Meet Matt Hipsley - Owner and Engineer of Salty Surf Housings
An interview by Vagabond Photographic Creative Guide Ben Bugden...
Possibly the most crucial piece of equipment an ocean photographer/cinematographer will invest in is a water housing. Sure, without a camera and lens there are no images, but when you’re bobbing around in the ocean, often with a few thousand dollars worth of equipment, you want to make sure the housing that’s protecting your investment is a good one.
This is where someone like Matt Hipsley the founder, owner and engineer behind Salty Surf Housings comes in. A relative newcomer in the water housing market Matt and Salty have been quick to make waves, not just for their tough CNC machine billeted Aluminium shells, but also the high levels of functionality available on the housings and a willingness to customise them for individual shooters needs.
Vagabond Photographic is proud to announce that we are Salty Surf Housings first reseller in Australia. We are excited at the prospect of being able to support Matt get his fabulous product into people's hands.
We recently caught up with Matt to talk about his journey with the brand. From a 14-year-old kid mucking around with plumbing supplies to demoing his latest models at RED Cameras’ HQ in Hollywood.
Tell us a bit about yourself, interests, where you live/grew up, etc?
I’m 30 years old, Wollongong (NSW, Australia) born and raised. I’m a qualified civil engineer, avid photographer, surfer, sailor, car & motorcycle tinkerer, dog owner, and a new father (of just 3 weeks) with a beautiful partner of 12 years, Tam. I am also the owner/operator of Salty Surf Housings.
How did your relationship with the ocean evolve?
Growing up in Wollongong it’s pretty much inevitable that you learn to swim and surf. I was a competitive swimmer at a young age which lead me to nippers, then to bodyboarding and eventually to surfing. Weekends during school years were filled with chasing waves with friends, and that got a bit more serious once we started to get our licences and the freedom that it gave us. I studied photography at high school, and it was a natural progression to involve the ocean as a photography subject.
What first got you interested in making housings?
I built my first ever housing at 14 years of age (more on that below), however, it wasn’t until about 5 years ago that I started to seriously look into developing my own housings as they are today.
I had been shooting with housings for close to 10 years, but I ended up selling the housing and cameras I had at the time to help with a house deposit. Life got in the way, a few years without a housing and camera went by, but I had finally settled down into a good job and had some spare funds to get back into photography.
Around the same time a friend purchased a CNC machine, and after some conversations with him, I started dreaming of CNC machining my own housings. I love building and tinkering with things, and I had gained some decent skills in CAD though my engineering degree, so decided to combine all my hobbies and skills into a project, which eventually became Salty Surf Housings.
Tell us the story of the first housing you ever made?
Back when I was 14, bodyboarding with mates, Sony Hi8 handy-cam in hand, freshly inspired by Chris White’s Tension movies, I wanted a way to get a camera in the water and we didn’t have the luxury of a GoPro back then. So I convinced my Dad to help me build a housing with plumbing supplies from the local hardware store. It was rough, but it worked and ended up fuelling my passion for water photography.
Fast forward 12 years and the desire of building my own housings kicked off again. I spent the next 12 months designing, prototyping, and testing before I released a housing onto the market. The first Salty prototype was an exciting thing to see. The bare aluminium finish got me so stoked.
Salty seems to have had quite quick growth, how did it evolve from that first housing?
It has actually been crazy how quickly it has grown, and it goes to show that the camera housing industry needed something fresh to come along. However, it has been a lot of hard work, late nights, and reinvestment into the business. I’m still only operating part time out of a home workshop, but I’m stoked in the impact I’ve made in the industry.
I’ve managed to organically grow the business over the last 3 years with the help of supportive customers, social media and a lot of hard work. I started off with $20,000 out of my own pocket, offering one housing model for the Sony A6000. Throughout the years I’ve added more and more housing models, which has helped to expand my customer base and grow the business.
Proudest Salty moment so far?
I always get stoked when photographers I idolised when I was younger (and even today) reach out and want a housing from Salty. A cheeky Instagram comment tag to Chris Burkard has lead to me building a number of housings for him. And I have just recently built a RED housing for Chris White, whose Tension movies inspired me to start shooting surfing.
However, I think the best moment has been heading to the RED Hollywood Studios for a meeting to demonstrate a housing. Long story short, I went in for a meeting with two RED reps and within a minute of walking through the doors ended up demoing the housing in front of a group of 30 film students that we crossed paths within the building. I was super nervous, however I must have somewhat impressed as I have now built a number of housings for RED, and we have a good ongoing relationship, with some future projects in the works.
Walk us through the construction process of a Salty Surf Housing?
First off I sit down in front of the computer with the camera and some measuring devices, and I use 3D modelling software to design the housing. The CAD file is then programmed into a CNC machine, where the housing is carved from a solid block of aluminium. After CNC machining, the housing shell is anodised, painted, and then hand assembled before being pressure tested and shipped to the customer.
What are you trying to deliver with Salty that people may not get elsewhere?
I really wanted to make sure that Salty offered something different than what other housing manufacturers. Particularly with how the housings are designed, options for customisation, easy ordering, and good customer service.
I’ve found that people value different things in a housing. For example, some photographers like a compact housing whereas others prefer a larger ‘one size fits all’ design. Some like a rear loading housing, others prefer a front loading housing.
The housings I build have all the features that I personally find important in a housing, and I have been able to tweak things along the way based on customer feedback. I don’t try to claim my housings are better than others, only that they have different features that you might find are more important than what other manufacturers offer.
A few things I focus on are compact/form-fitting design, custom paint options, off-the-shelf housing options as well as custom housings.
The billet aluminium construction of the housings lends itself to a lightweight yet super-strong housing that you can literally park a 4x4 on top of.
Aluminium also does a much better job than polyurethane or fibreglass or carbon fibre at managing heat generated by most cameras these days. This is particularly useful when shooting video with the RED DSMC2 or the Sony mirrorless cameras which get pretty warm inside any housing. A prime example of this is two well known Australian surf shooters, both shooting RED one day at the Right in WA. One in a fibreglass housing sitting at 75 degrees operating temp. The other in a Salty aluminium housing sitting pretty at 45 degrees operating temp.
I know from the housings you've made me, you're happy to work with people to ensure they get what they want from their housing, including adding custom features where possible etc. Is that something you pride yourself on? Being a bit more hands on and flexible?
I personally have a hand in every single stage of the process, which at times is tiring, but ensures that the customer gets exactly what they want, and that they are stoked on the outcome at the end.
Anything new in the pipeline?
I’ve got a bunch of projects in the works. The biggest one being our new bub, Jarvis.
Shane Ackerman and I are always trying new ideas with the bodyboard pole mount, and will be dropping some mind blowing footage shortly.
New cameras are always being released, which we will continue to support. I’m particularly looking forward to the new Sony A7Siii and the RED Hydrogen One.
You can check out the Salty Housing range of products here
Interview by: Ben Budgen Vagabond Photographic creative guide and Salty Housing ambassador. Check his instagram feed out here