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Feature Image by: Fran Miller

Surf Photography Tips with Fran Miller

If there’s anyone you want to be getting surf photography tips from, it’s Fran Miller. She’s one of only a few ladies on earth who make a living shooting surf photography.
We were lucky enough to sit down with her as part of our ‘Women in Surf’ series, and ask for her top surf photography tips. She gladly shared her secrets.

What camera settings do you recommend for surf photography?

In the water, it isn't as easy to change settings due to the limitations of having an enclosed housing around your camera and being in such an extreme changing environment. Waves crashing around you, people surfing towards you—amongst all that you need to take a photo!

Landscape image of surfer 'Friends' by Fran Miller

A good starting setup is similar to land with:

What camera do you usually shoot with and why?

I shoot daily with the EOS 1D X Mark II. Surfing is such a fast-paced sport with lots of different manoeuvres being performed and there is a lot of emphasis on body and board positioning. This camera has such a fast frame rate that I always capture every bit of the action. It is also such a sturdy, weatherproof camera body. Salty air, ocean spray and sand are just a regular part of my day. I have a lot of trust in the 1D X Mark II because I know that despite facing all the elements, it is going to capture what I want without fail. I guess that is what it all comes down to. I trust it. The only problem is if I miss the shot, I know it’s my own fault!

Fran Miller using an underwater camera housing before the surf – image by Ed Sloane
Photograph by Ed Sloane

What lenses do you prefer for surf photography and why?

I am a devotee to the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 II. It is small enough to travel around the world with, but has the most premium glass, so it still captures the highest quality images possible. The focal range allows me to frame a wide variety of images exactly to my own vision. I can also just put on an extender to get more length if people are surfing further out to sea without any visible loss in quality.

My other little secret lens that I love for shooting in water is the Canon 50mm f/1.4. This little baby lens is small and light and lightning fast. Although it isn’t the most expensive lens out there it is one of the most superior lens for shooting surfing in water. It can do everything from shooting an intense action shot all the way to a delicate water portrait. It should be a part of every water photographer’s kit.

What underwater housing do you use?

I’m currently testing a variety of different housings for in-water manoeuvrability and functional use. There is a lot of modern technology coming out with lighter housing bodies made from carbon fibre and other materials. In the past, I’ve used reliable housings by SPL and Aquatech.

Fran Miller using an underwater housing – photo by Ed Sloane
Photograph by Ed Sloane

Where do you prefer to shoot from—in the water or from the beach?

If it’s a hot day, I like to be in the water, and if it’s a cold day, I like to be on land! All jokes aside, I think I would prefer to be in water. Being close to the action in water is like being in a different world. You can see every drop of water come off the surfer’s board. You can hear them scream in delight at catching a magnificent wave. You can taste the salt when you lick your housing port. You can feel the weight of the ocean rush past you. You can smell the seaweed caught in your hair! Every sense is heightened in water and it is an experience unlike any other. 

Roisin Carolan – Image by Fran Miller
'Roisin Carolan' by Fran Miller

Landscape black and white image of ocean wave
'Kirra' by Fran Miller

Is there any surf photography etiquette newbies should know?

Newbie surf photographers need to learn the laws of surfing and the ways of the ocean before anything else. Understanding the movements of surfers and the ocean allows you to be in better positions to capture your imagery, and as such, keeps you in favour with everyone in the water, whether they are surfers or other surf photographers. The basic etiquette of surf photography holds true on land as it does in water. Your level of intrusiveness when shooting should match how well you know your subject. If you are on good terms, a camera in the face can be acceptable. Otherwise, stay out of the surfer’s way!  

Fran Miller photographing Macy Callaghan
Photograph by Ed Sloane

Was there a particular image that inspired you to become a surf photographer?

This is actually a really difficult question because I have been reading surf magazines since I was about 8 years old and have consequently seen thousands of images. In 1994 I was given a coffee table magazine celebrating the 25th anniversary of Rip Curl. Twenty three years later I still look through the pages of that magazine and am overcome with so many different emotions: the sense of discovery, freedom and action are all translated through the pages. I value it as one of my most treasured possessions. All of the images in that magazine inspire me to this day.

How do you find ‘non-traditional action’ shots?

All sorts of art have heavily influenced my photography—everything from abstract sketches to surrealist paintings, and I really enjoy looking at different types of sculpture. I feel like there should be no limits in what you create as a photographer. Sometimes it’s difficult to showcase an image that doesn’t fit the mould of what a surf photo is known to be. I have found myself saying, ‘bugger it!’ and doing it anyway. Photography is a personal journey as much as anything. I am translating my feelings and emotions into what I capture. 

Kurt Fraser by Fran Miller
'Kurt Fraser' by Fran Miller

Letting go of expectations and discovering new ways of conveying meaning is something I take pride in and actively seek to do.

Underwater image of surfer
Photograph by Fran Miller

Of all the images I have taken, ‘Serena’ (2015) is my favourite. It is subtle and delicate, yet completely overwhelming. It is hanging in private collections in Paris and New York.

serena by Fran Miller
'Serena' by Fran Miller

How can an aspiring surf photographer get started in the industry?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand surfing and the ocean first and foremost. To be at one with the fluidity of a surfer’s movement and the movements of the ocean is of paramount importance. This is what allows you to fundamentally capture captivating images.

Landscape image of ocean wave
'Pipeline' by Fran Miller

Regarding the surfing industry, there is no difference between the surf industry and any other. You have to work hard shooting every day. I have had the privilege of shooting world famous surfers, but I also shoot everyday people out in the water because in the end you are giving back to the whole of surfing, not just the ‘cool’ part. 

Portrait image of surfers at sunset
'Sunset' by Fran Miller

Secondly, it is really important to connect to people, whether they are surfers or surf magazine editors. Reach out to people. Give more than you take. If you work hard enough for long enough, your break will come!

Fran Miller photographing surfers in the sand
Photograph by Ed Sloane