surf photography
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Surf Photographers: Riding Waves on Instagram

For aspiring surfers, surf photography might be the most interesting genre of the art. Find out which artists you should definitely follow with the OMBE guide.

You know what surfers do, right? They go on trips to the most beautiful corners of the world and enjoy the magnificent beauty of reefs, tubes, and big waves. They set camp on jaw-dropping cliffs, and as if all these natural wonders aren’t enough, they ride waves and put on a spectacle for the delight of fortunate onlookers, especially during the competitive surfing season.

In that sense, being a surf photographer sounds like an easy job. The beauty is already there in all its forms, and you just need to catch it by simply clicking your camera's shutter release. Well, if only! 

You see, surf photography is actually one of the most difficult photography types because there’s so much movement. The surfer moves, the ocean moves, and so do the best surf photographers if they’re to catch this wonderful sport of ours in all its thrilling glory.

However, it’s also not as difficult as it was in the past because technological innovation has helped water photography take big strides forward. Moreover, the prominence of digital media in the circulation of visuals also helped surf photos to reach more people and inspire them. So, despite the difficulties of catching the perfect shot, there are more and more surf photographers who are doing a great job reflecting the surf culture and the surf itself.

So, let’s see who our favorite surfer photographers are, why they’re so good, and maybe help them gain new followers (although we don’t have any affiliate partnerships with any of them).

The Best Surf Photographers to Follow on Instagram

Yes, we know that there's more to photography than Instagram, but that’s also the best way to keep track of the artists you like. So, below is a list of the most talented surf photographers whom you should definitely follow if you’re passionate about surfing.

Sarah Lee

sarah lee surf photographer

Born on Big Island, Hawaii, and having an interest in photography from the age of fifteen, Sarah Lee had no other choice than to become a water photographer, and a great one at that. 

What she did with the opportunity she was given was completely up to her unique gaze that helped her capture surfers during their most vulnerable and glorious moments. Her photos of duck-diving surfers are simply breathtaking, and her thunderous barrel stills are nothing short of magnificent.

Lakey Peterson, one of the greatest female surfers to have ever lived, even chose her for her profile on ESPN: The Body Issue.

Her unique perspective also decorated the covers of prestigious magazines like The Surfer’s Journal and Cosmopolitan. In addition, her photography was acknowledged by other globally revered publications and media institutions, including National Geographic and CNN.

To learn more about who Sarah Lee is, what kind of photographs she takes, and what sorts of projects she’s involved in, you can visit her website. Don’t forget to add her to your Instagram feed, though!

Tim McKenna

the cover of Tim McKenna's Teahupoo: Tahiti's Mythic Wave

Do you know anything about big wave surfing? Even if you do, let us act on the possibility that you don’t and give you very brief info on the best big wave locations on Earth. Nazaré, Portugal surely is one of the famous spots for big waves, and Mavericks, California provides incredible thrills, risks, and injuries for adventurers. 

However, the most jaw-droppingly beautiful big waves are found in Teahupo’o, Tahiti. And the frightening majesty of these waves is best captured by none other than Sydney-born photographer Tim McKenna.

Although he’s traveled the world quite a lot and documented various extreme sports in countries like Uzbekistan, Mongolia, and Ecuador, his magnum opus remains to be the photo book titled Teahupoo: Tahiti’s Mythic Wave (2007, White Star). To capture the brute beauty and force of this myth, he employed boats, helicopters, and diving suits. It’s definitely safe to say that the end product was well worth all the effort. The book is simply awe-inspiring.

Of course, neither his website, which perfectly chronicles the diversity of his output, nor his Instagram profile is any less appealing to those who like either surfing or photography. Some more good news: the second volume of his work on Teahupo’o is soon to be published!

Chris Burkard

Chris burkard surf photographer

The client list of Chris Burkard is honestly quite intimidating. He worked in collaboration with a wide variety of clients from almost every line of business: tech titans like Apple and Sony, sports apparel brands like Quiksilver and Rip Curl, and transportation and travel firms of all kinds, including Lufthansa, Land Rover, and Airbnb. His artistic status as a hotshot photographer is well-deserved as well simply because he has the eye to encapsulate the relationship between human beings and nature like nobody else does.

Of course, as a result of the diverse and prolific character of his output, he’s published many great photo books in many styles, capturing glaciers, the aurora borealis, and glorious Alberta, Canada, to name a few. 

Yet, his mastery is best documented in High Tide: A Surf Odyssey (2015). The book is a collection of surf photographs taken in surfing hotspots like the Caribbeans, California, North Shore, Hawaii, and Indonesia. It’s also a reminder that you can find surf even in the most unforgiving corners of the world: the Arctic Circle!

If you want to see his work in more detail and maybe purchase a couple of amazing photo books in the meanwhile, you can visit his website. If you’re okay with the urge of double-tapping your phone and seeing a red heart appear every now and then, you can also follow him on Instagram.

Sachi Cunningham

We certainly don’t know where to start with Sachi Cunningham. She was once an assistant to world-renowned actor Demi Moore and acclaimed director Barry Levinson (whom you might know through his classics like Rain Man and Wag the Dog). She’s appeared in respected publications such as the Los Angeles Times many times due to her keen video and photo journalism on many topics. Currently, she’s a successful documentary director and a professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University.

