• March 31, 2015

Looking for the Best Surf Photography? Hold Your Breath

Jenna Turner

Photographs of surfing always cause me to pause. I can feel the familiar movement of the wave, the cool, crisp water, and the nourishing sun. As a West Coast transplant living in D.C., I find myself browsing surf photography more than ever. Sarah Lee’s images recently awakened my California roots, and for a moment I got to drift away on a daydream.

Picture of a silhouette of a woman surfing, leaning in towards the camera from above.
“Byron Bay, Australia, is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth to watch the sun rise and set from a surfboard in the sea,” says Lee.

In her photographs, Lee captures a quiet yet powerful intimacy with the ocean that only someone who grew up in the water could achieve. Born and raised in Hawaii, and currently based in Encinitas, California, Lee had a childhood that sounded similar to my own, both of us in the ocean constantly. When I talked to her over the phone, it was no surprise that our conversation digressed to discussing our favorite southern California surf spots. “I was surfing Cardiff yesterday and I snapped my longboard in half,” she told me. We chatted about the wave at Swami’s and how, in the past few years, Topanga has become less localized.

Picture of a woman under water, holding onto a surf board after she dove under a wave
A woman duck dives beneath a wave on a wooden alaia, a modern rendition of an ancient Hawaiian surfboard.

Lee developed a love for taking pictures as a child and naturally took to the sea with her camera. She was already comfortable with the physical challenge of being in the ocean; the creative challenge of photography came later.

“The main reason I love ocean and surf photography is the combination of the physical and creative challenge of it. It’s so cool, you’re floating and you can get into any position or angle you want in the water. Where else can you do that with photography?”

Picture of a 12-foot wave before it explodes back into the sea
The view beneath a 12-foot wave, just before it explodes back into the sea
Picture of a surfer riding a wave and another surfer lying down on the board
“I love photographing female surfers who have found their own style or dance to the beats of each wave,” says Lee.

I was curious to find out if Lee had any secret breath-holding techniques. As it turns out, she took a free-diving class last summer to help with her photography. While familiar with what to do when pulled under by a set wave, “it was amazing to finally learn the mechanics and how your brain and body work in the water.”

In the training, Lee learned that when you feel what is called the “urge to breathe,” it’s not that you’re out of oxygen but rather that you’re feeling the buildup of carbon dioxide in your body. In essence, your body wants air, but you still have more time. “When you get that urge to breathe, that’s your halfway mark.” She explains that the way to push through the discomfort is to distract your mind. “You will inevitably eat up oxygen by freaking out; it’s [about asking] how can you calm your mind and your body.” Lee uses these techniques to get her shot and, conversely, uses getting the shot to distract her mind during a breath hold.

Picture of a surfboard on the waves, as seen from below, the photo frame also has light leaks on it
“This is the first frame from the first time I ever took a 35mm camera underwater instead of a digital camera. I know it’s 2015, but there’s something so magical and mysterious about shooting film,” says Lee.

Lee herself has had some close calls in bigger surf. While photographing in Fiji she had some freak waves come through and pull her under. Her attitude in these situations is to try and stay relaxed. “Even if it seems like eternity, I just kind of go with the flow. It will pass, and when it does you’ll just come up to the surface.”

Picture of a person bodysurfing under water, their feet facing the camera
“I feel like bodysurfing without the aid of any flotation can be one of the purest experiences in nature,” says Lee, “because you’re immersed and totally vulnerable to whatever the ocean chooses to do.”

And as for her perspective on me being a surfer living in D.C.? “If I were you I don’t know what I’d be doing.” I hear that sentiment and, at times, I wonder the exact same thing.

See more of Sarah Lee’s work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

There are 29 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Gido Adam
    May 2, 2015

    nice pic

  2. Kat Carney
    April 30, 2015

    What a talent! I have loved her work since the first time I saw it, and it is so awesome to see an incredible female surf photographer’s point of view! Keep inspiring Sarah.

