What is it that we like so much about looking at photos of waves and of people riding them? Why is it that some photos stick in our minds while others are so disposable and easily forgotten?
I'll take you through some of my thoughts on this, along with some of my favorite work from master surf photographers from over the years.
For me, a great surf photo should have a quality wave in it. The size doesn't matter, but it should be clean and make you want to surf it (or at least mind surf it if it's out of your league).
Peak action can also make a shot great: Timeless style in a pitching barrel, a huge carve on a clean wave face, throwing buckets of water when busting the fins above the lip of the wave, or a balanced air meters above the lip. These all have potential for a memorable, classic photo.
There is certainly no specific formula, though. A perfect wave and perfect maneuver often aren't enough.
This is where the typical "surf porn" shot comes into play. A zoomed in and front lit shot of a wave or maneuver, no matter how good it is, will start to look just like so many others that you've seen. With cameras shooting 10 frames per second and trigger happy photographers holding down the shutter for entire rides, we all have looked at plenty of forgettable surf photos.
So why do some photos stick out? When you look past the quality of the wave and the action, there is a deeper quality that makes a difference. The magic comes out when light and perspective come together to meet the wave and/or action in a decisive moment.
The subtitles, emotion, or even just a point of view that you don't often see are what's important -- Fingers in the lip of a wave, a different view of a wave you've seen hundreds of photos of, the face of a big wave surfer pushing the limits.
Some photographers who I consider the best at this are: Morgan Maassen, Patrick Trefz, Chris Burkard, and Ron Stoner. There are certainly plenty of others, these are just the first that came to mind. Here are a few of their photos, along with a few others.
Can you think of certain photos that stand out as memorable favorites, even after the thousands or tens of thousands of surf photos you've seen over the years?