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Byron Shire
March 9, 2021

The Art of Surf Photography

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Surf photography, like any area in the imagery field, is a very competitive workplace and with the advent of every type of camera you can think of, the amount of people taking photos, even water photography has increased exponentially.

Recently we spoke to two local water photographers, Alex Frings and Craig Parry, to get their take on the industry.

Alex Frings is a photographer-cinematographer who lives in Byron Bay. His mission is to capture emotive moments worth treasuring under exceptionally majestic conditions.

Award-winning photographer Craig Parry lives at Lennox Head. His innovation and passion for photography has allowed him to excel in the art. Self-taught Craig has developed his own unique style.

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Can you give us a quick history on how you got into surf photography?

Alex Even though I grew up in Europe, in a place relatively far away from the next coastline, I’ve always been in love with the ocean. When I moved from Europe to Byron in 2006 I immediately dedicated a lot of my time behind the lens to surfing. I remember the very first morning I got up at the crack of dawn, walked over to Clarkes Beach and started taking photos of surfers and the ocean. Taking my photography to the water shortly after that seemed like a no-brainer.

Craig Ever since I was seven years old I loved capturing my friends surfing with a disposable water camera. Mum would purchase National Geographic magazines which I would spend hours flicking through looking at the images and getting inspired by the world of photography.

 

Would you prefer to shoot from the water or land?

Alex Always from the water. Shooting from land just doesn’t compare. When you shoot from the water you’re not just looking at it, you’re right in the middle of it. ‘Best seats in the house’.

Craig I always prefer water as I like to be as involved with my subject as much as possible – it’s also a unique angle.

 

Do you surf? How hard is it to shoot (rather than surf) when the waves are pumping?

Alex Yes, I do surf and I used to struggle with shooting when the surf was on. Nowadays it’s the complete opposite. Shooting is THE number one priority when it’s pumping. I have a quick paddle here and there when waves and light are not worth shooting, which is quite often when you’re as picky as me… and that leaves me with a lot of time for surfing as well.

Craig Yes I do surf and that has helped me to read the ocean a bit better. I get asked that question a lot! But I get just as much buzz out of a good photo session as I get out of a good surf session.

 

Who is your favourite surf photographer?

Alex That’s a tough one. I don’t have one favourite surf photographer. There are a handful of really good ones out there and their styles and specialties are very different. If I had to name only one, it’d be Mickey Smith. His work resonates so much with me. HE IS THE MAN.

Craig That’s a hard question because there are so many great surf photographers out there, but someone who I’m inspired by more than the others would be Chris Burkard as his work is about the lifestyle of photography. He captures a lot of feeling in his images which I can relate to.

 

What is the hardest thing about being a water photographer?

Alex People wanting to see and talk about your water-housing in the car park. Haha. A strong sweep can be pretty challenging. Happens quite often in the Bay and it gets really frustrating when you see perfect waves roll in and you can’t hold your position to get the shot.

Craig Would have to be deciding what lens to take out in the water! Also the baggage you travel with.

 

Do you shoot with many of the local pro surfers? Who do you like to shoot? Are they proactive or do they expect you to call them? Do they help you carry your gear?

Alex I don’t shoot very much with the local pro surfers. KP and I have randomly connected in the water a few times, which actually led to my first ever published double page in Tracks magazine. I’d like to shoot more often with him. So, KP, give us a call mate! Some people I have to chase up all the time, other guys are really proactive and keen to shoot. I enjoy getting text messages that let me know where the surf is on right now. Surfers usually don’t carry my gear. Though they do give me a tow in the water every now and then when the currents are strong to get me back in the zone. That’s the best, I appreciate that a lot. Johnny Abegg has helped me swim out a few times in impossible conditions. In return he got a shot of himself taking off on a wave with a leaping dolphin next to him.

Craig I generally do. I spend a lot of time working with Adam Melling as it makes it easier to get a good image if the surfer is a friend, they are just more relaxed. I like shooting Adam as he is a super athlete, so strong, quick and explosive, every turn is high action and unpredictable. He is proactive and sometimes I call him and we just surf without the camera.

 

How do you decide what you will shoot each day?

Alex It always depends on the conditions and whether I shoot for a client or just myself. When shooting for a client you pretty much try to get the shot they’re after as they have specific ideas of what they want most of the time. I usually look at the waves first to make a decision which lens to use and whether I want to be super close to the action or shoot from further away. That determines what kind of shot I will get in the end.

Craig I’m more picky now with when and what I shoot, it depends on the water clarity and light.

 

Is there one style of photography you think you are known for?

Alex Fairy tale, rainbow, pony land? Haha.

Craig I think so, I think it would be abstract ocean images.

