Top 10 Covers

SURFER's photo editor Grant Ellis on his 10 favorite photos from Page One

| posted on December 27, 2013

For more than five decades, the photo editors at SURFER have pored over the countless photos that arrive at their office every month, sifting through the gold in search of a single piece of platinum for the cover. Sometimes, they’ll know a cover the moment they first lay eyes on a photo; other times it’s an uphill battle. A good cover shot shouldn’t just sum up the issue, but it should also drop your jaw, make you think, and evoke an emotion. Below, our photo editor Grant Ellis combed his way through the SURFER archive for his 10 favorite covers. It’s a subjective task to say the least, and the roundup will inherently be different for everyone—all of which begs the question: what’s your favorite SURFER cover? Let us know below.
This is a really special cover to me. It’s from a Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson trip to a place called Petacalco in Mexico. I love how this cover really makes you feel like you’re there with them. It almost looks like it could be pulled from a movie set. It’s surreal. To me, it really captures the dream of traveling and scoring waves with just you and your friend. And that’s what it’s all about, right? You can’t look at this and not want to go on a surf trip. I think that’s what makes this so special. The way it pulls you away from your life and places you squarely in the midst of their journey.


This is a Steve Wilkins shot of M.R. on the North Shore in the late 1970s. It was a really ballsy decision to use a pulled back shot of a slide on the cover. The image itself is so microscopic—and coupled with all the white space—it really forces the reader to do a double-take. I’m sure the publisher and advertising execs at the time had a heart attack when they heard that this was going to be the cover, but people really remember this one and it made a big impact because, well, it was just so different than what people were used to seeing. We actually recreated it with the 45th anniversary issue and it was really well received then as well.


To me, this is an absolutely perfect cover. Everything about it is flawless. It’s classic Gerry Lopez at Pipe and he’s absolutely pin sharp. The speed blur really sets it apart from other covers at the time and the color of his board really pops out at you. The fact that he’s not wearing a leash is pretty classic, too. All in all, it’s the essence of a classic surf photo. They don’t get too much better than this.


Travel has always been an important part of our collective identity as surfers. So when you see an image that really captures what it means to travel as a surfer, you’ve tapped into something special. That’s what this cover does so well. It puts you in the tent with those guys in Baja. I’ve seen a lot of people try and recreate this image, but I don’t think anyone’s been as successful as Craig Peterson, who shot the original.


David Carson, who’s became a very famous art director, was laying out SURFER when this came out and he brought a really different approach to the magazine. At the time, running a crop of a photo like this was a really gutsy call, but it turned out that people were really into it. It was different, but at the same time it was also classic. You had Curren, not doing anything really special, but at the same time looking very stylish, set against this really close angle that we’d never run before. It just really works well.


This is one of the few wipeout covers we’ve done. At first glance, it looks like it’s an open-ended wave at Pipe, but when you look a little bit closer, buried in the spray, you’ll see there’s a guy and his board going over the falls. I also think the blurb “Hawaii” married with this heavy wipeout sums up a lot of people’s experiences in the islands.


This issue came out in 2000, when Bruce was really coming onto the scene. He was changing the way we surfed and what we perceived was possible. Tom Servais shot it in the Mentawais I believe, during the OP Boat Trip Challenge. The composure is really good and it’s just an all-around perfect moment. Bruce was blowing people’s minds with his airs, and this one was so massive and styled out that it just dropped your jaw.


Jason Childs snapped this shot of Timmy Turner deep in Indo back in the early 2000s. Timmy and his crew were actually shooting his film, Second Thoughts, when this was taken. What makes this one special to me is the way Timmy just looks so relaxed amid such a heavy wave. It really makes me want to head to Indo.


At the time this was taken, we’d seen Teahupoo shot from a long lens a lot, but never from this angle. It’s a Scott Aichner shot, but it’s different from most of his other work where he’s right there in the lip. To me, this feels like it could almost be the cover of a travel mag. You have this amazingly blue Tahitian water, you can see shades of the reef sucking up towards the face, and you can just make out a touch of land in the corner. Plus, it’s Andy and he’s looking really composed in some really heavy conditions.


