I've been following Nicole Mason @neekmason on instagram for a while now so was very excited to connect with her recently and get creative together. Nicole is an incredibly talented photographer based in California. Her work has a minimal aesthetic with muted tones combining nature, surf and fashion - so naturally I couldn't help but be drawn to it.
Tell us a bit about your journey into photography. Was it always a path you planned to head down?
I’ve loved photography since I knew what a camera was! I was around 7 years old when I started shooting with my first 35mm film camera (a bulky primary-colored one!) As I grew up, I saved my allowance money, looked at new cameras in the Sunday print ads, (I’m really sounding old and I’m still in my 20s! Haha) and eventually would spend all my savings on one. I always had a camera with me - I was the friend in the crew that documented everything. Having gotten into it at such a young age, I never imagined it being a career - it was just another thing I loved to do.
What inspires and influences your work?
I feel most inspired by the natural world - landscapes, oceans, light, tones and textures. I also find myself influenced by design, minimalism, architecture, fashion, film (moving/still), and my background in studying studio art– I think I could trace my love for good composition and playing with scale and depth and lines to a photography class in college where we were taught with hours and hours of lecture slides on the topics.
I think your connection with nature and appreciation of travel really comes through beautifully in your work. What are some of your favourite places you've been to in the US?
Yes! I fell in love with both from a very young age - I was always climbing the tree in my front yard and wandering barefoot. My family vacationed once a year in the Spring to Arizona where my grandma lives (who is also an artist) and I was influenced by her creativity and the desert long before I even realised it. Some of my all-time favourite places in the US are in Oregon and California (the north coast of Oregon will forever have my heart) as for California: Death Valley, Alabama Hills, Lake Tahoe, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur. Then there’s Yellowstone in Wyoming and Glacier National Park in Montana. I have to include Alaska and Maine, though I spent very little time in both, each place had incredible impressions on me with how “untouched” they felt naturally, and I cannot wait to revisit.
I never imagined it being a career - it was just another thing I loved to do.
As well as a successful photography career you also started a second business in Portland, Oregon called 'The Portland Studio'. Have your businesses been affected by COVID this year and what are the plans for The Portland Studio now that you've recently made the move down to sunny Costa Mesa, California?
I did have a studio! It was amazing, stressful, super fun and rewarding - all the things a small business usually is, and I had many plans for continuing and expanding it :) Due to COVID and the building we were renting being purchased, we were forced to move out by the end of March. Having spent the last year searching for a new space with no luck, it felt like this new door was meant to be opened to make room in my life for change and growth on this new path forward.
I definitely feel that, starting a business is the easy part, running it is the stressful part but also very rewarding! Have you taken any business courses or had a mentor, who has helped or given you guidance along the way?
I have never taken a business class in my life! haha. I very much learned as I went, and feel like I’ve had dozens of mini-mentors thanks to the photography community. I truly can’t stress enough what a special industry it is to be a part of - people are so willing to share, whether through workshops or Instagram or YouTube. Photographer friends of mine are always a text or call away to answer a question or help out with something from taxes to lighting gear. It’s been a really supportive and unique group of people that I could never have expected to come from a career path that is very independent. I think Instagram played a huge role in the networking and connection of photographers and creatives, which is huge and I think deserves some credit for making it so easy for us to find each other!
This year has been challenging for everyone to say the least, but I think it's amazing to be able to pivot and create a new silver lining. What will you miss most about Portland and what are you most excited to see and experience in Costa Mesa?
It’s been on my mind for a couple of years now to move South, but I never saw the clear path or felt the timing was right until now. As things began to shut down with the pandemic and I had to close the studio, I also lost a number of big projects I was supposed to travel to shoot this summer and was going month-to-month with my own apartment lease. For the first time in years, I had nothing really holding me back from making the move (other than being very torn about leaving friends and the life I’d built in Portland). I’d road tripped to California multiple times a year over the last few years, made a lot of friends all over through surf and photography, and each time fell more and more in love with different parts, especially the access to surf and the landscapes. It felt foolish not to take the opportunity to try living in a place that would allow me to take more steps forward in my life and career.
