Fancy being the next social media sailing sensation? James Kenning explains how to create compelling content

Storytelling remains integral to sailing lore and, in today’s digital world, establishing a social media presence is a great way to share cruising adventures with family, friends and other sailing enthusiasts.

For some, it may even be a way to help finance their cruising. Exploring stunning locations, battling extremes of weather, encountering wildlife, or just enjoying life aboard all make for a perfect recipe to generate interesting and engaging content for upload to a website blog, Facebook page, or YouTube channel.

Whatever medium you choose, the ability to shoot captivating imagery is a cornerstone in creating impact and, to our advantage, advances in digital camera technology continue to expand opportunities for innovative approaches for recording our journeys. With affordable technology allowing us to shoot remotely, underwater, and even from the air via drones, it is fair to say our creativity is restricted only by our imaginations!

Although in-camera automation relieves us of many of the technical challenges of photography and videography, if creators wish to record beautiful and spectacular imagery it still requires the person behind (or in control of) the lens to be a master of their equipment and to apply creative skill to the art. Without this, our images or videos will lack visual appeal and our stories will be all the poorer.

Drying yacht in Alnmouth, Northumberland. Long exposures can also be used to blur water and clouds to give an air of tranquillity. Photo: James Kenning

Creating impact

If your story is to be told, it must be seen and read. Unfortunately, the world of social media is a saturated digital space, and it is no easy task to be noticed within even the relatively bespoke online sailing genre.

To convince your audience to engage, imagery with instant visual impact is essential; to persuade them to follow your channel – if that’s your aim – you must deliver consistently appealing content.

When uploading an image, choose a picture that will make the viewer wish they had been next to you when you took the photograph. Pack it with colour and include elements that say more than ‘Here is another pretty anchorage’.

Our brains are wired to engage with faces, and images of people are instantly engaging. Take inspiration from established and popular feeds or channels, but don’t copy them as originality is key to captivating your audience.

Be sure to back up your pictures with words or your videos with speech; let your audience know where you were, how you felt and what you did or plan to do next.

Each social media platform works best with different types of content. Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Which platform is best?

Platforms suits your style of content. Consider if you plan to be image or video-centric, and what age audience you hope to reach. Some platforms offer multiple formats such as posts, reels, stories or live feeds, whilst others specialise in a single medium.

Whether you choose Instagram, YouTube, TikTok or Facebook, be realistic about the energy you want to dedicate to your channel or feed as it could end up impeding your cruising time.

While the most successful YouTube channels look like they have a life of leisure, they put a lot of time into editing their work. If you hope to finance your cruising through your social media presence, be under no illusion of the time and effort needed to capture and edit a 20-minute video each week. Similarly, understand the fierce competition and consider whether having to brazenly promote yourself is at odds with your goals.

The author’s camera bag. Photo: James Kenning

Get kitted out

There is no doubt that the modern smartphone, always at the ready, can record reasonable still or moving imagery. However, whilst an iPhone or similar should not be dismissed as part of your inventory, if you are hoping to generate consistent, high-quality, and varied content, then an investment in some dedicated photographic and audio equipment is probably going to be needed.

The choice in kit will almost certainly be a compromise between cost, capability, and convenience. Any selection of camera and lens combinations will dictate aspects such as the level of light (and thereby time of day or night) you can realistically shoot in, the capacity to isolate or integrate a subject either from or with its background, or the ability to convey a sense of speed, such as moving through water.

Whilst sturdy professional-level systems will expand the scope for creativity and broaden the environmental conditions it’s possible to shoot in, factors of size and weight may bring disadvantages; too bulky or heavy and you may be tempted to leave it onboard when you go ashore to hike up a hill for that view of your boat in a picture-perfect tropical bay.

Even a simple lapel mic can hugely improve a video’s audio quality. Photo: James Kenning

A mix of equipment is likely to be the answer; a DSLR or mirrorless system in combination with a waterproof action-camera and a lightweight drone could cover the bases for capturing many, if not most, photo or video opportunities.

When assembling your camera kit, don’t forget the practicalities of travelling between home and the boat; it is a brave person that consigns their valuable electronics and delicate glass to an aircraft hold! Money spent on a comfortable, weatherproof and practical backpack system will pay dividends in transporting and protecting your cameras and accessories, such as Neutral Density filters, travel tripod, selfie stick, laptop, batteries, chargers and cables.