This portrait shot of Duke proved to be a favorite cover for a lot of people. Believe it or not, they had to fight for this to be run. It was really controversial in the office, but like I said, a lot of people, myself included, really loved it. We don’t often run portraits as covers, but when we do, they’re really impactful. It’s hard to look at that shot of Duke and not be moved by our sport’s history.


  • Smithers

    The two Mexico travel shots for the win

  • Mik

    Great images, all. Thnx Grant!!!!

    BTW: The Bruce Irons air is as big as anything going down now.

    My New Year’s wish is that he refocuses this year. Not saying he isn’t, actually, because I have no idea of what Bruce is doing… All I kno wis I haven’t seen any footage lately.

    So I guess I’m just trying to say that he is way too young and talented to be slipping into obscurity. Shedding a few pounds, and dedicating to fitness can be a game changer. Look at Freddy P this year! Ripped!

    Please Bruce: we want more, not less. Do what you want, but perform. I’m certain Andy will be smiling at any new footage of his flag-bearer going off — in the way that only the Irons brothers can.

    • Max

      Totally agree with the comment on Bruce. There was one semi or quarter heat in big 10ft+ France with heavy barrels where Bruce comboed Kelly. Bruce won at Pipe too. Love to see more Bruce as well has his tow work – with 1 year training he could make the CT..

  • Barry Snyder

    Nice picks Grant. Always been a big fan of Craig’s work.

  • dave nelson

    all of em are sic!!!!!

  • david carson

    good choices! i was also really happy with my hawaii wipeout cover as well,, it seemed to say it all ~without a bunch of cover lines!

  • Greatstuff

    Thank you so much for all the great pics over the years. I started dreaming of surfing through your magazine photos around 82’ish in Kona HI. Just seeing some of these covers brought back some memories. The issues before my time where appreciated from my friends Dads that would keep them in a stack against the wall, or on a coffee table similar to an art piece. Even with the internet I still buy them to fly on a plane, or take long drives. I have also noticed on airplanes that people who probably know nothing about surfing are trying to sneak a look at what amazing photos are staring back at them. Sometimes even asking if I could share it with them when Im finished reading it.
    Appreciate keeping the stoke, Great stuff. Thanks again~~~

  • turpentine

    like the choices, but why are they stretched out?

  • Gordon

    Laird at teahupoo. Changed everything.

    • macaco1976

      oh man, shut your mouth…

      • dude

        Notice the intensity of your reaction. Why is that? That picture was heavy. What he was riding, where and how. Ushered in the era of bigwave surfing. Yes Laird is a douche, no doubt but that cover was and is one of the best ever.

  • Ono

    There was a cover shot of Thorton Flander at Nias that should be up there as well as Lairds Oh God cover, but my all time favorite is the Rick Griffin Murphy cover on “The Surfer”

    • Sean Davey

      That Nias one was shot either by David Puu or Jason Childs.

      • Nick Dee

        Glenn Butler, 1988, Surfer Mag cover shot MARCH 1989 VOL. 30 NO.3. Photo: Erik Aeder. I was there. Erik Aeder was the photog.

  • eishbru

    Laird at chopes!

  • HMB Boyee

    Craig Peterson snags 1 and 4!! He is the Man. Thanx for your help when you were at Windsurf.

  • Kent Honea

    The Latest issue with Buttons is by far my favorite cover. That is actually what I said when i saw the cover fresh out of the mailbox…keep it up

  • Mohamed Acheari Aboilyase

    Great images , if any one want to surf in morocco you are always welcome invitation for all

  • C.P. Spencer


  • Bill Morris

    The 1st mexico shot was the 1st Surfer I bought. Those waves blew my mind as a 12 yr old grom. But who shot it?

    Lopez one is sick too! Not many cloudy shots on film made covers back then. Lucky Gerry had a yellow board. Im guessing he knocked the shutter speed down because of the cloud factor as well. Nailed Gerry tack! Who shot it?!?!?!?!

  • Dan Walding

    The one of Nias that Ono was talking about was taken by Jason Childs. Great photo and great cover.
    What about the pipe one that had the surfers painted over like gladiators (must have been early 80s). That has to be in the top 10 for sure.
    I also liked the first of the ‘new’ cover designs that was half colour and half B&W with I think it was Shaun Munro on the cover. Similar to the Curren one in that it was different but worked.
    Also what about the early one with the wake from a motorboat… Perfect glassy 6 inch waves.
    To be honest… The Duke was a great man and a great surfer. But as a cover… With respect, nothing special. And I would say the same regardless of who it was on the cover. This is not Vanity Fair magazine.
    Likewise I don’t think much of the Bruce irons one. Radical move yes… But from an aesthetics POV, nothing special to me. Also the photo is cropped wrong (can’t see the base of the wave).
    The Timmy Turner one is a great wave… But the backside soul arch (if there is such a thing) is in the wrong part of the wave, or at least looks like it due to foreshortening. Also, too much shadow. As said previously he Thornton Fallander Nias one is better.

    And of course the Laird Hamilton one is one of the great surfing photos ever and deserves to be in the list.

  • wildog

    I have been reading Surfer Magazine since it came out. The chosen covers are a very good mix of what the magazine is about ,but my question is about the best cover that Surfer ever had and that was ” Murph the Surf “

  • Steve Hawk

    I’m with my Mr. Carson. Great choices by Grant. Just wanted to make sure that Art Brewer gets credit for the Curren shot and Vince Cavataio gets credit for the Hawaii wipeout shot. If the list had been longer, I’d have suggested the historic Jay Moriarity wipeout shot at Mav’s from 1995, Carson’s brilliant first cover (half color, half black-and-white) of Shaun Munro, and any of those beautiful wordless covers that Steve Pezman crafted back in 1972-73.

    • The Light In Life

      right – but why are none of the photographers mentioned/credited Surfer Mag?

      • Sean Davey

        Good question. Why is that?…

    • joey c

      I immediately thought about Jay’s wipeout shot at Mavericks.

  • Keith Wright

    Laird at Chopes still my favorite!

  • Doug Penny

    I think that might be my brother, Eric Penny, on the cover you attribute to Kevin Naughton and Craig Peterson.

    • El Kabong72

      Doug, You’re right. Craig Peterson was most likely the photographer. I was there a year later in 1974. I never met any of them to my knowledge, but Chris Klopf knew your brother and I’m sure he’s confirm it. Naughton had more reddish hair, and Peterson was blonde haired.

      • Doug Penny

        I think the other guy in the photo is Bob Rotherham. He stayed in Salvador and now owns a restaurant and resort in La Libertad.

    • J. Bailey

      Looks like Eric would be the one carrying his board …? Nice, nice guy … Not Forgotten …

    • Vaughn Olson

      If it’s the same guy, I remember Eric Penny from 1967/68 at Hampton Bays, Long Island. Nice guy. He showed up one day with a Gordon & Smith Hot Curl, powder blue foam wedges aside a narrow stringer at nose and tail. When I witnessed what could be done on it (even though it was still not a “short board” by any means) I ran out and got one in ’68. Always wondered what became of Eric, it’s been decades.

  • Sean Davey

    As a young developing photographer (pardon the unintended pun), the orange tent cover shot inspired me more than any other picture and still, I never photographed anything like it, yet…..

  • Sean Davey

    The “white cover” too was one of my fave’s. Sometimes, it’s good to be bold and that cover just stood out like dog’s balls on the news-stand for how minimalistic, it was. I’d like to hear David Carson’s impressions on that cover….

  • whamo

    Ron Stoner’s cover of Black’s was totally sanitary.

  • srfmstr

    We knew about Petacalco because several of the older guys from our area had been Mex vets for almost a decade by then. A young kid I knew “accidently” found Playa Azul, and came home with tales of giant blue barrels (although mostly close-outs) As much as they tried to keep Peta a secret, we just hounded the older guys and pored over maps in our school library and hounded them again. When the cover came out, we were already planning to go, the article just made us go. and we went.
    btw- missing from my choice of a list is the Severson photo of Lopez doing a wicked off the lip at ala-mo.