The Business of Surf Photography w / Ted Grambeau (Re-visited)

A Ted’s-eye view of Teahupoo, Tahiti.

Ted Grambeau is one of the most experienced photographers in the world. The Australian has been taking photos for longer than any job you or I have ever held – and that makes him not only an expert in the field, it also means he is highly respected in inside and outside of the industry. His images have appeared in all mediums all over the world and after talking with Ted, one realises that his passion oozes through into every image he crafts.  For Ted, it’s more than taking photos, its a carefully curated art form that evokes emotion and has a story to tell – and that’s what has kept him at the forefront of his craft for so many years.

With the onset of the digital and social era along with the shifting tides of the surf industry, the business of surf photography has changed dramatically over the past decade. We spoke to Ted to about his journey and uncovered a little more knowledge about this side of the industry

Enjoy the read.

Q. How long have you been talking photos for?

I have been taking photos for approximately 45 years and professionally, I’ve been in photography about 40 years.

Q.How did you get into it?

I developed an interest in photography as a result of a knee injury from Australian Rules Football. I could no longer surf on the weekends and started to photograph my friends surfing. Then eventually I went to RMIT (university) in Melbourne to do a course in commercial photography, and the rest has been a journey.

Q. Aside from the obvious conveniences, what have been the major changes/differences you’ve seen through the change to digital?

Quality and convenience have improved; the learning curve has totally changed as the camera gives instant feed back in absence of technical knowledge or understanding.

So everybody’s a photographer (until they have to solve a problem.). It’s made it much easier to mimic, or copy work, thus circumventing the creative process. It has also instantly diminished the value of great photography to 3 seconds on Instagram.

Q. Are we seeing a small shift back to film?

I think the more people that discover the miracle of photography, a percentage are going to develop a deeper appreciation of the art. Shooting film is applauded as a great achievement now and black and white is trending for the more sophisticated in the photography world. But coming from the days where we only shot in film, both color and black and white, my appreciation for this craft was already there.

Q. What has been the biggest change in the business of surf photography in the last 10 years?

Digital, GoPro (the surfer becomes the photographer) a shift to moving images, instant images, live feeds. This instant nature has been integral in the decline of monthly magazines. Popularity has seen people willing to give free content for a trip -the death of professional surf photography almost.

Q. Surf brands marketing budgets have generally tightened up – how has that affected your business?

Magazine’s don’t exist let alone have budgets to create trips. Companies employ their own content creators to maintain rights and control their image.

I think budget are actually bigger, but the pie is cut up differently.

Also a trend for the top twenty surfers is to have their own media entourage, excluding them from a wider potential market in a sense. Years ago if I got an amazing shot of a top surfer I could sell it to the company. Now they have already invested money in their own content creator and less likely to be a potential customer.

Q. Social media has been a revelation when it comes to sharing media, but it’s difficult to control. How do you manage your images being used?

If you put images on social media you relinquish control. The most you can hope for is that people will credit you. If companies use my images for commercial purpose I will usually notify them, and offer that use for a fee or get them to take it down. But that’s a process. There is a trend for people to have sites with other people’s photography under the guise of ‘surf lovers’ or what ever, merely to create large follows and a market that as leverage for product sales. A little bit seedy, really.

Above and below the water – Ted’s images always evoke emotion.

Q. What other types of photography do you do?

Much of my work, both commercial and personal involves water, travel, portraiture, fashion and fine Art. A recent body of work of seascapes called Sealevel can be seen on my site

An image from Ted’s Sealevel collection.y.

Q. You’ve made many friends with surfers and travelled to some amazing places – Any favourite subjects to shoot?

Definitely been privileged to work with and become best friend s with some of best surfers in the last four decades. Epic number of Rip Curl Search trips, The Quiksilver Crossing, The Billabong Odyssey, the Challenge series by Jack McCoy and so on.

Surfers, with the caliber of Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Tom Curren, Kelly Slater, Mano Drollet, Shane Powell, Nathan Hedge.

Explorers like the Malloy’s, Healy, Amion, and Bruno Santos.

I have an affinity for photographing the power surfers Like Pancho Sullivan, big wave maniac’s Mark Mathews, and Ryan Hipwood.

I’ve shot really great surfers all over the globe as well as in Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria and WA. I’ve made life long friends in places from Peru, like Magoo De La Rosa. People who aren’t surfers,; captain’s like Martin Daly, film makers and peers like, Sonny Miller, Jon Frank, Art Brewer, Jeff Hornbaker, Peter Wilson and a 1000 more.

Although there are amazing people that are incredibly talented surfers, it’s the people along the journey that I get to share amazing experiences with that bonds us for life.

Surfers in the most remote locations on the planet, like Jorn from Svalbard, possibly the northern most surfer in the world!

Ted’s photography has taken him to some amazing places, with some remarkable people.

Q. Can you still make a living from surf photography post the GFC?

If you are supported by one of the major companies, it’s possible. But the golden days are gone. You might get work at a surf camp or on a boat, but it’s very competitive and demanding. There are probably 100 times more people shooting good quality surf images now with a lot less opportunities. But social media has created new opportunities for this next generation of image-makers.

Q. Are there any newcomers in photography that have caught your eye?

There are some brilliant young photographers producing consistent quality work. But being diverse enough to be a great photographer beyond the one look is what will enable longevity in photography. Young Leroy Bellet has produced quality work.

Q. What makes a good photo? It’s not all about setting to auto and point and shoot is it?

A good photo requires it to have the ability to evoke an emotion. Whatever the element may be. It could be purely recording an amazing moment (action); it could be the technical execution, the creative interpretation, basically as long as it moves you in some way. We do get over saturated with great images on social media and some really incredible work gets buried, especially if more subtle and inter active.

Social media is a very poor platform for experiencing the nuances of high quality photography.

Strolling down a Cuban street – Travel is still a big passion for Ted Grambeau.

Q. Photos and video essentially define the sport and the industry – How can brands better support professional photographers?

Companies who have a vested interest in great images could promote photographers in their own right; generally they have been anonymous behind the brand – Only by becoming brands in their own right will a young photographer survive.

Q. What advice can you give to aspiring surf photographers?

Work very hard at developing your our unique look and style.

Understand every aspect of image making – technically and aesthetically.

Learn about art and light. Ask what elements you like or dislike about significant images in your life.

Most importantly value your talent, put a worth on the time and money you put in to developing your skills.

Have integrity. That means understanding the difference between being inspired and influenced by others work you see, and then using those influences to develop who you are as a photographer. This is a much longer journey. It takes years to develop a sense of who you are as a creative, whether that is a photographer or artist. Influences and inspiration is the starting point, not the end point. The temptation is to just copy work you see, but that will not allow you to discover yourself. Until you understand this, you are just copying someone.

Finally enjoy the journey, if pursued with a passion beyond all other considerations (food, shelter, living, standards, security, safety and more) I guarantee you will have an amazing journey unlike you could ever possibly dare to dream.

See more of Ted’s work, including his new book – Adventures in Light at

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