Photographer Insight: Fran Miller
Fran Miller Leads An Extraordinary Life As A Photographer
Fran Miller grew up in Sydney, Australia and has developed into one of Australia / the world’s best female surf photographers. She’s one of the biggest frothers on life and with her love of the ocean and the reason is, she gets to do what she absolutely loves for a living and she’s refined the motto, “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Since establishing herself as one of the finest on the scene with the backing of Canon, she’s set herself the challenge creatively and physically to build a body of work relating to her relationship with the waves. Along the way, she will photograph and work with a select group of female surfers. Being internally motivated, she has a need to be moved by an image. “The subject needs to be respected, the surfer within the image too. The photograph should showcase them in a way that reflects their skills and the environment they are in.” She says.
So how do you become an established and respected photographer in an age when everyone has the opportunity to be ‘semi-pro’? It takes an intense love of the ocean, an impeccable eye for detail, a passion for your subject, and the resilience to push through barriers over and over again.
Fran’s story begins with the purchase of a cute little beach shack in Woonona, south of Sydney by her parents. She says it was the place that initiated her love of the ocean from a very young age. Her family spent every holiday at the beach shack for as long as she can remember. “It was the place I learned to surf, to take my first photos of the ocean.
Her earliest memories of the ocean involve getting tossed about and floating in on the whitewater waves at Woonona Beach with her Dad. “I can remember being so overwhelmed with joy at standing up and surfing. The thought of those days brings me a lot of happiness. On reflection, there were a lot of life lessons in those moments too like independence, self-motivation and even safety.” These are the lessons that she’s carried with her as she’s grown with the ocean playing an integral parallel. “As a little girl surfing, in essence by myself with no one helping push me onto waves, it was sink or swim, or rather, stand up and surf or don’t.”
Right now, a couple of decades later, Fran is in the water multiple times of day. The lush, blues and long lines of Rainbow Bay and the New South Wales Northern Rivers region are scattered with talented lady sliders and absolute rippers. The sunrises and sunsets are magical and the long sun-drenched days mean any time is a good time to shoot. And it’s easier now than it’s ever been with digital photography, wifi, Bluetooth and digital transfers. But when Fran started out it was still very much about the SLR with film and the week long wait for prints and their negatives to return.
“My sister was a camera enthusiast so I used to take her SLR camera. I’d steal it and use it all the time. The more skills and experience I have developed over time, the more challenges I have been faced with in creative ways I never even thought could exist as a kid. A few years back, I felt stagnant with the work I was producing. I’d fallen out of love with photography. I’d started allowing the expectations of others lead what I was shooting and I was allowing them essentially to determine what I did shoot. In reality and with time, I can understand now that I was limited by the mindset of others. I reset my mind and my attitude and gained a new individual strength. With that, I started shooting only what I wanted, and the natural progression and challenges associated with the new direction created this awesome internal fulfilment and reignited my passion and pursuit of my art.”
It was an all-important spiritual journey for Fran to experience to get to where she is today, learning how to shut out the sometimes negative and inappropriate opinions of others and believe in her own ability. As a result, she has developed a strong and dynamic style, she doesn’t let anyone mess her around and so, in-turn she has the credibility and conviction of a professional.
When you’re in pursuit of your dreams, there are people who help keep you on track, people whose words are more defining in your career than they ever know. Fran tells us about the people who have played those roles for her.
Along the way, she has been mentored by Lin-Jie Kong, a photographer/filmer and television producer at the ABC who helped equip her with the more in-depth technical camera and post-production. She also talks about a pivotal moment with one of Australia’s top surf photographers. She says he was sitting down with her shooting one day and said a couple of words that have stuck with her ever since.
“you’re on the right path,” He said, “don’t stop, just keep going. Photographers can be weird and really competitive.” Fran says it made her feel genuinely supported by one of the best in the industry.
In 2014 on a trip to Indonesia she bumped into big wave surfer Kobie Abberton. “[Koby] was out surfing and I was co-incidentally floating around taking photos on one of the reef breaks. Basically, he was beyond stoked and supportive to see a female shooting in those critical, barrelling conditions. He gave me some advice to stop shooting straight into the barrel and to make sure I hit some unique angles.” Fran doesn’t believe Koby would even remember the moment but admits she took in every word he said. “He has such a tough and respected background, but he was very kind, genuine and supportive the week we met.”
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Her portfolio continues to thrive in land and ocean photography. She says “To be honest, nothing beats the sensations of being in the water. But I love every shooting environment equally for their own reasons. In water, you are so close to the action, there is such a sense of exhilaration and physicality in the environment that can’t be matched on land. You can see and hear the emotions of surfers, feel the rush of the waves and genuinely be immersed in nature. On land, it is a much more reflective place to shoot from. As long as no one is distracting you, it is a calm place and you can really work on your angles and shot composure. I honestly can’t pick a favourite. A fish-eye in a barrel is just as enjoyable as distant noseride with the whole coastline in the backdrop to me.”
In covering women in the water, it is much more than shooting photos of random people in the lineup. It’s about developing relationships with the surfers, understanding what they want, how they surf and capturing their whole vibe, not in a hippie way, but more so in a way that you can experience and feel real emotions through the photograph. Sometimes these conversations don’t go as planned but they can result in the best progression.
“I really enjoy long exposures, but a couple of years back, Roisin Carolan asked me to not shoot them because the strike rate is lower. She was so nervous when she asked me. Basically, I wasn’t capturing the total level of her surfing, and I had to reflect that I wasn’t showcasing her surfing as best I could or should be. I really respect Roisin’s surfing, so I started shooting her tack sharp, which enabled me to capture every one of her best moves. Rather than depending on technical camera skills, I forced myself into more creative positions that challenged me instead. We have come a long way together now though, in that she is surfing at such a high-level, I have all the options in the world to shoot in any way I see fit to meet both our goals creatively and surfing wise.
“Females are very complex and emotional beings. I’m very straight to the point and I don’t dwell on criticism but am much more inclined to look at how I can improve from that. My best shooting relationships come from mutual conversations about shared aims.
Victoria Vergara is another of my favourite shooting subjects. She is very demanding of herself above all, but we share a lot of conversations on common goals and then go wild shooting. She once told me, “Don’t sit there, it’s crap!” Sometimes females have a tendency to extrapolate meaning in what doesn’t exist. A comment like that doesn’t mean I’m crap, or my photos are crap. It just meant, in that moment, on that wave, she thought my position wasn’t good. She was right! I moved, two minutes later, I was taking better photos and we both reaped the rewards.”
So much honest wisdom learned from life in the field. Aside from being one incredible photographer, Fran Miller is a genuinely inspiring and beautiful human. She is friendly and lights up a room, and a lineup. If you’re ever in the water with her, make sure you throw her a shaka.
IN MY CAMERA BAG: