Photos take us back to the best surfing experiences we’ve had, the biggest barrels we’ve seen, and the most stunning places we’ve ever been to. They can be the visual representations of our dreams, or a reminder of the surfers we aspire to be.
Looking at a photograph is one thing, but capturing it is a different story. When it comes to surf photography, the basic ‘point and shoot’ won’t cut it. Surf photographers dedicate their time and energy to capture the most breathtaking photos worthy of being on the front cover of magazines.
Out of the thousands of surf photographers in the world, who are the best ones that have caught your attention? Whose photos inspired you to surf the coasts of Hawaii, or perhaps discover the beauty of the black sand beaches in Iceland?
In this article, we’ve curated 10 of the best surf photographers in the world (in no particular order), along with their career journey and most notable achievements.
Top 10 Best Surf Photographers
#1: Leroy Grannis
SIMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2002), #1 Lensman of International Surfing Hall of Fame (1966)
The best of the best, we pay tribute to the ‘Godfather of Surf Photography’ — Leroy Grannis.
Leroy Grannis is a surf photographer veteran who’s well-known for capturing the essence of the beach and surf culture during the 1960s. Most of the popular photos from the golden age of surfing were taken by him, and a lot of them also appeared in multiple magazines such as Surfer, and Reef and Surfing Illustrated.
Having grown up in Hermosa Beach in California, Leroy has already learned the ways of surfing long before he became a photographer. He competed as a surfer and paddler in the ’30s, then started his photography career as an assistant photographer for surfing competitions shortly after. In his tenure, he realized that no matter how expensive a camera is, if the photographer isn’t a surfer, they won’t be able to produce good surf pictures.
Leroy’s photography style uses slow, low-contrast, and fine-grain film — which is pretty uncommon for photos during that time. Later on in his career, he developed a waterproof surfboard-mounted camera with the use of wood with a lens opening. In an interview with Juice Magazine, he shared,
“I could shoot with the camera bare, in the water. If a wave did come, I could close the box up and it was waterproof. That way I could change the film out in the water and I didn’t have to come in with the water box like the other guys did.”
#2: Chris Burkard
Awards: Salt Surf Photo Contest in Land Category (2016), 2nd Place Winner of The World Open of Photography (2012), Red Bull Illume Award (2010)
One look at a photo and you’ll know that it’s from Chris Burkard. Truly, this artist has created his brand in the world of surfing photography by shooting raw landscapes and diverse environments combined with the beauty of athletics. With over 3 million followers on social media, he’s become an inspiration for many surfers and photographers internationally.
Burkard’s photography style is by connecting with his audience. He doesn’t just show you places, he wants to bring you into them. He wants you to explore a certain place through his photo, even if you’ve never been there. This is why he doesn’t want to shoot famous surfers or take pictures of tourist trails. He wants to explore and show the people the flip side of outdoor travel, surfing, and adventure.
Chris started with his dream of becoming a visual storyteller at the age of 19. Without formal training, he jump-started his photography career by taking photos of other surfers and shooting weddings. After that, he became an apprentice of Michael Fatali (landscape photographer) and then took an internship with Transworld Surf Magazine where he experienced and learned all the facets of the industry.
Today, Chris isn’t just a photographer — he’s also a speaker, a director, and an author. Mostly, he’s a surfer by heart, that’s why he always brings with him a pair of boardshorts and fins in his travels.
In his interview with National Geographic, he shared the best part of his job,
“Photos are like the best journal you could ever have of your life. That’s what pushes me to work hard, the idea that photos allow people to escape.”
#3: Clark Little
Awards: Nikon Ambassador (2015,2016), Ocean Photography Award presented at the Smithsonian Museum (2011), Photograph of the Year, People’s Choice Award – Geo Magazine (2009)
Bright and crisp tropical colors reflecting through the waters — this is the trademark of Clark Little, North Shore’s most famous wave photographer. He shows people a surfer’s perspective from inside the barrels and shore breaks, something that non-surfers don’t usually see from afar.
There’s no denying that Clark is world-famous, but before all that, he was also once a regular surfer in Hawaii. His career started when he bought a waterproof camera to take photos of the waves for his wife’s bedroom decor, then realized he’s got the knack for photography. He then started selling the pictures on his website, and later on to small galleries. His big break came when he got interviewed in top morning shows.
Aside from taking photos of the extreme waves of North Shore, Clark also enjoys exploring and capturing photographs of turtles and sharks from inside a cage. In a short video for Nikon, he shared,
“It’s that sunset that’s just so ripe and red and orange and yellow… I’m always chasing that perfect wave when all the elements come together.”
#4: Aaron Chang
Awards: APEX Award of Excellence (2018), Top 5 Sports Photographer in American Photographer Magazine (1985)
Known as the ‘The Creator of Modern Surf Photography’, Aaron Chang is one of the early photographers to use cameras in the water. He also paved the way when it comes to using wide-angle lenses in shooting barrel waves.
Aaron learned surfing at the age of 12. By 18, he started his photography career by taking photos of tourists in Waikiki and making a business out of it. A couple of years after that, he would then become the Senior Photographer of Surfing Magazine for more than 25 years covering water sports and travel documentaries.
One of Aaron’s most famous works is the Bonzai Pipeline that was taken in Oahu, Hawaii in 2008. Throughout his career, his photographs became the covers of 100 magazines, including the 37 covers he produced for Surfing Magazine. When asked in an interview about what’s unique about his photos, he answered,
“The perspective comes from the understanding of the core of surfing and action sports. The execution involves pushing the parameters of what’s possible in the digital medium. The result is fresh and inspirational.”
