Saltwater Secrets: An insight into ocean and surf photography with Fuji

My name is Lou (@louloubphoto). I live in a beach town in New Zealand called Mount Maunganui, named after the extinct volcano just down the road. I’m originally from England but New Zealand is where I call home now. I work full time for a tech company and spend as much of my spare time as possible documenting the ocean and nature locally and across the region here in the North Island of New Zealand.

In my free time, I love to surf, go exploring to secluded spots and go on walks in nature where I can switch off – preferably somewhere the 4G is non-existent. I also practice yoga and meditation and value spending time with my partner, close friends and family.

I first got into photography as a way to document my travels, starting out with a very basic Canon point and shoot when I was 19. Curiosity naturally led me quickly to a DSLR and analog SLRs and I just practiced over the years. Now, at the age of 33, I sell prints of my photography and work with select eco-conscious brands with a sustainable vision, to shoot their product (which I never even imagined I’d be doing at the age of 30!)

Surf & Ocean as a Subject
Surfing has become a huge passion for me, it’s my life (outside of full-time work commitments). So it makes sense for this to become such a huge part of my work. I love documenting surf adventures with friends or when swell hits the local beach I love to head to a few spots to try different angles and techniques before and after work.

I grew up in rural England, and rarely visited the beach, so I think this fascination in later life really coincides with me discovering living near the sea and the dramatic impact it’s had on my mental health. Living a life dedicated to the ocean has had a huge influence on my work – it has literally become my work. Selling prints was a natural progression for me as I embarked on photographing this subject that had come to fascinate me so much.

Unlike most other work I create, I love my photographs when they go into print. Not only does the entire experience change as they become a part of someone else’s space, but so many of my clients comment that there is a more profound reason for them having a connection to my work – whether it makes them feel calm in tough times, reminds them of the constants in life while going through challenges or is just positive for their mental health because they have a deep love affair with the ocean and nature. One of my clients wrote a letter to herself and had it locked in with the artwork when she had it framed.

These are the reasons that drive me to sell prints, to bring a little bit of magic to someone’s space and more profoundly when these pieces of art bring magic to someone’s life.

I feel like photography is a real outer body experience for me, and refer to myself as the vessel to nature’s beauty. I’m just there, facilitating this moment to be able to bring it to someone who will eventually have my print in their home or gift it to friends and family.

I ended up doing ocean photography because I needed an activity to get me out of the house as I was struggling with anxiety and depression and feeling super lost in life, and it feels like now, through this very medium, I can bring a sense of calm and hope to others who might be feeling the same.

An Introduction to water photography
There are a myriad of challenges that come with photographing water – both on land and in the ocean. A constantly moving subject means that you can only plan the shot to a certain extent before nature takes over to tell the tale. Not knowing what the weather is going to throw at you; you might have intense lighting during the day, or a sunset that’s so cloudy the colours don’t appear as you hoped they would.

Floating in the ocean also means sometimes being in a risky environment; checking for rips and not getting caught in them, learning as much about the conditions, weather and environment as possible, respecting sea life and being ready to dive quickly when a surfer is speeding towards you.

Multi sensory awareness is key, plus a good understanding of surf etiquette and the sport to understand where the surfer will be headed on the wave, where they are likely to catch the wave, plus a constant awareness of who is around you at all times. Natural light is at your disposal out there in the ocean.

Sunlight gives a beautiful bokeh effect as it sparkles on the surface of the ocean and drips on your lens port, that’s one of my favourite parts of ocean photography and keeps me coming back for more.

Location is everything; it determines the content in frame, the lighting, the mood and colour. When you’re in the ocean, or shooting surf, it can be really easy to shoot looking out to the horizon. In this case, you could just be anywhere in the world and it won’t diversify your portfolio.

It always helps to give the shot context by shooting so you include some background – is there an island, a peninsular or a rocky outcrop you can include? If shooting from the land, I love to capture surfers out of focus in the foreground or seabirds or the tufty grass in the sand dunes. This all helps to give the shot more context and depth.

The Fuji system & my processes
I was ready to take the next step in photography, the DSLR I had had very basic settings for what I was curious to experiment with so I went to the local camera shop in Tauranga (Carters Photographics) and told them I wanted a new DSLR set up.

They told me brutally honestly that, if I wanted to future proof myself, then I should seriously consider mirrorless. They froth for Fuji in there and as soon as they showed me the system I was hooked. I looked at other options in the shop but Fuji was just so tactile, in-hand the camera body felt like those old analog cameras I so fondly used to use.

That feeling of the camera in hand is evocative for me, it’s part of the experience, and being able to twist dials (as opposed to going into the menu and pushing buttons) all while I have my eye to the viewfinder, feels wild. I love it! It encourages me to play with settings and tweak things here and there between shots.

My camera & setup
Fujifilm X-T3 Body
16-55mm
100-400mm
80mm Macro (newest addition to the fam!)

Advantages vs disadvantages of the Fuji X system for ocean photography
Advantages: when I’m out in the elements of nature, there isn’t a lot of time to play with settings during those in-between moments, so being able to twist the dials while my eye is at the viewfinder is a really important factor for me and a huge benefit of the system.

Disadvantages: the water housing I use is only compatible with two lenses. Which is super annoying for me, as you can imagine, being so damn curious, I want to play with all the lenses and focal lengths in water, see what they can do and how the setup changes the experience and outcome!

Software & Post Processing
I use Lightroom and like to keep post-processing simple. Usually, I’ll make decisions before I shoot which determine how much post-processing I’ll need to do for my iconic shots. I consider my iconic shots to be the ones which show nature or a moment in nature, just as it was at that time.

These shots are the simplest and most require little to no editing because I’ve made those decisions about the colour, look and feel prior to shooting by choosing the location and timing of the shot. Of course, this is also super risky and weather condition dependent, but that’s what I find the most fun!

Sometimes I’ll apply a camera matching filter if I’m telling a story of a trip or adventure, especially if I’ve been shooting in broad daylight, but when I’m shooting blue and golden hours the edits are simple, adjusting the blacks and whites and sometimes adding a little vibrance but rarely adding any saturation – nature’s gift is colour and as the author of my artworks, I refuse to change these. This is what I love most about Fuji. Rich colour is a big part of my work, and I love how the Fuji system captures colour at the times of day that are the most unique and my favourite times to shoot.

Lou is an ocean and surf lifestyle photographer based in New Zealand. She shares stories from the wild with her Fujifilm X-T3 and loves shooting blue hours and golden hours with dusky pink skies and golden sunrises in and near the ocean, and documenting surf trips with friends. Her adventures take her truly into the wild where she loves to get off-grid and completely immersed in the beauty of our natural world.

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