Hailing from the Big Island of Hawaii, Sarah Lee was no stranger to time spent in the water before picking up a lens and capturing those golden moments in and around ocean folds.
An avid water polo player, swimmer and surfer, Sarah decided to celebrate the water's bubbling by training her lens on those unique situations that can unravel; documenting a perfect duck dive, a sunset logging session - Sarah's style provides a tangible look into some of the more personal moments while surfing – with stoke etched across each frame.
Sarah now splits her time between Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and San Diego's Encinitas. Sarah's work has graced the pages of National Geographic, Cosmo as well as the usual surfing mags. But where does her inspiration come from? How do you lock down a photography gig in an ever growing market? All that and more, here.
Tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and where are you based now?
I am a photographer with a special love for anything in and under the water. In a small town, nestled on the mountain about 20 minutes from the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the ocean has always been a big part of my life.
My Hawaii roots have given me a light-hearted and carefree attitude. I like to keep things casual and go with the flow. Brands, athletes, and adventurers take up most my camera time, but I love carving out time to shoot everyday people doing what they love for a variety of occasions from surfing to non-commercial portraits.
My vision is to create images that capture and accentuate the beauty in what surrounds me. My hope is that my photos express the magnificence of what it’s like to live on this planet and really interact, at the deepest level, with its transcendence. When I'm not on projects that take me swimming around the globe, I like to call Encinitas, California my second home.
Your photography is striking. What first drew you to shooting in the water?
Thank you. My love for water photography emerged through years of competitive swimming, water polo, open water distance races, and surfing in Hawaii. Spending hours in the water, I noticed I would get distracted by the movement and gracefulness of my peers. The dance of light over their bodies in the water drew me to capture those moments.
I’m attracted to underwater photography because of the lack of control I have. There is something magical about being in a massive body of water with constant changes in lighting, water clarity, currents, surf.
I’m attracted to underwater photography because of the lack of control I have
It’s somewhere where you have to be completely switched on and able to adapt to anything it throws at you. It’s also a form of play for me. Composing shots can be difficult in the water, but I like to think of it as a creative challenge. Imagine being able to move up, down, left, right, and even upside down to compose a photograph. It can be a lot smoother and sometimes faster in the water to get the angle you want, since there’s not much gravity at play.
There's the athleticism that comes with shooting in the water, swimming for hours at a time – have you done any special training?
There is absolutely an element of athleticism needed for shooting in the water, as well as a high level of situational awareness.
Other than spending half of my childhood in a pool and in the ocean swimming competitively, I don’t actively train in a pool anymore because I would rather spend that time surfing, however the earlier years swimming has allowed me to be comfortable and navigate my way through most ocean situations. I would rather swim a mile than run a mile.
In the past few years, I have become more interested in freediving. I want to learn how to properly explore the ocean at greater depths, hold my breath longer, and learn certain techniques to better direct the subjects in front of my camera.
I think anyone who spends a lot of time in the water would greatly benefit from freedive training, even if you’re not trying to get down to crazy depths. It’s an incredible way to really challenge your mind and body and connect with the ocean in an intimate way.
Has surfing always been a big part of your life?
Surfing didn’t really become a big part of my life until I went to college in Southern California back in 2008. I surfed as a kid growing up, but really got into it because I missed the ocean in Hawaii. I discovered that surfing was a great way to get grounded, get back into the present moment, and escape from the concrete mess and over stimulation on land and college-life.
Surfing, to me, is one of the greatest forms of dance, play and self-expression. It is one of my favourite ways to connect with nature and the environment around me and photography is my way of sharing and celebrating the beauty of surfing and the ocean with other people.
Your shots focus more on water lifestyle, showing those special moments in surfing, a cross-step, a duck dive, looking up the chaos of the wave above, a moment before a rock jump. Is that a conscious decision to focus more on the moments that go into surfing?
Those inbetween moments are where the magic is at. I am naturally attracted to the nuances and quirks of the people I am around and in the action/motion of what’s happening at the time of shooting.
The sea, in its constant state of flux, especially in the surf, is enigmatic enough that every moment in it can be “the moment.” At the end of the day, my vision in making photos is simply to capture and accentuate the beauty of what surrounds me, and that isn’t always at the apex of somebody’s wave as they smash the lip.