#5: Christa Funk
Awards: World Nature Photography 1st Place (2020), Chromatic Awards 1st Place (2020)
In the world of surf photography where men mostly stand out, Christa Funk is one of the only few women who braved capturing photographs of the Pipeline.
Christa started her career as a competitive swimmer. After that, she attended the Coast Guard Academy to take up science classes. She was then assigned to Hawaii where she grabbed the opportunity to learn surfing.
Christa took an interest and decided to pursue surf photography shortly after. She wanted to share photographs that tell stories, and to let other people explore through her camera. According to her, the best photos she has are the ones that are least expected — the ones where the diving locations were murky and those last-minute photos that she almost missed. In one of her interviews, she advised fellow women surf photographers,
“Don’t worry about being a woman. Earn respect with hard work and dedication. Fearlessly submit your work: The worst someone can tell you is no.”
#6: Stu Gibson
Awards: Nikon Surf Photo of the Year (2019)
Stu or Stuart Gibson may not have the seniority when it comes to surf photography experience, but that doesn’t mean he’s the least on this lineup. This Tasmanian-based photographer is one of the rising stars of this generation, and his award for the ‘Surf Photo of the Year’ from Nikon is proof of that.
Stu’s love for photography started when he was young. As a child with a disposable camera, he used to shoot videos of his brother skating. His professional career, however, started by accident when he borrowed his friend’s Canon EOS 35mm and was astonished by the crisp and vibrant colors it produced.
Gibson’s photography and videography focus on the beauty and powerful waves of Shipstern Bluff. He also specializes in aerial stills and shooting using wide lenses. He shared,
“The waves of Shipstern Bluff come from a really deep ocean, they create these raw and powerful waves like nothing else in the state. I think the best way to photograph it is being in the water, in the waves, with really wide lenses and water housing, and getting just amongst the power of the place.”
#7: Tim Mckenna
Achievements: Black & White Spider Awards in Underwater Category Nominee, Featured in Red Bull Illume
Tim Mckenna is well-known for action sports photography. He’s photographed more than a thousand stills of extreme sports— from surfing to rock climbing, and motocross to snowboarding. His photos have graced multiple covers of magazines, publications, and book collections. He’s also produced and published his own book that tells his story about capturing the legendary waves of Teahupoo on the Tahitian coast.
In his 20-year career, Tim was a sworn nomad and traveler. He has surfed in all seven seas and explored the mountains of Mongolia. Today, he’s living with his family on a quiet island in Tahiti capturing the beauty of Polynesian people and their culture.
In an interview for Daily Salt, he shared and advice for aspiring photographers,
“Be patient, very patient and try to anticipate where the good shots are going to happen. Enjoy yourself and connect with nature.”
#8: Morgan Maasen
Awards: Olympus Pro Photographer Showdown Finalist (2014), Red Bull Illume ‘Lifestyle’ and ‘Athlete’s Choice’ Winner (2013), Follow The Light Grant Recipient (2010)
Morgan Maasen is living proof that age is just a number when it comes to building a career in surf photography and filmmaking. Growing up near the ocean, he started filming with a family camcorder at the early age of 13, then began shooting photographs to accompany his videos when he turned 18.
At such a young age, he’s already worked with major companies creating advertisements and campaigns for Apple, Esquire, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic.
Morgan wears many hats, that’s why he’s often caught in a crossroads whether to film or capture stills of moments. His work focuses on travel, surfing, and lifestyle, while his photography style consists of combining light, textures, and nature with human elements. In an interview, he shares his life motto,
“Take just a photo, leave just a footprint.”
#9: Todd Glaser
Awards: Surfer Magazine Photo of the Year (2009), Follow The Light Foundation Grant Winner (2008)
Being a surf photographer is a fulfilling career, more so if the person behind the lens also shares a love for the waves. The next on our list is the California-based photographer — Todd Glaser, who’s also an environmental activist collaborating with different organizations to protect our oceans.
Todd has been capturing surf waves for 10 years, and he has appeared in different publications such as The New York Times and Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in D.C. He’s also traveled the world with some of the best surfers and the world champions.
Todd considers himself as an artist, and for his medium, his camera. He wants to share the beauty of the ocean through his photos. He also believes that in order to come up with a good surf photograph, a photographer must be able to understand the light and their subject, then to always anticipate for the ‘peak’ moment to arrive.
“For me, my passion for making images underwater really has to do with the way that I view surfing. There’s so much noise above water, that soon you submerge your head underwater, time slows down.”
#10: Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig
Award: Follow the Light Foundation (2014)
Although Ryan ‘Chachi’ Craig took up photography in college, there was no particular moment that pushed him to pursue his surf photography career. In fact, he considers himself a late bloomer. He first got his camera at the age of 21, and armed with passion, he traveled the world after college to learn more about photography and take his photos home to share with his family.
After his explorations, Ryan developed his unique photography style of embodying the foreground and background of his photo with powerful lighting. His works can be seen in different publications, especially in Surfer Magazine where he also works in. In one of his interviews, he shared,
“Photography is an absolute passion, and it’s exciting to think about the possibilities in the future.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Who are the most popular surf photographers?
There are many surf photographers in the world, and they possess different photography styles and techniques. During the golden age of surfing (1960’s), Leroy Grannis is the most popular photographer. Today, Chris Burkard is hailed as one of the bests in the industry.