 

Have you ever been run over shooting water photography? Do you recommend wearing a helmet?

Alex I’ve had a few close calls. Fins go past my face only a few millimetres away but I haven’t been injured. Well, apart from hitting myself in the face with my own housing. I personally don’t own a helmet. But if I ever start shooting at The Pass I’ll get two.

Craig My foot has but not my head. No, I wouldn’t consider a helmet… yet.

 

How many surf photographers can shoot at the one break? Can I swim out and shoot right next to you or will you tell me to find my own spot?

Alex Even though I have seen a lot more people shooting during the last year, I hardly ever see anyone next to me in the water. Sometimes I lose interest shooting from a position as I don’t want to capture the same angles as other people. But yeah, generally I don’t mind people shooting next to me in the water as every shot will be unique anyway. Two people can never take the same shot.

Craig When there are more than five I don’t go out or I sit in a different position but I’m lucky around the northern rivers because there aren’t many here. You can do what you want. I won’t say anything, I’ll just move around you like a fish, haha.

 

Surf photographers are not known for making a lot of money. Is this true or are you guys just trying to keep it all to yourself?

Alex Yeah that’s just a myth made up by the surf photographer society because we’re all really humble and like to maintain a low profile. Whereas in reality we’re awfully rich. And that’s how it should be anyway because if done right, it’s an art form and physically extremely challenging.

Craig No, there isn’t too much money in it, they choose the lifestyle and not the $$$.

 

To the general public it seems that photography has got a lot easier with auto focus and lighting. How true is this?

Alex Yes and no. It’s a lot more affordable and easier to get into, that’s for sure. But there’s no automatic camera setting for having a good eye, or being in the right place at the right time.

Craig Yes, cameras are getting smarter, faster and cheaper.

 

Let’s say I want to get into surf photography. Mainly shooting my mates, but deep down I actually want to quit my job and shoot full time eventually. What kind of camera should I buy?

Alex First, I’d tell you not to quit your other job just yet. If you’re serious about it and money doesn’t matter, go get the best of everything. You kind of have to go for the best gear in sports photography anyway. Most of the other cameras struggle with holding the focus on fast moving objects. Sports photographers don’t have a lot of options when it comes to their weapons of choice. I’d recommend a Canon 1D Mark IV or 1D X.

Craig A camera that shoots a high frame per second rate and has good auto focus motor. I use a Canon 1D Mark X which does this well.

 

Where do you make your money in surf photography? (eg magazines, surf brands or local surfers.)

Alex There’s not much money in selling photographs to magazines and even less money in selling them to the surfers themselves. Fine art, stock photography, advertising and licensing your images to big companies is where the money is at.

Craig Generally brands pay better but you have to be noticed through the magazines (prove yourself) before you get to work with the brands in most cases.

 

Do your shots get published by any surf magazines or web sites?

Alex Yeah, I’ve had a few shots in almost all of the major mags in Australia and a few overseas.

Craig Yes, most of the Australian surf magazines use my images and lots of websites do too.

 

What is the future for water photography?

Alex It seems that surf photography has gained a lot of popularity during the last couple of years and we’re sort of going through a big hype at the moment. I think that’s fair enough because it is a lot of fun and very exciting. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to have a crack at it, it’s awesome. But I also think that some time in the near future, people will figure out that there is a lot more to it than getting a housing and a Facebook page. Especially if you want to make a living out of it.

Craig It’s getting very popular with the Go Pro revolution but it’s hard work, it may be a fad but I’m not too sure.

 

Have you had any encounters with sea life while shooting on the North Coast?

Alex Yeah, you can’t really avoid that up here or anywhere else when you spend that much time in the ocean. I’ve seen lots of fish, dolphins, rays and turtles of course. And yes, I’ve also had a few friendly encounters with sharks. Nothing dangerous though and I’d like to keep it that way.

Craig Countless. I had a bronze whaler jump out 20 metres away from me at Lennox that scared the hell out of me, I have had whales swim up to me, dolphins hang out with me and show off for the camera.

 

What is the hardest thing about water photography?

Alex One side of water photography can be pretty technical, and that just takes practice, so handling a camera in the water becomes second nature. There is a lot more to it though that comes into play in order to be able to take a visually pleasing photograph. I usually have a rough idea of what it is I want to capture that day. I look at the waves and light and somehow know which lens, focal length, aperture and shutter speed will help me translate this idea. You can give a photograph a totally different look and feel, even though it was taken from the same spot, just by changing the lens for example. Most of this just happens intuitively, and some of it takes time and a lot of observation. But, most days you end up capturing something so far away from your original idea, a moment in time so magical and intriguing you couldn’t possibly have foreseen or planned.

Craig Being unique with what you capture.

 

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