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
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.
November 9, 2020 @ 1:17 pm
Really cool photos and something completely out of my area of expertise/photography. Love the colours and tones. More so just the overal feel! Hope you share more here!
March 4, 2021 @ 11:50 pm
February 8, 2022 @ 11:48 am
Lovely post. Can feel your passion coming through here in your images and words. I’m thinking of upgrading from a canon 7dii to a Fuji but wasn’t sure how it would do in the fast paced performance element of surfing. Is it good for that type of photography or would something else be more suited?
February 10, 2022 @ 12:47 am
Thanks so much for stopping by and reading, and thanks for the kind words.
I can’t speak for a comparison of other systems but I can speak of my experience transitioning from Canon to Fujifilm and my experience photographing surfers / capturing movement over the years. I believe Fujifilm is perfect for this type of photography because it’s constantly surprising me with the quality of image. When I first switched to the mirrorless system, I struggled to achieve the focus I wanted. I did some google searching and found this is common when switching from DSLR to mirrorless, so know that this is common. With practice and becoming familiar with the system, I’ve now never achieved such exquisite quality of image. I shoot on AF-C set 2 mode, but there are a number you can try out to see which one creates the effect you want. The AF system on the X Series cameras covers a large percentage of the frame. Combine this with bursts of up to 15FPS when using mechanical shutter the camera (X-T4) is very capable in environments where speed is a determining factor. I understand that continuous burst shooting will be continually supported and developed as the technology and market progresses.
There’s also flexibility with lens availability, given the Fuji system is so lightweight compared to the likes of a Canon system, it provides a more comfortable shooting experience especially in surf environments where you’re utilising big and often heavier zoom lenses. I have the 100-400mm. Where photographers with full frame systems would require a 600mm lens, due to the cropped sensor on the X system, you can achieve the same zoom with less bulky gear.
I’ve attached an image example, and I will endeavour to put a piece of content together on my website blog to highlight this feature as well with more images of surfers which I have captured as I realise now I have not included any in this article. I’d also recommend checking out Russell Ord who shoots Fuji in the water and is a huge inspiration!
Feel free to keep in touch if you have any more questions!