With the introduction of Instagram, has that changed the way you shoot – you can see an image and say, that would look good as a social media post?
I have been shooting, composing and cropping more of my photos geared toward social media use in an 8x10 format so they’re more Instagram-friendly for people and brands I provide social media content for.
However, this is because they are asking for it. I find that it’s a fun way to shoot and a challenge of its own, but shooting just for social media isn’t the only thing I do.
For me personally, I usually go with the photos that say “this feels good to me” more-so than obsessing about how much engagement I think I’ll get from it on social.
How about equipment, what are you running with?
I go between a full frame Canon 5Ds and a Canon 5D mkIV, depending on what I’m shooting. I’ve been using a 8-15 fisheye for underwater, 16-35 when I’m mixing top-side and underwater, 50mm for topside sunset shots, and 70-200 f/4 for surf action. I go between a custom made surf housing and an Outex water cover.
Other than camera gear, I rely on Dafin bodysurfing fins to get around in the water, a freedive mask for anything underwater, and occasionally a weight belt in non-surf situations to sink down to desired depths without much exertion.
Where (and who) is your favourite place/person to shoot?
Almost everyone I’ve worked with and every place I’ve been to has it’s own special quirks that I like to discover and bring to life through photos. I can’t really name a favourite person or place, but, in the surf realm, the situation that gets me the most stoked with a camera in the water is a perfect point break with anyone who’s magical on a longboard.
I think this quote sums up nicely why it’s hard for me to pick favorites; “For me, a lifetime devoted to creativity is nothing but a scavenger hunt — where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity. Pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.” -Elizabeth Gilbert
Can you talk us through three of your favourite surf or water shots.
One Monday morning, while most people were probably heading to work, a few lucky locals scored an unbelievable abundance of picture-perfect barrels, somewhere in Australia. This is one of my favorite water shots because the entire morning was too good to be true alongside surfer Johnny Abegg and photographer Alex Frings and I’ll never forget it. This photo was taken with Canon 7D, Canon 50mm f/1.4, Kobetich water housing. May 2012.
World traveler, talented longboarder, and board bag maker, Anna Ehrgott, duck diving through a wave off the Kona Coast during golden hour. Winter waves were a little big and scary for a mid length board over razor sharp reef at this particular spot, but she fared pretty well. This photo taken with a Canon 5Ds + 15mm + Kobetich Water Housing. January 2016.
A close friend of mine, Stephanie, jumping out for a sunset surf in Hawaii. I took this shot on a Canon 40D and Tokina 11-17mm wide angle lens back in 2009. Right after getting off the plane in time for Christmas, the first thing we did was meet up at our hometown beach and hit the water. For me, this image signifies the freedom, warmth and joy that jumping back into the ocean gave me after a tough semester in college.
Talented songwriter/singer, Kimie Miner, swimming above a coral reef on the Big Island of Hawaii. Unfortunately, less than one month later, this section of reef was bleached from extremely warm water during the last El Nino season in 2015. The Big Island always holds a special place in my heart since I grew up and spent a lot of time in the water. This photo, in particular, reminds me of how much of a privilege it is to have grown up there enjoying the ocean and reef and to capture a place like this in all its glory before it dramatically faded away. This photo was taken with a Canon 5D Mark III + Canon 15mm + Kobetich water housing.
On the latest project I did with adventure filmmaker and entertainer, Alison Teal, we went to the Yucatán Peninsula, to freedive in Cenotes and team up with experts in the field to get an in-depth look at one of the last pristine sources of fresh water on the planet. Freediving in this Cenote with Alison Teal and Julien Borde with one single light beam to light up the entire cavern that could fit an airplane in it was one of the highlights of our trip. Photo taken with a Canon 5Ds + Canon 16-35mm + Outex water cover. June 2017.
How difficult is it to make and cultivate a career in the surf and water photography industry?
I kind of just go with the flow and don’t force my way into anything. So when something doesn’t work out for me, I find something else to dive in to. Cultivating anything takes time and isn’t always instantly gratifying. I feel that you’ll inevitably attract the part of the industry that you vibe with, as long as you keep chasing what gets you stoked, know your worth, have integrity, and are fun to work with.
Cover shot: Sarah's office may look a little different to most people's, by Lucia Griggi.