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Sailing Photography

Although very much an amateur, I've nonetheless had a small measure of success in maritime and travel-related competitions; this includes winning the Cruising Association Dolphin Cup for best photographic log of a cruise, shortlisted for the National Historic Ships annual competition, winning the Exploration Travel 'Photograph of the Year', and being exhibited within the Chatham Historic Dockyard.

I make no pretence at being an expert marine photographer and have no formal photography training.  That said, some of you may be interested in how I go about capturing my images so below I give an overview of the equipment I have onboard, the techniques I use, and some of my thought processes when trying to capture images that will, hopefully, stand out a little from the crowd.

Cameras & Equipment

There is an element of wisdom in the saying "the best camera is the one that you have to hand".  There is even more wisdom in setting yourself up so that your camera at hand is the best tool for the job!  I don't have the space onboard (or, more importantly, within my carry-on luggage when travelling to/from the boat) to take my full range of cameras, lenses and associated equipment on sailing trips.  Rather, I have a selection of kit that, I hope, will let me capture images from the range of scenarios that I'm likely to encounter.  My core set of boat photo kit includes:

Onboard Camera Gear

Canon 5D MkIV DSLR.  A magnificent full-frame sensor camera that, despite the rise of mirrorless models, remains relevant, is ruggedised to operate in the marine environment, and produces exceptional quality images even in the most challenging of light conditions.  A seriously good auto-focus system that really comes into its own when trying to photograph wildlife, especially fast moving sea birds.

DSLR Lenses.  Whilst a good camera body goes a long way to helping you capture good images, the versatility and quality of your range of lenses is perhaps the single most important feature of any photography kit to have onboard.  Unfortunately life is a compromise; the laws of physics dictate that fast, long focal length lenses are both sizeable and heavy - as such, some of my favourite wildlife and portrait lenses (notably Sigma 150-600mm Sport f5.6, and Canon 85mm f1.4) usually stay at home.  The standard set that I try to have onboard therefore includes:

  • Canon L-series 28-300mm zoom.  My most versatile lens and most likely to be mounted when onboard or wandering around ashore.  Great for wildlife if the subject isn't too far off in the distance.  Downside is its size and weight.

  • Canon L-series 35mmm f1.4 prime.  Fast lens with incredible optical quality.  I like this lens as it is light enough to mount on a mini travel tripod which, when combined with Neutral Density (ND) filters, especially the big 10-stopper, allows me to capture long-exposure shots relatively easily without the need to carry a substantial tripod.

  • Sigma 20mm f1.4 Art prime.  A fairly chunky and hefty wide angle lens, but of superb optical quality for capturing low light vistas.

  • Tamron 11-18mm zoom.  This is a hangover lens from my early days of photography.  It's not the best quality, and the wider ranges (approx 11-14mm) results in vignetting on a full-frame sensor, but it is handy for wide angle shots on the boat - also, I'm not too worried abut trashing it in conditions when spray and salt might make me think twice about exposing my more precious gear to the elements!

DSLR Accessories. A small range of accessories that include; mini travel tripod (suitable to carry weight of a pro-DSLR), filters (ND 2,4, and 10-stop, graduated ND), spare batteries, remote control shutter release, Canon camera app.

GoPro Hero 8 Black.  Small action camera capable of stills and video with features such as HDR,  hyper-smooth stabilisation, and time-warp mode.  This camera can also be used underwater without a housing to a depth of 10m; with my newly acquired (and not yet tested) dome-port housing, I will also be able to capture split images of above and below the waterline for photos of added variety and originality.

GoPro Max.  Another new addition for 2022; the GoPro Max comes into its own with its front and rear facing lenses enabling capture of full 360 degree stills or video.

Mavic Mini 2 Drone.  Drone photography opens up a whole new world of possibilities for capturing images and videos whether at anchor or underway.  My first dabble into drone photography is with the Mavic Mini 2; I chose this model primarily on the basis of its relatively cheap cost due to the significant chances of losing the drone to Neptune's kingdom - especially when flying it whilst the boat is under sail - during my learning period.  Intent is to progress to a more capable model (such as the Mavic Air 2S or 3) that, as well as bringing higher quality imaging and tracking capabilities, will also integrate to our Raymarine Axiom Multi Function Display (MFD) to enable flying the drone directly from the helm.

Choosing a subject

Let's be clear, there will always be something to photograph when on or near the water; your own yacht, other boats, dramatic sunsets, misty mornings, nautical details, wildlife (in, on, or above the water), maritime landmarks and, of course, people going about their business or having fun... the trick comes in trying to capture these subjects in a way that engenders interest.  Time and location will inevitably have a key influence on what you point your lens at, but thinking a little outside the box may lead to all sorts of interesting images.  Not all captures will work, but in many ways photography is a lot like kissing many frogs to find a prince... fire off enough shots and eventually you'll capture something special!

Shooting Techniques

When to shoot.  It's no secret that the so-called 'blue' and 'golden' hours are generally regarded as the best times of day to photograph for capturing the best quality of light and, quite often, when wildlife is more likely to be seen.  Unfortunately, these times for most of us coincide either with when we are still tucked up in our bunks, or when we have settled down for a G&T or dinner; short of inventing a time machine, there is little we can do about this other than to reorder our priorities!  Even when the light is at its harshest however, all may not be lost; consider how to make the best of what you have been dealt - shooting directly into the sun could create some interesting silhouette shots, choosing to photograph underwater in the heat of the day when there is more light to penetrate the sea to illuminate swimming under the hull could be an answer.  Whilst the more sophisticated your camera the better the chances of being able to shoot in more conditions, some lateral thinking may allow you to take interesting shots whatever you are equipped with.

Capturing an essence.  The best photographs are often those that tell a story to connect with, and invoke an emotion in, the viewer.  Introducing a sense of movement can give the impression of exciting speed or, conversely, tranquility; long exposures (often needing ND filters to restrict the amount of light entering the camera) can give a dimension of racing through the water or, if used to 'smooth' lumpy seas to deliver an air of calm in a seascape.  When photographing people, try to capture facial expressions that tell a story of their thoughts at that time, or frame the subject mid-activity (such as grinding a winch) to enable the viewer to feel a part of the excitement that was ongoing at that moment the shutter was released.  Think about how you can add drama to landscapes or landmarks; for instance, the bright colours of lighthouses set against a dramatic dark and stormy sky may result in a far more powerful photograph than the same building set within a glorious sunny scene.  Consider the story that you want to tell; finding a camera angle where the crew of a racing dinghy is isolated within an expanse of water will contrast greatly to a shot, perhaps taken only moments later, when the camera captures them in the mele of boats on the start line just before the gun.  Consider angles; lying on the deck to shoot the contrast between white sails and blue skies, a drone shot looking vertically down on the boat, or shooting low from a dinghy to give an impression of size of an approaching yacht - all these will result in very different images potentially of the same subject.


Post-production & editing.  Wherever possible, I will always shoot in RAW mode to preserve as much information within the digital image as possible for subsequent editing.  Although it is always best to try and achieve the perfect result 'in camera', sometimes we need the magic of editing software to bring out the best in an image.  Remember that your camera records light in a very different way to how it is processed by our brains having passed through our eyes!  Choosing how to crop your subject will also dramatically impact the feel of your photograph; it is not always necessary to fit the whole boat or rig within the frame - sometimes less is more!  Experiment with different formats - panoramic, square - or consider the 'Dutch tilt' to best frame the subject.  At the end of the day, remember that photography is a very personal discipline; whilst it is always a pleasure to receive acknowledgement from others, unless you are trying to earn a living through the trade the most important person to please is yourself - if you come away with an image that you are proud of then it's a job well done!

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