If you are planning on sharing video, audio is king. Shoot a beautiful video with bad audio and the video will dive. Even if you’re just using a mobile phone, having proper microphones will go a long way to boosting the quality of your video. There are a range of handheld, top-mounted, radio or lapel microphones available cheaply online. Even a £10 lapel microphone with a wind muffler will give you much better audio than the standard phone mic.

The rule of thirds will help create more interesting compositions. Photo: James Kenning

Plan and prepare

It is no small coincidence that ‘lucky’ photographers or video creators, the ones that always manage to capture ‘that’ shot or footage, are usually those that know their equipment inside out, think ahead for potential opportunities and set themselves up for success on any passage, dinghy ride, or excursion ashore.

Learn how to use all the features of your equipment so that changing settings becomes second nature; in the heat of many moments, especially where wildlife or live action is involved, second chances are a rare commodity.

Typically the boat filling the frame provides the best images, but dramatic backdrops should not be ignored. Photo: James Kenning

Make time to research tidal times and study the weather forecast; know at what time features may be exposed at low tide, when the windows for the ‘blue’ and ‘golden’ hours will be, and if fog or mist is expected.

On a grander scale, when planning your summer cruise consider local and major events, such as town regattas, historic ship rallies, or the start of offshore races – a small change in a cruising itinerary could put you in the right place at the right time for some once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Article continues below…

Before slipping lines, establish photography equipment as part of your pre-departure checks. If possible, have a dedicated space in the cockpit, preferably protected from the elements, where you can store your favourite kit.

Mount the lens you most expect to use, attach the action-camera to a selfie stick, and have the drone unpacked ready for launch. Dial into each camera the settings you are most likely to need in case a fleeting photo opportunity arises. Be equally as organised down below; know where spare batteries or a change of lens are located so that minimal time away from the cockpit is required

Know your story

Whether you are writing a logbook, article or blogpost, or taking a photo or shooting video, you are telling a story. It helps a huge amount to know what the story is that you hope to tell and to whom you hope to tell it. People engage with people, so just landscapes or boat images will become boring.

A story needs a beginning, some jeopardy or drama, and a conclusion in which you have moved emotionally as well as physically. Show people the places and the experiences you have been through and you’ll go some way to showing how you were changed by what you have done. This makes a good narrative and will draw others into following your story.

Classic working boat, St Barts. Bold colours, such as a bright red hull, give impact to a shot. Photo: James Kenning

Frame your shot

Sailing trips present varied subjects, so having a head full of ideas on how to capture various opportunities will reap rewards. Crew shots convey an impression of life onboard, so use them to show why your boat is ‘the place to be’.

Think beyond clichéd poses and show the relationship between human and boat; how sailing is both physical and cerebral; capture someone bent grinding a winch or looking intently at a sail whilst trimming a sheet. Often, a candid shot will have more impact than one that is deliberately posed. Passing yachts make great subjects especially if they have historical or racing interest.

Boats flying spinnakers not only add chunks of colour but also help fill the dead space in a frame. Beam-on shots rarely give an impression of speed or movement so capture an array of shots from ahead or astern as boats close or part. If a vessel is heeling to show its undersides all the better.

Use telephoto lenses, or get as close as you can, so the boat fills the frame, rather than being a speck in the middle.

Day at the beach, Brittany, France. Candid shots often have more impact than posed portraits. Photo: James Kenning

Capturing your own boat can be challenging. The typical shot taken from the companionway looking forward through the shrouds is rarely interesting and does little to distinguish your vessel. Get inventive with angles and try to place your boat in its environment to tell a story of wild weather, big seas, or coasting along in calm waters. Wide-angle lenses help and some phones have wide-angle options.

Whilst under way, use a long selfie stick or launch a drone to give a distanced view of the boat. At anchor, make the effort to launch the paddleboard or tender if the boat is bathed in the light of a sunset or set against the mist of a foggy morning.

Experiment with long exposures; if heeling, plant the camera in a beanbag on the side deck and stop down the aperture. An exposure of a couple of seconds with a wide depth of field will result in a sharp image of the boat ‘speeding’ through the blurred sea.

Waves rarely look impressive on film, but getting low to the waterline can help accentuate the power of the sea.

Don’t forget the camera when going ashore. Lighthouses, wrecks or nautical features such as drying anchors can make interesting captures. Take a tripod and neutral density filters for ethereal long exposures of 30 seconds or more to smooth water and blur clouds. When framing shots, consider how the final image will be displayed; will it be portrait, landscape, or square format? If in doubt, zoom out to include more of the surroundings as these can be cropped later if necessary.

Arkyla on passage. Affordable drones bring an extra dimension to capturing your own boat. Photo: James Kenning

If you are shooting video on your phone, always do so in landscape, with the phone on its side, as this is how video is viewed. Make use of gridlines within digital viewfinders to compose the image according to proportions such as the rule of thirds.

Work depth of field to your advantage by opening up the lens to isolate a subject from a busy background. Use zoom to capture small details of an object and use your feet to exploit different aspects or backdrops; moving a few feet could turn an otherwise dull shot into a moody silhouette.

Process and edit

Whether your storytelling is based around video or images, try to resist posting direct to your feed or channel. Video will need editing to select choice moments and may also benefit from processes such as colour grading, cropping, noise reduction or levels adjustments.

Always try to shoot in ‘RAW’ mode as this will retain all the information captured by the camera sensor giving the best chances to correct any issues such as blown highlights during the editing phase. Invest in software that you can readily use; a professional photo or video editing application may give better results than its cheaper ‘home user’ version, but if it is overly complex then it is unlikely to be used to its full potential, if at all.

If using a long lens, be sure to use a fast shutter speed and make use of the boat and its fittings to steady the camera. Photo: James Kenning

The current crop of Artificial Intelligence (AI)- powered programmes can go a long way to rescuing low-resolution, noisy, or blurred images. Whatever your choices, establish a workflow that maximises content production, yet minimises time spent at the computer.

If you’re just on your phone, consider going through the day’s images, favouriting the best ones, correcting these for colour and exposure, horizon, and crop as a bare minimum before posting. Be wary of over-processing and remember that if your screen backlight is on low, you could end up over-brightening your image.

Don’t forget to add metadata, such as copyright, and alt text, so that search engines and anyone trying to pinch your work, can see what the image is and who it belongs to.

Time to get it out there

Share the story

All that now remains is to upload the final edit of your content. If you are adding music to a video clip, be careful not to infringe on someone else’s copyright; the social media platform should give guidance on this. There are also options to purchase royalty-free tunes either individually or as a wider subscription.

Still images will more than likely benefit from accompanying text. Be sure to tag the location, people or boats that feature so they can share the moment too!

Take to the air

The new generation of affordable drones has brought a step-change in creative possibilities for sailing photographers and video creators. Basic aircraft can
be purchased for a few hundred pounds, although more advanced models can cost many thousands. Individual choice will depend on your threshold of affordability for both drone and camera performance; sensor resolution, video frame rate, flight time, tracking and object avoidance are typical considerations as is the acceptable level of financial risk should the drone be lost to Neptune’s watery grave!

Before purchasing, familiarise yourself with all legal regulations for owning and operating a drone in the UK and any other country you may hope to fly.

Drones are classified by weight, with heavier models more constrained where they can be operated; sub-250g aircraft give most freedom and, whilst they may have less advanced cameras, they are easier to store.

Practise drone flying ashore before going afloat. James found a strop with a cork on made catching the drone easier. Photo: James Kenning

When at anchor, the launch, flight and recovery process is relatively straightforward but be especially mindful of the hazards of rigging.

Use the drone to capture shots of the boat in its wider environment or for group shots of all onboard. The third dimension gives all sorts of possibilities for storytelling; if you must send a crew member aloft, why not circle the drone around them at the top of the mast for some eye-catching video footage of them fixing the Windex?

Whilst under way however, drone operation enters a whole new level of complexity, especially when trying to recover the aircraft on an erratically pitching and yawing target. Don’t underestimate, in even the gentlest of winds, the difficulty in catching a small drone whilst its battery is going down faster than a rum and coke at happy hour.

Practise your flying skills so control becomes second nature and develop techniques, such as flying with a weighted tether, to make retrieving the drone easier.

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.