Getting a decent boat photo or a shot of action on board can be tricky. Yachting Monthly photographer Richard Langdon shares his pro tips
Photography might not be a sailing skill per se, but the chances are you take boat photos or shots of the ocean almost every time you head out on the water, writes Richard Langdon.
Whether it’s capturing a picture to post on Facebook or Instagram, to create a photo album or yacht club presentation about your adventure, or even to immortalise your pride and joy for a framed picture at home, we’re all snapping away.
Getting a decent picture at sea is no mean feat, however.
To get a good shot of your boat under sail, you can’t be on it, which is a significant hurdle.
Shots of coastlines and headlands often end up as black lines sandwiched between a grey sea and a grey sky, and you’re invariably too busy to pick up a camera when there’s action on deck.
Below decks can be dark, and flash photography captures surprised faces and red eyes.
Getting that killer shot can be exhilarating though, and photography is an enjoyable addition to a cruise, but just how do you get stunning images that truly capture the fun, action and beauty of being at sea without having to be a pro?
Subject matter, timing, composition and lighting all play a part.
Photography is about recording light, be it natural light from the sun or moon, or artificial light from a flash, deck lights or even a torch.
It’s nearly always possible to get a rewarding image though it might not be the one you set out to achieve.
Then there’s the choice of camera, whether its your smartphone, compact camera, waterproof action camera, or digital single lens reflex (DSLR).
Each can give great results in different settings.
It’s also worth thinking about what you’re taking pictures for.
It’s easy to have lots of seascapes looking over the bow, but often it’s the people on board you’ll want to remember later.
Photos can be a great way of telling stories, so including the elements that make up a story (people, places and events) can really help.
If it’s for a collection of images, a variety of subject matter, composition and lighting will help build up a visually appealing record that helps tell the story of your adventure.
Whether your aim is to get the ultimate sailing image, an archive for your grandchildren or social media images to make your friends green with envy, some photographic knowledge will hopefully improve your shots.
Taking boat photos: types of camera
So what type of camera should you opt for to take boat photos?
As a professional, most of my work is done using a DSLR.
I will probably also have a GoPro in my pocket during a shoot mainly for those moments on board when it’s too wet to get the expensive one out, or for video.
For family and friends and for those lovely shots that pop up unexpectedly my iPhone gets used, simply because it’s the camera that’s available to me at the time and the quickest to use.
Digital Single Lens Reflex
A DSLR gives you total control. You can choose lenses from super wide angle to telephoto.
And while most other camera options do give a choice of lens, the DSLR enables you to use a lens that is of high quality, even when the lens is a telephoto.
The DSLR also gives you the choice of aperture and shutter speed, which allows you to control depth of focus, keeping everything pin sharp, or blurring out the background to really highlight your subject.
You can also use a separate flash, so you can control the lighting, even on bright days, to fill in the shadows.
The compact camera was all the rage a decade or two ago.
Smartphones and action cameras have largely taken their place.
They do still offer high-quality still images in a small package.
Many are now splash or waterproof, many have RAW format, some sort of visual zoom and various levels of automatic or manual settings to control your image.
With care, use of their built-in flash can give good results.
Be careful with using the digital zoom, however, as this can reduce image quality massively.
The action camera has taken sports photography by storm and GoPro led the charge.
I’ve never broken one yet, a testament to their quality.
Choose RAW format for the best quality stills and this will also give you more scope in post production.
The action camera is great if you plan to do a lot of close-up, on-board shots.
The super wide setting will give you distorted fish eye type results which have their place but if you’re more conservative, stick to wide or linear settings.
These cameras aren’t great for shooting into the distance, as there’s no telephoto setting.
And last but by no means least, a camera that most of us have in our pockets is a smartphone.
Whether Android or iPhone, these cameras have really evolved in recent years.
They can be good for wide-angle, but offer little by way of real zoom.
The flash is okay, but you will have little control over it.
And don’t forget when you touch the screen to alter the focusing distance you can also swipe up or down to easily change the exposure of your photograph.
Most smartphones now offer a portrait mode, which will give the effect of dropping the background out of focus, which looks great if used carefully.
Just keep your phone to hand and charged up.
People & Action
People sailing make great pictures.
Not just posed shots looking into the camera but while they are actively sailing.
In fact many great portraits have the subject looking away from camera.
You’ll need to make sure they have the sailing in control so you can focus on getting some shots.
Try to get faces rather than backs of heads and also try to avoid having a backstay or rigging emerging from their head.
If you’ve got time, think about lens choice.
A long lens will help isolate your subject from the background, such as the convenient little 50mm lens on a DSLR.