Given the breadth of her work, it can be surmised that she's an insightful artist who’s not afraid of social commentary or diving deep down into the human psyche. In that sense, her focus on big wave surfing shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s definitely a discipline that appeals to adventurous spirits. 

Her work following Garett McNamara in his quest for bigger and better challenges and on the big wave surfers of the Pacific is a testament to her artistic aspirations and skills. In addition, she’s also interested in surf culture and has a video piece on how former surfer Mary Setterholm employs the ocean as a classroom for kids from inner-city Los Angeles.

For more info about Sachi Cunningham, you can visit her website or follow her on Instagram. However, you might be disappointed to find out that she has no relation to legendary body surfer Mark Cunningham.

Margarita Salyak

In almost every history lesson around the world, the Russian state is almost synonymous with the desire to access warm seas. Although the country is still struggling in terms of that particular mission objective, Russian photographer Margarita Salyak has managed it after having her fair share of the frozen and freezing waters of Russia. Now, she’s touring tropical waters and taking wonderful, OMBE-approved surf photos. That’s surely a breath of fresh air for her, but for us as well.

The kind of photos she takes is quite varied as well. Just by taking a look at her Instagram, you might see a big rolling wave in Nazaré, Kelly Slater sitting inside a tube (yes, sitting) or at a restaurant table (again, sitting and not surfing), and beautifully shot pics of sprayed white water and sunsets. 

At OMBE, we’re avid followers of her artistic output, and so should be you. You can visit her website, purchase a couple of splendid printed and framed photos, and bring the ocean to your living room (minus its salty odors and the noise of brawling waves, of course).

Ted Grambeau

surf photographer Ted Grambeau

Australian photographer Ted Grambeau had a formal photography education at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). After putting his formal and technical knowledge into action as an assistant to lauded professionals like Burt Glinn, he embarked on his own pursuits that mostly had to do with the ocean and water. His aptly titled latest collection, SEALEVEL, is a great testament to how he managed to blend his technical knowledge of photography with an abstract understanding of the ocean.

If you’re afraid of abstract art, don’t worry; his surf photography isn’t as abstract as his ocean art. Still, his photo book, Masters of Surf Photography, chronicling many surf adventures from all across the globe as well as documenting a couple of undiscovered waves, is as enchanting and enticing as anything you might see.

Moreover, he has created a photo-narrative for children with the help of surfer Dave Rastovich: The Surfer & the Mermaid. It’s a book that focuses on everything that makes surfing beautiful while trying to inspire kids to care about the marine environment through expertly shot photos and a masterfully told story.

Unfortunately, both books are currently out of print, and that’ll be the case until Ted returns from his latest travel adventure (as his website informs us). Until then, though, you might spend some time in his Instagram profile, which threads a thin line between spectacular disaster and unearthly beauty. Grambeauty!

Lucia Griggi

Head to Lucia Griggi’s professional website, and the chance that you can find an image of the surf is quite low. Instead, you’ll probably be welcomed by a wet bear walking on the edge of a cliff, an exotic bird that decided to take a bath in some dark pond, or whales doing what whales usually do, all of which are amazingly shot pictures. Moreover, you’ll see that she has lots of photoshoots that can be categorized as travel and lifestyle. It’s fair to say that she’s had a diverse and fun career.

However, that wasn’t always the case. Before she became one of the most sought-after photographers by magazines like National Geographic or Condé Nast Traveler, she was a surf photographer who enjoyed being in the impact zone. Although surfing is now in the relatively distant history of her portfolio and at the depths of her Instagram profile, her output in the niche still remains among the best.

Luki O’Keefe

The joy of surfing isn’t limited to our time in the water, right? There’s also joy in traveling with friends and family members who are as passionate about surfing as we are. Meeting new people from all corners of the world on the common denominator that Kelly Slater is the GOAT and feeling like you belong in a great community are also two things that only surfing can bring about. 

So, we’ll take a chance on the statement that not all surf photography needs to reflect the action on the ocean. Some of it should also show the fun, joy, and passion we experience among each other as well.

That’s precisely what Luki O’Keefe does. Although she’s been in the thick of it at times, her photos that attentively capture the surf life are among the best of the genre. Her success is no surprise either because she was born to a family of sailors, fisherpeople, and surfers. She surely knows quite a bit about coastal life and its many personal and social delights.

For more info, visit her website and give her a follow on Instagram.

Wrapping Up…

Well, all these photographs, portfolios, and what they show are simply mouth-watering, don’t you think? If you just want to grab a camera, run to the shore, and start taking pictures, we certainly can’t stop you. However, we do have some advice before you go:

  • Know the ocean: Without a certain level of Ocean IQ, being a decent surf photographer is impossible. Our surf training programs might help you on this front and you can find the right one to start on here.
  • Know your equipment: In water photography and to capture the movement of a surfer precisely, your equipment has the utmost importance. Learn all about surf cameras with our guide: Best Camera for Surf Photography.

You can go get them now!

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching