Photography • Inspiration Chasing Waves

Surf photographer Fran Miller is making a splash.

Photography • Inspiration Chasing Waves

Surf photographer Fran Miller is making a splash.

When Fran Miller was in her twenties, she came down with a virus.

It wasn’t a bad one, but it did prevent her from dashing into the waves with her surfboarding friends. She spent a summer sitting alone on the northern beaches of Sydney, feeling disconnected from the surf culture she adored. 

Then she picked up a camera.

“I tried to re-create the pictures I saw in magazines,” she recalls. “Surfing magazines were the holy grail; they were a window to another world. I dreamed of being on a tropical island, photographing waves and surfers for a magazine.” 

The virus left, but the dream remained.

Surf photographer Fran Miller
Surf photographer Fran Miller

CHASING WAVES

Miller embarked on a journey to become a professional surf photographer. She traveled all over Australia, Indonesia, and Canada’s Vancouver Island, following meteorological charts to find the biggest waves and the most dramatic pictures.

These days, Miller, 33, is one of the world’s most revered surf photographers—a “magician behind the lens” according to Redbull.com. You’ll frequently find her racing into the surf, clutching a mirrorless Canon locked in waterproof housing, and you can find her work hanging in major Australian art exhibitions, in Ralph Lauren stores, in Wyndham hotels, and in private collections around the world. Legendary surf brands including Billabong, Reef, and Roxy vie for her pictures—immersive images that capture surf culture the way only a real surfer can: standing chin-deep in the sea.

“There’s a lot more intensity and emotion when shooting from the water,” she told Curl magazine in a 2017 profile. “You’re surrounded by the energy of waves and the energy of the surfer, and I think that translates into the feelings in my photos.”

A selection of work by Fran Miller

But Miller wasn’t an overnight success.

“The challenges have been numerous,” she  says. “On a fundamental level, there’s the challenge of the ocean, dealing with such a wild energy force. It’s a life-and-death situation.” There have been other setbacks, like racing to buy the magazine featuring her first cover shot, only to find her picture replaced at the last minute, and breaking her waterproof housing and losing a painfully expensive camera to the sea. “My life’s savings just disappeared in front of my eyes,” she recalls. Then there are the sharks.

“Some people say you should stare sharks in the eye or go under water and act like the alpha,” she laughs. One time a shark gatecrashed one of Miller’s shoots on the Gold Coast. She saw it swimming toward her and the surfer she was shooting. “So we dived under the water, and it swam away to wherever it was coming from,” she recalls. “When a shark actually attacks a person, my understanding is that you don’t have a moment to react. You’ve been, like, selected by the predator.”

Fran Miller, surf photographer

“As a female photographer, I’m also dealing with a lot of the battles of an industry that has been predominantly male-focused.” But the tide is changing, says Miller. “I’d say in the last five or ten years, you’re starting to see women infiltrate those upper echelons [of the surfing industry].”

Digital technology has allowed Miller to push her art to the next level. “My retouching process is fast,” she explains. “I use Lightroom. I retouch in Photoshop. I’m not deleting people or things like that, but I do absolutely utilize the advantages of the digital world to look at every single image.” 

Download Fran Miller’s Free Lightroom Presets

Night Ocean 

Miller says: “This is a useful preset designed for capturing the intricate details of a wave at nightfall. Long-exposure photography for waves gives a smooth and silky appearance. Night Ocean highlights the spray of the wave while showcasing the lines that run up the face of the wave, helping to avoid the muted look that can often accompany a longer night exposure.”

BEFORE

AFTER

Left Sunshine 

Miller says: “In the surf, camera settings can be difficult to change inside the water housing. So I created Left Sunshine to manage bright light that’s coming from left of view as a surfer moves into the frame.” 

BEFORE

AFTER

NAVIGATING THE CURRENTS

For many young surfers, photography may seem like a dream occupation, a gateway to a glamorous world of sunshine, international travel, and excitement. But it all begins long before you press the shutter, says Miller. “If you want to proceed with surf photography, learn about the ocean,” she warns. “Spend every spare minute you can swimming, surfing, watching the ocean, and reading about how tides and currents and waves work, and build that experience.” 

This month, Miller is proud to unveil her first book, Dandy Savage, which documents an exploration of self that took place on a boat journey in Papua New Guinea. It will be exhibited at the prestigious The Walls gallery in Australia. But today, due to a different type of virus, Covid-19, Miller is once again sidelined from the surfing action. She is practicing social distancing, watching the waves break on the Gold Coast, far away from others.

She can’t wait to dive back in.

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