Just choose an aperture with the smallest number like f2.8 or f4 and the background will blow out of focus, especially distant background.
Conversely a wide-angled lens of 18mm or below, is also useful, as long as you get close in on the action.
Stay ahead of your subject in order to capture great facial expressions, and if they are doing something active, keep their hands in shot so that the viewer can see exactly what is happening.
When it comes to lenses, having some kind of zoom lens available lets you change focal length much more easily.
If you want one lens, a good range of wide angle to long lens gives you lots of flexibility, but you may end up sacrificing a little in aperture settings or image quality.
Your light source on board will either be the sun and/or a flash. Most likely just the sun.
So taking photos of people on board in the middle of the day will give harsh shadows from the overhead light which are not very flattering.
This problem gets worse in mid summer or close to the equator.
If you have a choice wait until the ‘golden hour’, a couple of hours before sunset or soon after sunrise.
You’ll be treated to a warm soft light that will make your subjects look amazing!
Ideally they will be ‘frontlit’ facing the light but if the sun’s behind their backs (backlit) just let them be silhouetted for a different effect.
If they are backlit and you are using a DSLR, expose the picture for the sky behind not their faces or rotate the exposure compensation down one stop for the same result.
This will create a nice silhouette.
Your phone camera will also let you adjust the exposure.
There is also a setting called ‘high dynamic range’ (HDR) on most phones, which takes three identical images but with different exposures, then merges them together so that the highlights, the shadows and the mid range are all properly exposed.
This can give a really dramatic effect rather than losing areas of the image in shadow.
In low light, it is possible to get images by using a wide aperture (small f-stop number) and a slow shutter speed, but as the exposure will take longer, try propping your camera up on something to hold it steady and avoid blur.
If you can change the ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity), put it onto a higher number so it records the light faster.
Your camera may well have automatic settings for low light and it’s worth trying these rather than just relying on flash.
If you’ve got a flash, think about using it in the middle of the day to fill in those harsh shadows.
A smartphone or compact will only give limited adjustment, but if you have a DSLR you can get great results.
Set both on automatic and nine times out of 10 you’ll get a great result, albeit with a face that will be pretty flattened by light.
For best results, prior to switching the flash on, switch the camera to Manual (M) and set the shutter speed as fast as possible when using flash (usually 1/160-1/250) and the aperture to a setting that will give a slightly underexposed shot (take a quick frame to test).
Then switch on the flash and set on manual, set the flash power to suit your distance from your subject.
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Start at, say…. 1/4 power and try a shot.
Too much flash? Reduce power to 1/8, and so on.
Try to avoid putting too much flash into your subject unless you want something really punchy.
Then once the camera and flash are set you can pretty much shoot anything happening aboard, as long as the light or distance from the subject stay more or less the same.
If you want to get closer, just reduce the flash power to suit.
If your camera doesn’t have a flash, you could try shining a torch for a similar effect to fill in shadows.
Below decks, it’s worth turning the lights on for a better image.
On a DSLR, you can soften the flash by bouncing it off a bulkhead, or you could shine a torch from another part of the cabin, or use a diffuser to soften the flash.
How to take great boat photos
So how can you capture great sailing images, perhaps of a boat nearby or your own boat?
A dream scenario would be to sail with another boat owner who wants the same thing.
Sail in convoy and snap away, or see if your sailing club could send a RIB out for half an hour.
Just make sure you consider the following factors…
Boats and waves move fast. For crisp, sharp boat photos you will probably need to set your DSLR to a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or less.
A short focal length will help isolate the boat from the background, but be careful of autofocusing on the waves ahead of the boat.
On other cameras, select the ‘sport’ setting for faster exposures.
If you are close and using a wide-angle lens, the rig of the boat you are shooting might look disappointingly short.
The wide-angle lens will distort this.
So think about moving apart so that you are using a standard lens or something a little bit zoomed.
This will bring things more into proportion.
While a wide-angled lens might distort the rig and possibly even bend the boat, using a telephoto lens also needs to be done with care.
Pick your angle carefully as telephoto shots ahead or behind the boat will squash or foreshorten the boat and could make it look dumpy.
You will lose those beautiful lines.
So with a telephoto lens, keep more or less abeam of the boat so as not to distort.
Composition of your boat photos
Think about your composition too. The rule of thirds is a good start for a pleasing picture.
Start with 1/3 sea and 2/3rds sky. And also the boat 1/3 across the frame, preferably sailing into the frame.
But break the rules if you like. How about 2/3 sea, and 1/3 sky?
Think about the angle of the sun relative to the wind direction.
To show off a boat well, shooting from the leeward side will show more of the boat’s lines and less of the dirty underwater hull.