  3. michael filippoff
    April 30, 2015

    Wonderful and inspirational… 🙂

  4. Dave
    April 12, 2015


  5. Papa Gili
    April 5, 2015

    This is the first time i knew Sarah Lee and get instantly falling in love with all her photography stuff. Keep up the good work sarah. Can’t hardly wait to see your newest magical moment captured.

  6. Longfei Th’ai
    April 4, 2015

    Ineffable nature & human

  7. Xavier
    April 2, 2015

    Magnifiques 🙂

  8. Pegge
    April 2, 2015

    I saw the top photo in a coffee & ice cream shop while visiting Kona last Saturday, and was instantly captivated. I looked around the shop & immediately knew I’d never seen the photographers work, and was simultaneously transported to decades of California surf living. I asked the woman at the counter about the photographer…and a wonderful story unfolded. While everyone else ate their ice cream, I googled Sarah Lee photography and kept showing images to my companions. The feminine quality of light and composition intersects with penetrating action. I’m so intrigued and captivated. Thank you for pursuing your art! Well deserved recognition, and I look forward to future images!

  9. racheal
    April 1, 2015

    how wonderful experience

  10. Gini Enos
    April 1, 2015

    I hired Sarah to do some fashion swimwear shots underwater, some so stunning that they are permanently displayed on our outdoor entertaining deck. Plus, the girls love working with her.

  11. Shruthi V
    April 1, 2015

    Amazing stills!! 🙂

  12. Daniel Stark
    April 1, 2015

    I’ve follwed Sarah’s work for a while now and have always been drawn to the beauty and stillness captured in such a chaotic situation. You can tell she has a deep love for surf, adventure and capturing the beauty of the planet we live on. Would love to photograph with her sometime. Keep up the awesome work, Sarah. All the best.

  13. ana
    April 1, 2015


  14. Dariusz
    April 1, 2015

    Wow! Amazing underwater photograph,. Sarah, your shots are really beautiful. You have an amazing sense when you should press the shutter. Nice story.

  15. Julia
    April 1, 2015

    Gorgeous pictures!!

  16. Marta
    April 1, 2015

    It’s just beautiful what she’s able to capture. The pure essence of beauty, of life. When you’re underwater everything’s so quite and peaceful…
    Thanks for sharing!


  17. Taha Khan
    April 1, 2015

    Wow! amazed to see underwater. its really beautiful ..

  18. Kathy Fitts
    April 1, 2015

    Sarah – what an amazing life you’ve got! SO happy for you. This interview with Jenna is excellent, and your photos are stunning as always. I can nearly feel and hear the surf in them!

  19. Kraig Lee
    April 1, 2015

    So proud of my daughter Sarah! Her college experience has certainly helped her skills… but her passion for photography and the ocean has always amazed me. Her Mother and I frequently found her up late at night or early morning as a little girl editing photos on her computer. “Time for bed Sarah.” It is amazing what you, do and even more, the amazing woman you have become.

  20. katy doherty
    April 1, 2015

    What a wonderful feature on an AMAZINGLY talented and BRAVE photographer! As a surfer myself I know first hand how dangerous the ocean can be!! Sara’s photos truly capture the “magic” in surfing 🙂

  21. Dr Sona
    March 31, 2015

    i agree that Byron bay is breathtaking especially the sunset. The pictures are astonishingly beautiful

  22. Rampal adda
    March 31, 2015

    it’s very nice photography. never look before.

  23. Garrett Soulen
    March 31, 2015

    WOW! Spectacular photos. I love your “first time I ever took a 35mm camera underwater” picture. The light leaks photo is real fascinating.

  24. maria
    March 31, 2015

    What a gorgeous feeling it must be to be flying underwater with a camera….

  25. Helen VanHorn
    March 31, 2015

    Nice photography and story. National Geographic has always been my favorite magazine… love the diversity.

  26. Juan Duay
    March 31, 2015

    Excelentes fotografías de Jenna Turner. no solo estas sino también las que han publicado anteriormente, gracias por compartir.

  27. aleko
    March 31, 2015

    it’s nice

  28. Lisa
    March 31, 2015

    Wonderful! She captures the feeling of being suspended in water so well, something that I have missed for a very long time!

  29. Syed Abbas shah
    March 31, 2015


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