When it comes to surf photography, many of us spend hours scrolling through social media, marveling at perfectly timed shots of surfers in their element. Be it a massive air, graceful noseride, or sunset silhouette, many of us credit the talent of the surfer (albeit due), sometimes leaving the photographer as a afterthought. Despite seldom having their face in front of the camera, surf photographers are athletic, brave, and incredibly talented. Case in point: Sarah Lee.
Hailing from the Aloha State, Lee is a talented surf and ocean photographer whose work has been featured in The Surfer’s Journal, SURFER Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and numerous other surf brands and publications. Here, Lee shares how she first got into photography, the gear she uses for her craft, as well as the biggest challenges of shooting underwater.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up on a coffee farm on the volcanic slopes above Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. My dad loved diving and bodysurfing in the ocean. One of my earliest memories is swimming in the water with my dad, chasing fish, and diving down as deep as I could – he would call me a “little fish.”
I started swimming fairly young – my favorite stroke was butterfly and I excelled in distance events in the pool and long distance ocean races. I enjoyed swimming much more than the land sports I tried and stuck with it up until University when surfing and my water photography really took over, alongside a major in Documentary Film Production.
Now, 29, I spend my non-travel time between Ventura, California and Kona, Hawaii and I’ve been shooting water-based photo and video content for different people and brands around the world full-time, and I am grateful for every moment of it.
How did you first get into photography?
I spent countless hours swimming in the pool as a competitive swimmer in my youth but also spent all my free time outside of school learning about video editing, web design, and graphic design. I borrowed a camera during a swim meet my freshman year of high school and it allowed me to experience what was going on around me in a much richer way. Ultimately, it gave me a sense of contributing to something beyond myself as I engaged with my surroundings and peers.
What would you say is your niche?
Anything in the water! I feel like when I’m in the water with my camera, my brain shuts down and I can get into this sort of meditative state where I am able to be with what’s in front of me – going with the flow of feeling instead of thinking.
How did growing up in Hawaii shape your style as a photographer?
Growing up in Hawaii taught me to go with the flow, tread lightly, and to make the most with what’s in front of me. I think it’s informed a more vibrant, spontaneous and casual approach to making photos. All I’m really after with my photography is celebrating the beauty of the ocean and highlighting the joy I find within who or what is around me and I think growing up in Hawaii plays a big part in that.
Which projects are you most proud of?
In 2018, I landed a cover shot for The Surfer’s Journal. It’s a photograph of a very talented longboarder and shaper, Arthur “Toots” Anchinges. I feel proud to have made a shot good enough to be on the cover of The Surfer’s Journal with someone as special as Toots.
My favorite project to date was for ESPN’s “The Body Issue” with professional female surfer, Lakey Peterson. This annual magazine features highly talented athletes of many different sports, nude. I loved this project because “The Body Issue” is all about removing the sexual nature of nudity, and instead highlighting the human form through athleticism, agility, and strength. I love collaborating with talented ocean people and Lakey was wonderful to work with on this.
What are some of the biggest challenges of shooting underwater?
There is something magical (and challenging) about being in a massive body of water with constant changes in lighting, water clarity, currents, surf, etc. It’s somewhere where you have to be completely switched on and able to adapt to anything it throws at you. Composing shots can be difficult in the water, but I like to think of it as a creative challenge. Imagine being able to move up, down, left, right, and even upside down to compose a photograph. It can be a lot smoother and sometimes faster in the water to get the angle you want since there’s not as much gravity at play.
What’s your go-to equipment when shooting?
Currently, it’s a Canon 5D MKIV, Canon 24-105mm, Aquatech Housing, and Dafin Fins.
How does your gear vary based on what you’re shooting?
I go between a full-frame Canon 5Ds and a Canon 5D mkIV, depending on what I’m shooting. I’ve been using a 14mm wide-angle lens for underwater, 24-105mm when I’m mixing top-side and underwater, 50mm for topside sunset shots, and 70-200mm f/4 for surf action. I go between an Aquatech surf housing and an Outex water cover.
Other than camera gear, I rely on Dafin body surfing fins to get around in the water, a free dive mask for anything underwater, MANDA sun paste to keep my skin protected, and occasionally a weight belt in non-surf situations to sink down to desired depths without much exertion.
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