If the boat is front-lit and perhaps in the golden hour you will get some great shots.
But also shooting straight into the light works, as you’ll be rewarded by a sea speckled with sparkling highlights.
Try some vertical (portrait) shots with full rig. This is especially great when you’ve got an interesting cloud formation behind.
Try horizontal too. Crop the rig out to get the length of the boat to fill the frame and give you lots of crew detail.
If you have an amazing background, some stunning cliffs for example, use a telephoto lens if you can to emphasise the scale of that background.
If you are feeling ambitious and in a second boat tracking alongside and have a DSLR, try shooting with a slow shutter speed to give the sea some motion blur.
This works best on flat water so as to avoid camera shake.
The technique also works best using a wide angle to show more sea.
Just set the camera to a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, even slower as you get the hang of it. (A slow ISO like 100 will also help.)
The aim is to get a shot where the boat is sharp but the water is blurred. So keeping the camera steady is key.
And don’t be frightened to keep your finger on the shutter, as multiple shots will increase your chance of achieving a good result.
Taking boat photos from the dinghy
If organising a boat-to-boat shoot is not possible, think about dumping your designated photographer into your tender somewhere safe.
Give him or her a hand- held VHF for safety and control.
You could even anchor it in a bay so they don’t have to worry about drift.
I’ve successfully managed to get some great boat photos bobbing about in the tiniest of tenders.
If you’ve been designated this task, make sure the crew onboard is briefed not to sail miles past you in each direction, which can be frustrating, and also brief them on the best distance you want them to pass and on which side.
Exposure, Aperture & ISO
Your choice of aperture will give you control of how much of your shot is in focus.
A wide aperture, which confusingly has the smallest ‘f-stop’ number, will enable a fast shutter speed, reducing motion blur.
This gives a really small depth of focus. Ideal for portraits.
Let’s say for example, on a certain day:
Aperture f2.8 Shutter speed 1/1000th of a second
If you would like more in focus move the aperture to f4.
You will be halving the area of the lens’s aperture.
So as a result you have to double the amount of time the shutter is open. Simple!
So the below combinations will give the same exposure but differing depths of focus:
Aperture f4 Shutter speed 1/500th of a second
Aperture f5.6 Shutter speed 1/250th of a second
Aperture f8 Shutter speed 1/125th of a second
Aperture f11 Shutter speed 1/60th of a second
Aperture f16 Shutter speed 1/30th of a second
Aperture f22 Shutter speed 1/15th of a second
Whilst you will be successfully increasing the depth of focus, conversely your shutter speed is getting slower and slower and that can effect motion blur.
So be careful here and if you are using a long lens stick to a fairly open aperture.
You can also adjust the camera’s sensitivity to light, known as ISO.
An ISO of 100 is slow, giving you rich, detailed colours, but requiring a longer exposure.
An ISO of 800 or above (some cameras now go up to ISO 6,400 or more) is fast, but will result in a grainier image with flatter colours.
Using drones to take boat photos
Last but by no means least, using a drone can open up a whole new angle for you (subject to local rules and regulations).
No tender, RIB or mate required.
Be well practised with your drone flying before you use it over the water and always leave enough battery power for a potentially tricky and time consuming recovery.
A few other settings also need to be considered.
Disable the ‘return to home’, ‘object avoidance’ and ‘distance limitation’ settings.
The latter two have both caught me out.
Return to home won’t work because you will no longer be where you took off.
If you leave the object avoidance on it’s possible the drone will want to escape your hand when you try to grab it.
And the distance limitation will mean the drone stubbornly stops when it’s flown a certain set distance meaning you’ll have to tack or gybe to get back and retrieve it!
Using the drone to take boat photos will need practice.
Try looking at your screen as much as possible rather than at the drone.
It’s a good idea to have an observer watching the drone in case you reverse it into a passing yacht or nearby cliff (don’t laugh, it’s highly possible!).
Try an abstract shot taken straight down the mast from above; lower angles work well too or track alongside like being on a photo boat, only without the photo boat.
You should also take care not to overexpose the picture, especially when shooting your subject from directly above.
You should expose the picture to suit the boat, not the sea.
On a sunny day, from above, there’s always an angle where you can shoot straight into the sparkle of the sun’s reflection.
I really like using this angle with a drone and it will often give you a great shadow of the rig on the water.
Once anchored up in a beautiful bay for the evening, you’ve got so many photo opportunities.
Use the drone, tender or try swimming in the water with a GoPro.
The drone will allow you to include the backdrop of the bay from an elevated angle.
Or how about flying the drone over the land, if safe to do so, to include the location in the foreground?
