Capturing The Essence Of Surf Photography: Insights From An Ocean Documentarian

Capturing The Essence Of Surf Photography: Insights From An Ocean Documentarian

In our exclusive interview with surf photographer Phillip Hernandez, he shares his journey from urban landscapes to capturing the beauty and action of surfing. Hernandez parallels his former fine-art work in Washington, D.C., and his current passion for ocean scapes. He emphasizes the significance of lighting in his career, which dictates his approach to each session. To delve deeper into his work and process, Hernandez shares behind-the-scenes shots, equipment visuals, and videos from his YouTube channel. He also offers high-resolution images that showcase his unique style and the essence of surf photography. 

Check out our interview with him below... 

Can you explain the technical aspects of surf photography? What camera settings do you typically use to capture the action and beauty of surfing?

Before I started focusing on surf photography and ocean-scapes, my work centered around urban landscapes and street. I'm originally from the Washington, D.C. area Oculoire so I was fortunate enough to experience the city's beauty through the gamut of conditions that helped me hone my craft as a documentarian. It might seem like a stretch, but I actually see a lot of parallels in my work around the ocean and my former fine-art work around that east coast city. While I'm always chasing that image of a surfer standing tall in an immaculately shaped and lit barrel, I'm always keen to deploy my street photography mind to capture fleeting moments and unique compositions. Regardless of whether your subjects are between looming city skylines or relentless sets of heavy water, the lighting will dictate my approach to a session. If we break it down into the technical details, when I'm shooting from the water in my camera housing, I like to be in aperture priority between F4-F8--ensuring that the majority of my composition will be in focus. I prefer to keep my ISO well under 6400 and when possible, my shutter speed above 1/250th of a second. Again, I like to apply my street photography style to my surf-focused work. I'm not the best at zone focusing. So when you are dealing with surfers zipping by and fast moving water, I heavily rely on continuous auto-focus--something my primary camera isn't well known for--I like it as a challenge and am always pleased with the results despite having an unorthodox camera choice to practice what most would consider as sports photography. 

The choice of gear is crucial in surf photography. What equipment do you typically use, from cameras and lenses to waterproof housings or other accessories? How do these tools help you capture the best surf shots?

I'll start with my feet--since I shoot in water, I need extra speed to move back and forth between sections of waves. I use the DaFins. After several close calls this past year with some inexperienced surfers, I've since added a Gath helmet to my arsenal of goods--gotta protect the real money maker.

My Leica Q2--my primary workhorse--is paired with my Essex Waterhousing--it is bright yellow and very hard to miss. (Here is my video on this housing.) There isn't access to the aperture ring or the focus tab--so after I check lighting conditions, I'll preset my aperture and place it in the housing. Controls to the touch LCD, camera back, and top controls are through a flexible silicon material. Since my exposure settings and metering are preset, I tend not to fuss with the camera after it has been secured in the housing. It keeps me honest and allows me to focus on composing with intention. 

I've added Aquatech's AxisGo line of housings for my iphone 13--this is mostly for fun and for taking videos while out with friends. It has a dome port that has allowed me to experiment with over-under in-water shots. Hoping to add more Aquatech gear to my equipment since I've got my eyes on their Leica gear.

I always keep clean water in my car/with my gear--salt water is the enemy! I'm diligent in cleaning my gear between outings, so fresh water is a must. A wet-dry bag to keep everything contained is also always in my gear. 

Currently, my favorite wetsuit is this green wetsuit top from the Seager collaboration with Matuse--it kept me very warm on dives out during my past trip to Fiji. I don't love wetsuits and would prefer a tropical setting...but my 3/2mm Dante from Matuse is also the best wetsuit I've ever owned. Being warm is more important when you are submerged in the water vs when you are sitting on top of your surfboard--so a proper suit like one from Matuse will always be in my gear. 

Are there any specific techniques or tips you can share for aspiring surf photographers who want to improve their skills and capture stunning images?

Could you provide some behind-the-scenes insights into your workflow as a surf photographer? How do you prepare for a shoot, select your locations, and anticipate the best moments to capture?

It is all about conditions. When I first started out, I thought that being consistent meant just showing up and getting in the water. That should hold true for anyone starting out on any new endeavor--surfing, photography, or otherwise. In order to progress, I knew I had to put myself in the conditions that would help me push my own boundaries--bigger, faster waves; stronger currents; harsher or lacking lighting. I can't say that is good advice...but know your limits if you are just starting out and trust your gut when it comes to conditions. If your focus is in-water shooting then learn surf lineup etiquette and focus on building your skills in the water--focus on exercises that help both your surfing and swimming skills. Being overprepared is the best way to improve in dynamic conditions. The same holds true for your gear and photography skills--you can't find yourself fumbling on the settings when the light changes, especially when other people's safety is involved--so know your gear like the back of your hand. Just like surfing--practice on smaller days with people you know, in conditions that aren't overwhelming. 

When it comes to preparation--we are always keeping an eye on the conditions and constantly talking about the weather, looking at swell/wind charts that affect southern California. Usually, I'll get a DM/text on a heads up of where it might be firing for the week. If I'm not already booked to do a session, then I'll figuratively toss a coin on whether to surf or shoot--I often try to do both. Surfing beforehand lets me know what the water is/or might be doing by the time I break out my cameras. 

If I'm booked for a private session, my strategy will vary depending on the surfers' skill levels. I opt for more portraiture and lifestyle photographs for those who are less confident in the water. For my friends and clients who absolutely shred, I let them sort of take the lead--usually I watch them catch a few waves, learn where and how they like to take off. Then it is up to me to ensure I'm moving to the right spot to get the shot.  

My only real technique tip--you gotta lick certain lens ports in order to keep the water from beading up between shots. Best not to make eye contact while you do that...

Surfing is often associated with freedom, adventure, and natural beauty. How do you try to convey these emotions and elements through your photographs?

Like you mention, surfing means so many things to different people--for myself, there is something therapeutic about being in the water that really puts a lot of things into perspective. My approach to life has been all about balance--finding the common ground between cultivating joy and being disciplined enough to reflect on those joyful moments. When I'm in the water, I get to experience this balance on a different scale: the juxtaposition of the water's inherent beauty against moments of raw power. In my imagery, I try to set a tone by sharing  both quiet moments and the unadulterated stoke that we get when the conditions are firing

We would love to include some behind-the-scenes shots, images of the equipment you use, and any videos you have captured during your surf photography sessions. Can you provide us with some visuals that showcase your work and process?

I've actually been working this year on building my youtube channel around this very topic. Some of my videos feature my current gear and some brief overview of how I manage the process. Let me know if I can provide anything else!



Finally, we would like to feature some of your surf photographs in the article. Can you share a few high-resolution images that represent your unique style and the essence of surf photography?

Dropping the same link here that includes some of my recent work:



 Surf photography often occurs in challenging conditions, such as unpredictable waves and fast movements. What challenges do you face as a surf photographer, and how do you overcome them?

Like surfing itself, I'm caught between managing my developing skills against the unpredictable behavior of the ocean. It takes a high level of patience and persistence. Right when you feel you've anticipated the perfect moment and studied the conditions, things can change quickly--maybe the peaks are shifting and the spot you've staked is now a danger zone. Maybe you've studied the waves your subject is usually taking, and they've decided to not take off deep enough for a sequence. Surf photography in my style is about submitting to the conditions but committing to the composition. 

We also have plenty of tools in the modern arsenal, when it comes to digital photography. AF-C continuous autofocus and burst modes are certainly handy when eyeing down fast subjects. We can lock our metering for consistency against harsh lighting. But I can only rely on these if the rest of my abilities as a waterman are equivocally as masterful. A good pair of fins and time spent in the water certainly helps. For both surfing and surf photography, overcoming the dynamic challenges presented by the ocean comes down to long term experience and time--ensuring we can match the physical demands of being in the water to the limits of our equipment. 

One day, I'd like the luxury of shooting from a jetski--impact surf vest et al :)

What are the advantages and disadvantages of shooting surf photography compared to other genres? How does it differ regarding skill, patience, and equipment required?

 There might not be many disadvantages, apart from the possibility of losing your precious gear to the salty drink. The wanderlust is strong and maybe the most compelling when it comes to surf travel--it can be pretty demoralizing to know there is a swell pushing through that might only be a quick plane ride away, but I'm not yet in the position to pull off a strike mission without significant planning. 

Like I mentioned, your skills in the water will largely dictate your ability to compose. My experience with reading waves has certainly improved thanks to in-water photography and from spending hours just observing through the lens. If I happen to be yards away from where I want to start my sequence, I'm still confident enough to make the shot because I have decades of experience swimming in the ocean. 

Patience--I didn't always have this or at least, it is something that the ocean has gifted back to me. I'm often stoic in situations that others deem stressful, especially in my professional career or in group settings. I use that stoicism in the water as a tool. The majority of us who do shoot from the water, no matter how experienced, are always somewhat weary of what could be lurking beneath or of waves that could be more than we could handle. Facing these sorts of fears head on allows you to have a deeper understanding and connection to the ocean and the subjects in your photographs. Over time, that stoicism builds into patience--the patience to wait through long lulls of time between sets, the patience to wait for the light to hit the water at the right moment, the patience to overcome long hold downs in heavy waves. Patience and stoicism go hand in hand--whether you are surfing or taking photographs from the water--because they drown out the noise of panic. This helped in building my style and compositions--certainly an advantage of experience and sheer will.  

To shoot from the water, aquatic housings be seen as disadvantageous--they require considerable maintenance, and there is always the fear of equipment failure due to water exposure. I also shoot with the Leica Q2, primarily--this is a rather unorthodox choice. The contrast detect autofocus is not nearly as fast as some of the more common choices from photographers in this field. Having a wider, fixed lens means that I need to get very close to my subject in order to compose more compelling work. However, the perspective I get from the fixed lens allows me to continue focusing on contextual and storytelling compositions that are in line with my own personal photography/documentarian style. There are often times when I wish I had more compression or reach for portraiture--I may add a Leica Sl2/SL2-S in the near feature to cover the range beyond my 28mm Summicron lens. 


Can you share some memorable experiences or stories from your surf photography adventures? Any particular moments that stand out to you?

In 2018, I was able to visit my friend Adrian Marin who was living in Baler, La Union of the Philippines--a sort of sleepy surf-town--idyllic for longboarders. That was also around the time that I felt my surfing would improve through photography. I started out with a Nikonos V and several rolls of Fujifilm Pro 400. After that trip I was hooked, and I've been chasing the sort of same visions from that trip ever since. The trip in total was somewhat symbolic--Adrian and I both went to highschool in Washington, D.C. and somehow seemingly picked up surfing around the same time in our younger adult lives. Chasing surf and being in the water has offered forms of therapy for us both. Although he had moved to the Philippines and I landed myself in California--every time I get in the water, it is like we are doing our best to send each other some positive energy from across the Pacific ocean. 

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