I already miss the green, the openness, the quiet, and the space that there is in Portland. I would walk or run in my neighbourhood through multiple parks with tall, towering trees every day or down to the college campus a mile from my apartment that had bridges suspended over a stream, and a wooden boardwalk through a nature preserve, and if you go early enough, you might only see a handful of other people. I love that feeling of having the world to yourself, and think I crave that alone time with nature and my own thoughts. I knew moving to Southern California was going to challenge this for me, but I’m excited to seek out the emptier, quieter spaces down here – they’re out there :)
"It felt like this new door was meant to be opened to make room in my life for change and growth on this new path forward."
What does a typical day look like for you?
My lack of routine until the pandemic might have alarmed some people. I think I’m the most settled I’ve ever been this year since I’ve been unable to travel. Most days I wake up early, make or get a coffee - sometimes with a friend. Take a walk / listen to a podcast / journal. (I make sure to do these simple rituals before I start any work). Then it’s answering e-mails, checking off some to-do’s that usually involve a run to the post office, photo store, or grocery shopping. Mid-day and afternoon are usually spent editing, planning a shoot, catching up on admin/e-mails, or doing some sort of activity to move my body like surfing or shooting. It really varies so much, but generally it’s packed full of errands, work, little routines, seeing/talking to friends and getting outside to do some activities I enjoy.
Do you feel like working for yourself gives you more or less freedom?
I think a few years ago, I might have said less. When I was shooting weddings, they dictated my schedule as to where I’d be when, and I’d be shooting on a weekend and editing all week until the next one, plus there’d be travel days in between most of them. I still think it gave me way more freedom than a 9-5 job and tons of opportunity to travel in my early 20s. Now, I say so much more freedom. Since transitioning into commercial work over the last few years, my shoot dates are usually more flexible, I’m editing WAY less images, shooting more subjects that I want to shoot, and I’m getting more free time to do things I love like surf, take a long road trip, or just hang out with friends.
Do you have any tips on finding a work life balance?
Yes, definitely – I’ve learned a lot! First thing is setting boundaries with clients – I make it clear that you e-mail me if something is work-related. I don’t do FB messages, DMs, or texts - that intrudes on my personal life and is so hard to keep organised. Second, create those routines of things that are for you (getting a coffee, journaling, reading, jogging/walking, etc.) and do at least one before you do any work. Third, learn to say no. Protecting your time can be a tricky one in the beginning, but if people are asking you to work for free or not meeting your rates, it’s probably not worth it :) you could be making work on your own or doing something that’s inspiring to you with that time, which I think will lead to more reward - both personally and professionally in the end.
When did you start surfing?
I started surfing about 3 years ago when I moved to the Oregon coast in the summer of 2017. I lived in Seaside, one of many little beach towns along the 101 - just a few blocks from the ocean and a 5 minute drive to the nearest cove to surf at. I learned to surf on a borrowed long board there, and rented boards everywhere I got to travel over the last couple of years, from New Zealand to Costa Rica.
It can be quite frustrating learning to surf as an adult, really testing the art of practice and patience. Did you have any of your own challenges or have any advice for women starting out?
On my first days out, I could have never imagined feeling as comfortable as I do now floating on a board in the ocean. My board felt totally foreign and detached from me and now it feels like another body part. I was so clumsy, didn’t understand how the ocean worked and probably didn’t actually catch a wave for the first number of months. I think my healthy fear of the ocean actually did me well though. I’d mostly go out on really small days, but would occasionally be convinced to go out with more experienced surfer friends on slightly bigger days and get tossed and tumbled for hours - a very humbling time. Surf culture was really intimidating to me too! I truly knew nothing about it aside from watching people surf at the Oregon coast with all the time I spent there before living there. It had never been on my radar growing up in a place dominated by snow in the winter and lakes and rivers in the summer.
My advice to women starting out would probably be to take a lesson or lessons if you have no idea what you’re doing/where to start like me! That helped me so much and was totally worth investing in to understand the ground rules and basics of what I’d be needing to learn and work on. From there, just spend lots of time with the ocean. I learned a lot from just sitting in the water and watching other people surf - observing how they’d paddle out, the timing of when they’d stand up to catch a wave. There’s a lot you can learn from just getting out there, no matter your skill level.
Lastly, what's your favourite Hakea piece?
I have to say the Chacahua Suit because it merges fashion with function.
I love its minimal and elegant design - it looks timeless and effortless all while feeling comfortable and perfectly fitting for surfing.
Nicole wears the olive Chacahua Suit and the mustard Palma Top and Santiago Bottom.
All images are shot on film in Malibu by photographer David William Baum.