If you’re anchored close to shore you can also send the drone high above for an overhead shot of the boat and coastline.
From your tender you can get a lovely low-level shot with the coast in the background, especially if the afternoon (or morning) sun is giving you some warm light.
A longish telephoto lens will make the boat appear closer to the shore than it really is.
You could also try shooting images when immersed in the sea with your GoPro.
For a small cost you can buy a dome for your GoPro for an overwater/underwater image – in clear water you’ll be able to see the keel below the water and the topsides and rig above.
It’s almost impossible to pull off this shot without the dome, even in flat water, as the water level needs to be half way up the lens.
However, with the dome, which measures about 15cm in diameter, you can submerge half way with ease.
Close up details taken during your sailing adventure always look great in a gallery of shots.
The detail could be parts of your boat, an ice-cold bottle of beer complete with beads of condensation, or a bit of driftwood on the beach.
Your choice of lens will help dictate what will be shown.
If you choose a wide-angle lens you can get super close to your detail and get some background information too, though bear in mind the GoPros have a fixed-focus lens so will not focus very closely.
Make sure you focus on the detail.
However, if you would just like a really close-up shot of a certain detail, go for a longer lens.
Both methods will give you good results. Think about your light source, too.
Early morning or late afternoon light is lovely.
And if your detail has some nice texture to it, choose an angle where the sunlight hits the detail at an acute angle to emphasise that texture.
For more advanced DSLR users your choice of depth of focus will really depend on what you want to achieve.
I suggest starting with a very large aperture for a small depth of focus to isolate that detail from its background.
Processing and editing
These days it’s much more acceptable to heavily process an image, especially for social media where ‘filters’ are often used to give it more punch.
For a classic image of your boat, however, or any other image you want to print and frame, be a little more subtle.
Print might not handle heavy post processing well.
There are many schools of thought as to how much one should process an image.
At the beginning I would suggest you only process just enough to get your desired result.
You can always save that version for print and then go to town on another version of the same image.
There are still many audiences who hate over-processed images.
Postproduction is nothing new and manipulating an image to emphasise certain things was going on in the dark room well before the digital era. That burned-in sky, for example.
Controls in Lightroom and Photoshop programmes include exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, clarity, vibrance and saturation.
Any editing will work significantly better with a RAW image over a Jpeg.
Play with them all as practice makes perfect, and the internet is packed full of informative tutorials on how best to use these programmes.
Another adjustment I find myself using a lot is the graduated filter.
You can select an area and adjust just that area.
An obvious one is darkening the sky or giving it extra contrast, but how about selecting the sea instead and playing with contrast and exposure there, too?
If you’re using a DSLR camera, the editing may well be done at home on a computer, but most phones will let you do it there and then; the majority of the above controls feature in the ‘edit’ option when you open your picture on your phone, which is a fantastic option to have when you’re on the move editing and posting.
Newer GoPros also have WiFi, allowing you to download your pictures to your phone on the go.
Practice makes perfect
Photography is a pastime where this saying really does apply.
The more you use your camera the more you learn what it can and can’t do. With digital photography, even in difficult lighting conditions, you can ‘build’ a shot by taking a frame, seeing how it looks on the screen and then if there’s room for improvement you can adjust and take another.
This luxury wasn’t around in the days when images where taken on film.
We all enjoy a wonderful sport and we all know that it’s not always sunny and bright. So take your camera out on all occasions to tell the world it’s not always plain sailing!
Taking boat photos: RAW vs JPEG
I need to explain the difference between RAW images and Jpeg. Oh, and your own eyes!
Our eyes and brain are super clever and have the ability to see details in most shadow areas and also in highlight areas too.
Our eyes and brain can see detail under a bimini and also on a white sail above.
A camera is less clever, especially in Jpeg mode and will only be able to expose the shadow areas and the highlight areas as a compromise.
This often ends up in pictures with shadows completely blacked out, or the highlights blown out (all white).
We can get one step closer to our eyes by shooting in RAW format, which records far more information in all areas.
Initially a RAW image perhaps won’t look as good as a camera’s Jpeg but in post production you can get more out of your shot.
While nearly all cameras now have the option to shoot in RAW, smartphones have been slow to adopt this option and it was only on the iPhone 12 Pro that they introduced this.
If you are serious about your image taking, choose RAW.
If you just want quick social media shots then Jpeg is fine.
If you would like to use the images in both areas you can often choose an option to capture both simultaneously, so that you can back up the RAWs for when you are back at your computer, and use the Jpeg instantly.
If you do select Jpeg, your camera may have options as to which size file to save.
Always go for the largest option, as you’ll just lose quality in smaller files, and more memory cards aren’t expensive to buy.
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