, everything will very fast got molded. It's painful and it's very hard to fix it there. So you need to know the right places and it's also a risk a lot. So to my mind it's great when you can keep it simple, but also can still be very creative with your set up.

Yeah. Awesome. So in today's world of social media, everyone has a super good camera on their phone normally if they have a newer phone, and all these filters. Well, two questions. How do you set yourself apart from all the really great photography out there, right? That a lot of people are taking great photography, they're not photographers, because of the technology. So how do you set yourself apart and how do you use social media to help kind of get your work out there?

That's a good question. Can I start from the second one?

Yeah, sure, please.

I guess for now it's very useful for photographers to use social media. I still met photographers who not really into that. And they still have a job and they're fine. But if you're starting as a freelancer, you need to find the way to tell about yourself. And social media is the best for that, I guess. So, I basically have my Instagram page and my Facebook page. I'm not very good in social media and I can be lazy or forget to post something. Right now I'm actually working on my strategy because I really want to tell and show a lot of photos from Baja.

And I want to start probably a photographic project especially connected to this place. We'll see. I still have a few ideas, which I need to work on them more. But going back to social media, on my own experience when I decide to be a water photographer, so I told myself that that's what I'm doing. My Instagram, I actually got a lot of following. I didn't expect to. And it's all because of Bali. And I guess because I spend there few years devoting myself to one thing and that's why it worked. But I remember when I came to Bali, I have 500 followers. That was my private profile and literally only my friends followed me. Now I have only around 8000. And I didn't do anything specifically for it. It's just thank you, people.

Yeah. Well, you did do something. Your photography is amazing. And the other thing you did is you picked a niche. I don't know if you ever listen to Gary Vaynerchuk, but he's an online marketer and he talks about two things that you're doing. One thing is to tell a story through your photography or through whatever your social is, which is what you're doing. But the other thing he talks about is, you need to find something that is yours. The water photography, choosing that was huge because people like me are attracted to it because I love the water and I love surfing. So it blends the two. Now, you're not going to be attracted to somebody who likes landscape photography or that likes cat photography unless you put a cat on a surfboard, which would be pretty cool.

So you did do something. You did something very important, which is you decided you were going to focalize on one specific thing and do it well. And I think that's another advice for any kind of amateur photographers out there. Pick one thing and just go all in on it.

Yeah, that's true. And even now, already have this knowledge, I'm still sometimes thinking that I can skip. I can do a little jump and just get to a bigger results. But honestly not. We just need to do the same thing day by day and stick to the process, try to enjoy the process. And ego also can be very disturbing. Sometimes already like it's happened to me because I felt like, "Oh, wow! So many interviews and stuff."

And then someone asked me to do a simple photoshoot. And I already start to think like, "Nah, this is not for me. I'm for bigger things." But what again helped me is changing places. Then we clearly understand that your ego is just for you. For other people, they don't know you and first impression, that's what they see. So be more simple, be humble, but brave.

I love that. Humble and brave. That's such a great attitude to have. And I totally agree with you that the ego gets in the way quite a bit. And usually you have to also realize that people are attracted to other egos because it makes their own ego feel better. So it's an ego fest in a lot of cases. So I love to hear that, that you have that attitude. And I could feel that in your work and the way that you're talking about things, about some of your stuff around ecology. And, I just think it's so important today. Which is why I started Wave Tribe to begin with because we're all about ecology. But yeah, that's great. It's such a great story. Brave..

...and humble

Yeah, awesome. So what's on the horizon? Are you trying to get into the States? Or is this kind of a trend you're going to feel it out in Baja and see how that goes?

I think for now, I definitely going to stay here because it's a lot of places to explore. And I definitely will shoot a Baja project. Which one? I'm not sure, but I think it's probably will be connected with the searching for all the secret spots or visiting all the spots in Baja and showing them through photography.

Or also one big thing. What's happened to me is I finally saw this camping lifestyle when people camp to go surf and they just stayed by the ocean in their van. And it's so attracting for me. I'm so excited. The first day I was just going around and shooting all these vans. And probably that will be the thing because, someone is already get used to it. Me, I never saw it. And the first time, just a few days ago, I saw all this like super sick surfers, trailers and...


...I love it.

Nice. Have you been out to Nine Palms area yet? Out on the Eastern Cape? You have?

Yes, I've been to Nine Palms, Shipwrecks, and the some spots around Los Cabos.

Okay, but not up the Isla Todos Santos and Cerritos and all that area to the specific site?

Yeah. I went to Todos Santos already and I don't remember exact name of the spot but I also already shoot there.

Oh great.

But I'm definitely aiming Scorpion Bay. And I have a plan probably in three weeks to fly to Tijuana and do all the way down by car.


Yeah. With my boyfriend.

Yeah, that's a great. Is he in California?

Yes, he's in California.

Oh, awesome. So I would love to get you some gear, some Wave Tribe gear, some bags and leashes for the trip.

With love.

Yeah. And then obviously I'm happy to pay for some shots and to help sponsor part of the trip too, because that would be great. We can talk about that offline. But I think that's a great--especially he's in California because getting you gear to Mexico is a little tricky just because things disappear quite a bit. I'm in California, too so if he's here, I can get him a box of goodies and then he can bring it with him when he picks you up.

I'll recommend that. Sure.

Yeah, very, very cool. So well, we have to talk again after you finish that trip because I've done that trip a couple of times actually. Actually I drove from here to Panama. That's a whole another trip that you might want to consider.


Yeah, that's a fantastic trip. But the trip along the Baja is amazing. And this is the time to do it, because as the northern swells start to pick up, you're going to get a lot more surf in Scorpion and some other places.

So, yeah, beautiful. Is there anything else you want to say to everyone before we head off and just maybe words of wisdom, you've given so many words of wisdom already. Yeah, but if there's anywhere you prefer people to reach out to you like on on Instagram or somewhere else? Just say it now and they can hear it on the podcast.

Okay. I think I have this idea that I would love to say that from now, I will shoot a lot and will tell a lot about Baja. So if someone were ever interested in Baja but never been here, you follow me. So you will see everything with the eyes of a person who just arrived and discovering everything little by little.

That's a wonderful way to do it. And even if you have seen Baja before, you'll still love to see it through your eyes because your photography is so incredible.

The beauty of surfing to me is that every time I surf, it's different and I'm a different person every time I'm in the water and I'm always changing, always evolving. And everything around me is in that same kind of movement. And so I can imagine photography's much the same way.

Yeah, true. And if we always keep the room for being super stoked, super happy, super amazed by small things, things that nature bring us, the sun, the water, the sand, the ocean, that's so great. You will be always stoked surfing every day and will not find anything that you can complain about. So, for example, in Nine Palms, every person I met there was like young, like a little kid. They just have this big smile on their faces and they have their dogs around. The dogs are also surfing with them. And it's so sweet. There is a turtle which lives in literally in the spot among the rocks on Nine Palms. And this is so sweet like just swim out with the turtle.

Yeah, that's one of my favorite waves in Baja by far. I love that wave. That's great advice, Sasha. And thank you so much for doing this. And I have the feeling this won't be the last time. And I wish you all the best and I'm going to link everything up and just keep shining in the world and thank you.

Thank you very much.