A Guide to Sailing Photography

Taking photos on a sailboat is not fundamentally different to photography on land – however, there are some specific things to keep in mind when using a camera offshore. In this article, I’ll give you a short introduction to how to get good sailing photos.

Almost all hobby sailors once in a while bring a camera along – either because we love our boats and we want to document how great sailing is, or because we want to take pictures of children, friends or other visitors on our boats. Generally speaking, there are no fundamental differences to photography on land – only some specific challenges concerned with water, wind and light.

Choose your camera according to your needs: Let’s talk about the camera first. Personally, I use a digital Canon SLR, which I love dearly. One disadvantage of SLRs is, however, that you might have to change lenses frequently, which can be difficult on a moving boat. I think that most sailors will use small, digital point-and-shoot cameras. They are small and easy to handle, so if you want to use the camera for snap-shots, you might be happy with a small Canon IXUS.

Keep an eye on moisture: Protecting the camera from moisture and wetness is a big obstacle in sailing photography. If you use an SLR, you will find a variety of protective covers. There are some designed to protect the camera from rain, others offer full protection even in under-water conditions. They were mostly designed for professional photographers, but with the boom in the SLR market, they have become affordable. Users of point-and-shoot cameras won’t find it quite that easy to find a suitable cover.

Hunting for the perfect photo

However, major brands such as Canon and Nikon do offer some for small cameras, too. If you want to protect your camera from rain and spray, bring a zip-lock plastic bag. They are great for keeping things dry. Bring bigger plastic bags for storing camera backpacks, since they are normally only water-repellent. Get yourself some silica gel crystals – they absorb moisture and thereby, keep it away from your camera gear. You have probably come across them before – they are these funny little grains in paper-bags that often come with electronic gear.

If you are really into sailing photos or want to bring your gear into the tropics, you should get a decent amount of these crystals. I filled an old sock with them, which has proved to work very well. Most of the crystals come with an indicator that changes their color once they are saturated with water. Therefore, you should check the state of the silica before every use. If you find that they can’t absorb any more water, dry the crystals in the sun or – in emergencies – use a pan and the galley to dry them over very low heat on the stove.

Stay flexible and firm for smooth pictures: Unlike solid ground, a boat moves a lot and a picture is easily blurred. When taking a photo, stand firmly on the deck or floor with both feet. Allow the upper part of the body to move in order to compensate the boat’s movement to some extent. Hold the camera with one hand on the body and the trigger, the other one on the lens – especially when using a heavy telelens.

Strong contrasts can harm your picture

Mind the light offshore: Compared to photography on land, there is more and harsher light you will face when taking pictures on a sailboat. The sunlight gets reflected on the surface of the water and the amount of UV light is higher than normally. This is particularly harmful if you use an analogue camera with sensitive film. Digital cameras are more adaptable. In any case, you should use a UV or Skylight filter.

Don’t give in to reflections: A related problem are reflections that might ruin otherwise amazing pictures. There’s just a lot of stuff that reflects light on the sea; the water surface, metal fittings, even a white hull. Try using a polarizing filter – reflected light swings mostly in a particular angle, and a polarizing filter can remove or at least decrease the amount of reflections entering the camera. Avoid photography around mid-day, the light is much more beautiful in the evenings or mornings.

Try creative compositions: Sailing boats have been popular subjects in fine arts for a long time (most prominently demonstrated by Joseph Mallord William Turner). Ever since cameras were available on boats, people took pictures of yachts, regattas, sailors – it is very difficult to take original pictures on a subject like this.

A picture-perfect sailing trip

You should still try, though! Study “classic” images of boats, such as paintings; look at historic sailing photos and try to copy them with your own pictures for practice. Then, work on developing your own style. For this it is important to actively avoid copying pictures you have seen before.

Try original angles – go on the ground, climb a mast. Work with wide-angle lenses to distort an image or zoom in for a close-up portrait. Make sailors pose with navigational instruments, decorate your kids with rope or personal buoyancy. Children love to do such things, and it’s great fun to experiment with little models. Photography on a sailboat offers so many opportunities for great pictures that you shouldn’t get bored for a long time!

Further Reading

Back to "pictures"

10 Steps to Amazing Sailing Pictures

Pictures from a Mediterranean Cruise

General Digital Photography Tutorials

Sailing Photography at its best

Amateur Sailing Pictures