Film Photography and Surf Culture: A Love Story


Anyone who has learned to surf will know how frustratingly difficult it is at times, how it can take years to get good and requires an insanely high level of patience. These are all things also associated with film photography. But they are very general comparisons. On paper the two disciplines are not so similar. As photographers most of us try to keep our cameras on dry land and our adrenaline levels low (or at least low enough to press the shutter button without our hands shaking like mad.) But the more you look the more you see the ways in which surfing and film photography are intrinsically linked.

Credits: dede_dos & mayprodrigo

The oldest photo found of a surfer dates back to 1890. The photographer is unknown but the picture itself shows a Hawaiian man, standing at the shore’s edge, holding his board behind his back. The idea that trail-blazers like this man were riding waves while Queen Victoria was on the English throne is hard to wrap your head around. But here’s the proof, thanks to some brave anonymous soul who dragged their primitive camera into the shallows of the Haiwaiian coast.

First known photo of a surfer. Hawaii, 1890. (Frank Davey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

For a century after that surfing was captured on film. In 1930 the surfer, writer and all-round innovator Tom Blake, invented the first waterproof housing, opening up a whole new world of possibilities not only for surf photography but underwater photography in general.

And as the 20th century progressed more innovations were made. Nikon and Canon started producing lightweight 35 mm SLRs in the sixties, which allowed photographers like Don James, and Leroy Grannis to get even deeper (literally) into their craft and capture the action up close. These photographers published their work in increasingly popular surf magazines.

Things continued just like this for decades, with surfing enthusiasts pushing the boundaries of photography, and photography in turn propelling the popularity of the sport into the mainstream.

Tracks Magazine cover. Issue 112. January, 1980.

In the early 2000s technological advancements led to the first digital cameras making it into the water, replacing old analogue favorites like the Nikonos range. And at the same time, with the rise of the internet came the decline of print magazines. Though some publications clung on for a long time (Surfer Magazine officially shut up shop only in 2020) without these magazines the life of a surf photographer was undoubtedly less glamorous and lucrative than it once had been.

But of course none of this meant that surf photography went away, or even slowed down for a second. Professional photographers and hobbyists alike are still taking to the water to capture surfing in all its exhilarating glory, and not only on digital cameras, but also surprisingly frequently on film.

Credits: shmason, outside, dede_dos, annabellepicot, wil6ka, igotthechop, grazie, lomomowlem, needle76, mayprodrigo & akio_nakai

So what keeps so many surf photographers using film today? Surfer and Lomographer @monardinho captures surfing on film from Uruguay. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:

“As two of my passions I see similarities [. . .] Sometimes you see how the light hits perfectly on a spot to take that picture you have been waiting for. I experience that when a swell comes to the coast, hits the beach and the wind helps those waves to shape perfectly. When these two situation mix together that means the waves are perfect and the light hits it perfect, as a surfer who likes to shoot film that’s a dreamy scenario.”
Credits: monardinho

Simon Powell, AKA @charliedontsurf, also takes stunning experimental surf photography in Cornwall, UK. As someone who has been both surfing and shooting film since he was a teenager in the 80s, Simon is acutely aware of the ebbing and flowing trends that effect both of his passions.

“Surfing is very much fashion driven, just as I think the current interest in film photography is somewhat led by fashion trends. Most surfers, at least those that have been doing it a while, are very aware of the past. Currently there is a huge interest in vintage surfboards, either originals or modern replicas. [. . .] There is a curiosity amongst surfers to experience how it feels to ride boards from the 60s and 70s just like there is amongst film photographers to try out ancient cameras and lenses. I think a lot of people attracted to these hobbies are individuals who don't necessarily want to follow the crowd.”
“I forget how niche film photography is really, I've got immersed in this community and think it's such a big thing but I rarely see anyone shooting film where I live, in fact I don't know anyone else who does other than my friends on Lomography and those who I have met and bonded with on other sites like Flickr.”
Credits: charliedontsurf

US based Lomographer @zairre offers his opinion on the similarities between the two skills and why similar personality types are drawn to both hobbies. Although he’s not a surfer, he’s not surprised by the infinity between surfing and film photography.

“I can see the two skills attracting the same kind of person. Everyone I know that shoots film is chill and the same goes for everyone I know that surfs."
"Both bring the same kind of buildup of excitement and also the same kind of defeat. Some days the swell is bad and you don’t catch a wave and some days you shoot a whole roll of no keepers. . .”
Credits: zairre

This sentiment was echoed, in different ways, by every single person I spoke to about the subject. There are clearly many similarities but the most common one seems to be that surfers, like film photographers, are obsessives. They spend their lives chasing that perfect wave, the way photographers chase a perfect picture. It’s all about capturing that one unmatched moment in time, and in this way the two disciplines compliment each other perfectly. Here's to many more years of a beautiful bond.

Thank you to all the Lomographers who contributed their photos and words to this article. Do you have a passion that you like to combine with your film photography? Let us know in the comments.

written by alexgray on 2022-08-14 #culture #surfing #surf #hawaii #1960s #1970s #nikonos #leroy-grannis #surf-culture #tom-blake #don-james #vintage-aesthetic


  1. lomodesbro
    lomodesbro ·

    Great to see surfing covered by our Lomographers. I once stood up for 15 seconds on a hire long board At Waikiki Beach. in 1965 . I'll never forget it.

  2. zairre
    zairre ·

    @lomodesbro that’s actually so cool that my surfboard experience is exactly that in 2014
    Same place

  3. rolfmg
    rolfmg ·

    Great article with stunning shots - I am impressed with @lomodesbro I never managed longer than 10 seconds....(in Peniche/Portugal).

  4. monardinho
    monardinho ·

    thanks for the space, im up to give some lessons and share some waves. @rolfmg @zairre @lomodesbro

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