Behind The Modern Surf




As a photographer, one of the hardest things to do is to develop your own distinct style. This was my goal in order to separate myself a little from other surf photographers or in general. I try to stay focused on creating fine art here rather than journalism-style photos with these surf shots. I want to help create emotion and peace using a subject as strong as the ocean. Something that may not be as peaceful as it looks from shore. I then use the surfer as the human element, a bit blurred, out of focus, but in focus with his surroundings.

When I look at my surf collection, especially my more recent work I feel that it allows myself or even the viewer to really focus in and see the connection between the surfer and the power of the ocean. Something with deeper meaning, that makes people look at a subject from a whole different perspective.

I started taking my first surf photos in June, 2013. I was in Hawaii on Oahu with my buddy and a crew of really good surfers, a few pro and sponsored. At the time, I wasn’t completely set on shooting surf at all. I came to shoot landscape, sea, stars, etc. That is what I focused on most during that time in my photography career. But we had a lot of time to kill during the days, and not everyone is a photographer. They chase swells like we chase storms. So as they surfed all day, I would kick back on the beach, enjoy some beers and watch them surf. This allowed a lot of time to fire off surf photos though. It was actually pretty enjoyable too. A nice break from what I normally shoot and a lot more relaxing. So I shot thousands of photos over that first trip. I had no idea what to do with them, and pretty much sat on them for six months. Until one day after finishing up some of my black and white architecture shots for my Modern Light series, I decided to try a similar technique on my surf photos. It was that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do with them.

View the full Modern-Surf Collection here:


^ Settings: Canon 5D MK III, Canon 70-200 f/4 L USM + 2x EXT, ISO 500, 400mm, f/8.0, 1/3200 Seconds


This all fueled a second trip in January, 2014. I went back with a plan this time and a bigger lens. I wanted to experiment with long exposure surf shots for this next batch. I have seen it done before, so I knew it was do-able. Just needed to give my own take on it. That blurred look you see is mostly created in camera, by doing a shutter drag, leaving the shutter open and basically tracking the surfer trying to keep him in focus and everything else blurred. I would play around with different speeds to get a less blurred look or to go all out and blur the heck out of it. In a shooting situation like this I found a tripod or monopod to be a must. Your wrist will eventually start to feel sore after holding a camera for a while and for long exposure shots it is easier being on a stable tripod. For me personally I use an Induro tripod and set it to go really low to the ground as I prefer to sit down as to standing up like some prefer. I then loosen the ballhead and will pan with the surfer that way. It makes for much smoother pans after you get some practice.


^ Settings: Canon 5D MK III, Canon 200-400mm f/4 L USM EXT, ISO 50, 560mm, f/36, 1/10 Seconds

Now I didn’t shoot these 2nd set of images without already having a processing idea in mind. I hate the straight out of camera look and I am not even that in love with them if I process them in color. I use software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC to give it that dark mono look which I like to call ‘Modern.’ I am always trying to perfect and adapt this style of ‘Modern’, which gets me excited to keep it going.



I have gotten to a point where I am pretty quick with these. I have saved various versions of presets to keep reusing and refining. One of the first things I do (Aside from being doubled backed up!) is turn the photo black and white in Lightroom. I then go ahead and check my Lens Corrections and start working on basic adjustments such as Brightness, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Sharpening and Curves. For this shot below I have a huge white wave taking up most of the frame. I brought down the highlight slider a lot on this one as well as the white slider. And because I wanted this image to be very contrasty and dark, I brought up the Contrast and Clarity and drop the Blacks as well. I am usually tuning the slider consistently throughout my process. Sometimes I like to fine tune it a day or two later after my eyes have taken a break from the image for a bit.

Two of my favorite features are the radial filter and brush tool. I use these on almost every image to bring in more focus on or off certain areas. For example below I use it to bring more focus in on the wave and surfer and to I use brush tool to bring down highlights and shadows in certain spots.


^ RAW File

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.31.14 PM

^ Basic Adjustments

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.31.31 PM

^ Radial Filter

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.33.09 PM

^ Brush Tool #1

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.33.20 PM

^ Brush Tool #2


After I am finished in Lightroom I tend to bring most of my images into Photoshop for various reasons. I sharpen my images using Sharpen More and/or a Highpass Filter and will also use it for some more serious content removals like the people in the surf photo I want to get rid of. I felt the two heads of other surfers where distracting to the eyes when presenting my image. I used content aware fill to start getting rid of it. It did a decent job, but required a lot of Patch Tool work to really make it unnoticeable. 



Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.36.47 PMScreen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.36.54 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.37.33 PMScreen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.45.03 PM

^ Settings: Canon 5D MK III, Canon 70-2000 f/4 L USM + 2x EXT, ISO 320, 400mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 Seconds





^ Settings: Canon 6D, Canon 200-400mm f/4 L USM EXT, ISO 50, 500mm, f/45, 1/8 Seconds


^ Settings: Canon 6D, Canon 200-400mm f/4 L USM EXT, ISO 50, 560mm, f/45, 1/6 Seconds

Gear List


Thanks to Adobe for partnering with me on this and the past few projects. To learn more about the Creative Cloud Photography plan click here:,


Written by

Professional photographer, social influencer, adventurer and content creator, Toby Harriman has fit more into his few years than most will in a lifetime. A visual explorer whose travels take him from Hawaiian shores to hanging out of helicopter doors, from moonlit desert vistas to the edge of skyscraper rooftops, Toby seeks out creative edges that captivate. Based in San Francisco, his drive to create a high level aesthetic has resulted in his development of a vast social media audience and lead to work around the globe. Toby is a potent force unleashing his unique attitude and style unto the world.

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