I don’t like rules and I don’t like boring.
I first met Fran Miller on the slopes of Perisher ski resort a few years back. She had a strong backside 180. Her photography skills were immediately apparent when she passed her iPhone to Billabong’s Sarah O’Brien with the strictest of direction. Sarah got the shot. Fran was relieved. We did more snowboarding and chatted about surfing. It was a good day.
Fast forward three years and Fran Miller is front and centre of women’s surfing. Her photos are blowing social news feeds of wave lovers the world over. Always one to follow on Instagram, she has recently held exhibitions in New York, had her work shared by the World Surf League, and was awarded the cover of Curl Mag’s spring 2016 issue. Basically, Fran is straight up killing it!
Inspired by our hugely successful series on the world’s best female action sports photographers, I wanted to catch up with Fran about her approach to surf photography. She has a unique style and captures female surfing so beautifully. As one photographer to another, I also wanted to know her kit, tricks and tips ;-)
Fran Miller on getting started.
I first picked up a camera when I was just a kid. I learnt to surf at a beach called Woonona which is south of Sydney, and I was always trying to take photos of surfing and the ocean around there from when I was very young. As I got older, my sister was already passionately shooting with SLR cameras, so I had access to her equipment from a young age.
I was lucky enough to travel a lot through my teenage years as part of the Australian snowboard team, so I was constantly shooting photos as well as getting an introduction to the extreme sports industry. By the time I was 14, I was the subject to professional photographers and going on shoots for sponsors, so I learned a lot about the process there. They were all shooting on film at the time, putting shots into slides and having editors look at them under light boxes.
I never trained formally, but had the luck of having a close friend who is a media producer at the ABC take me under her wing and teach me the technical skills of shooting. In terms of getting into the water though, it was a pure test of trial and error. Having surfed my whole life, I knew where I needed to be to get photos, but learning how to manage a housing was a long process.
On developing that unique surf photography style.
Travelling with the herd is safe, but what progress is there in that? My mind desires more.
I don’t like rules and I don’t like boring. Simply, I take photos I want to see. The photos I take, I want to be excited and interested by. Although I shoot commercially, I find it to be a very restricted creative process.
My passion lies in creating images I have never seen. I am massively influenced by art and poetry. My goal is to construct visual elements that are emotive and captivating. Sometimes there can be much of the sameness in photographs. If you took a few different artists and told them to paint a portrait of a person, you might get anything from Picasso’s Weeping Woman to Titian’s Flora. Though distinctly different, it’s still a picture of a lady. I’m still shooting surfing, but looking to encapsulate the total compass of visual elements available to me, and to not be restricted by any set standards or expectations of what surfing should appear like. Travelling with the herd is safe, but what progress is there in that? My mind desires more.
On her preferred photography equipment.
My go to piece is the original Canon 7d. Old faithful. I have been using the same model over the last half decade. I use it to shoot close to everything in water. I just started using the Sony A series cameras too. They are so small and compact because they are mirrorless. I’m not sure how I feel about using them yet though. I can operate my 7d with my eyes closed so it’s been a tough transition.
On working with the top female surfers.
Surfing is a small community, and you all see what other people are doing and who they are shooting with. I started on the grind shooting everyone in the water. Surfers are hungry for content and always want to see what you get. Fortunately, I seemed to have an eye for it and was able to create content that many of the top ladies liked.
Once I started working with a few high quality surfers, it evolved organically as my content started reaching out across the world. I think I had something like 12 of the top 17 Women’s WSL World Tour surfers use my photographs this year and multiple tens of millions of interactions on content globally. That’s not to mention the longboard scene where I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several World Champions amongst other highly regarded, non-competitive longboarders.
In the end, it all comes about from working hard, and perhaps, I would say, being an easy person to get along with. I’m just as happy to have an orange juice with a world tour athlete as I am an orange juice and vodka with a free-surfer.
On developing a relationship with your subject.
No one wants to spend their time with a shit human.
It is immensely important to have good relationships with your subjects. No one wants to spend their time with a shit human. Getting a photo often involves much more than just being in the water and pressing a button. You have to conceptualise what you are shooting. You have to travel to different locations. Sometimes you are spending 24/7 with your subjects, through sickness and health. You really get to know the people you work with.
With creative freedom often comes from having a trusting relationship with your subject. They trust that you are going to create quality content, and thus, give me the space and freedom to do that. Sometimes you are telling your subject to go stand somewhere, or pose somehow. One time I sent Ivy (Thomas) walking across a sand dune for a mile. Torture to some, but Ivy just nodded and started walking. When she got back, the photos were stunning. Without that trust, someone might just look at you like you are crazy. Or worse, I might feel like I can’t ask the person to do things out of the ordinary if I don’t feel comfortable with them.
On the inspiring qualities of women’s surfing.
There are so many facets of women’s surfing that inspire me. First and foremost, as a female surfer myself, I am seeing what other women are capable of achieving. I am deeply connected to the process of progress, whether it is physical or mental. Did you just see the floater that Courtney Conlogue did in Portugal? It was incredible, and a testament to power and strength. It makes me think, maybe I could get a little fitter haha. Or when you see Kassia Meador switch cheater five at Malibu, I’m thinking, maybe I need to up my technique game, and try some new things. So I go out, try to get a little fitter, start surfing switch, and I come home feeling like I did a little better for myself and the day was well spent.
In terms of shooting women’s surfing, the range of what I shoot is so large. I get a lot of inspiration from something as straightforward as seeing an incredible power turn by the tour girls. Or the loggers that surf with such flow and seem to show an incredible connection to the energy of the ocean. There is a lot of emotion in women’s surfing. I think it is very reflective of how we go about life, caring about what we do. That is inspiring. You should care about what you do and the people you are with.
On taking your photography from land to water.
Get on gumtree or craigslist and find something second hand to start. It will be much less expensive. Even now I still seek some ports and equipment second hand because gear is very expensive. If you are still shooting a few times a week after a winter season, then you might want to upgrade to new equipment because you are probably committed enough!
In terms of kit, I would suggest getting comfortable with wide angle lenses as well as some form of longer prime lens. You can do a lot with 50mm prime.
On the best advice ever received.
Surfer Koby Abberton told me in Bali a few years back, amongst other things, to not shoot the same angles as everyone else. That session, I ended up with some of the most incredible photos I have ever taken. I still think about all the advice he gave me that day. It really helped direct my vision.
On offering advice to others wanting to start shooting in the water.
I hope you can swim! Haha. Just kidding.
Be aware. Of your surroundings, surfers, currents, reef/rocks and your subject. It is a very active environment with a lot happening and changing. It’s an easy place to get caught out. You can be at Snapper Rocks then two minutes later you are on the other side of Kirra Groyne. Don’t fight the ocean, she is too powerful and you can’t win. You have to work with her and allow her to release you at the right time.
On the one things she wish she knew when se first started out.
Value your time. Beyonce loves to sing but still gets paid to do it. Don’t listen to people that tell you they are helping you build your name by working for free or that try to convince you that it’s ok because you are passionate about it. They are full of shit. The brands that I work with that are the most successful, also happen to be the most professional. They value the time of their staff which I think correlates to the nature of the brand valuing their customers too. If you feel valued, you naturally go the extra mile. That shows in your work, and your clients or customers feel that too and react positively to that energy.
Thanks for catching up with us Fran!
Check out her shots on her Instagram and if you are after a stunning print to frame on your wall at home or put on your desk at work, head on over to Fran Miller’s website www.franmiller.com.au or contact her with a brief.
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All photos by Fran Miller unless otherwise stated.