10 Steps to Great Sailing Pictures

The dazzling light offshore has fascinated artists for centuries. Today, pictures are taken at pretty much any occasion involving boats: races, family trips, cruises. The special light conditions on sea, however, require a great deal of attention. In this article, I outline 10 golden steps towards better photography on board.

First of all, as I have outlined in my previous article on sailing photography, there is no fundamental difference in the ways you take pictures on board of a sailboat compared to solid ground. However, with some special hints in mind, you will improve the quality of the pics you take. Here we go:

1.) Get up early, wait for the evenings: Strong light gives you hard contrasts and so the much milder light of early hours and just before sunset can be more flattering for your pictures. I know that this doesn’t necessarily correlate with your favorite hours to sail, but if you can choose, try mild light.

2.) If you are constrained to strong light, use filters: Sunlight gets reflected by the surface of the water as well as a number of surfaces on your boat. Get a high-quality polarizing filter (cirumpolarizing ones are the best) to get rid of the reflections.

3.) Keep an eye on the horizon: Many pictures that are taken from a distance in a “landscape” approach (meaning that they show some large objects in a big background) often have a problem with big, open skies; the top of the picture is overexposed, which results in a phenomenon called “clipping”. This means that due to the overexposure, you loose information in the highlights.

For example, clouds turn into a continuous, white mass rather than a fluffy something with shades. You can avoid this by underexposing your picture and then selectively lighten it up in dark areas using digital post-processing software such as Adobe Photoshop or GIMP. This requires fewer skills than you might think, however, you can also avoid clipping by using neutral gray gradient filters.

These gradient filters are mounted on your lens and darken one half of the picture gradually. This can be a very nice effect, as it often adds to the depth of the horizon. It is a particularly suitable filter for marine applications, since the horizon normally comes in a smooth, sharp line.

4.) Make good use of the clouds: Clouds can add a very decorative touch to sailing pictures. Beyond that, they can also help you to get better close-ups of people or objects. Portraits and other close-ups are best at smooth light from all over, strong lights from one direction only can cause strong shadows and harsh contrasts.

Clouds often act like a dispenser to the light source, the sun. You thought that a lightly clouded day would spoil your photo-session? Not necessarily. If you change your plans from landscape to portrait, this might be just the ideal day for you and your camera.

5.) Think of your composition in advance: If you want to take a close-up, make sure you get really close to the object or person. Use a tele lens and a small aperture to blur out the background. If you want to include the background, don’t go too close and use a higher aperture to keep things sharp. Use a wide-angle lens in that case.

6.) Be creative and experimental: Try different angles, do sessions in which you “specialize”. For example, take pictures of only small objects for an entire day, such as fittings, lines, anchor, bells, hands at work. Do a day of landscape, maybe from the shore during a race. Do “action shots” with wide-angle close-ups. You get the point: go to the extremes to expand your horizon of photography.

7.) Learn about “classic” composition, then develop your own style: The so-called “golden cut” of the Italian mathematician Fibonacci defines the key to harmony in human perception: 3/5. This refers to the position of the main object in the frame. For example, if you take a portrait of a sailor, get the eyes and nose not directly into the center of the frame, get it slightly off the central line.

More precisely speaking: if your picture will be 5 inches long, the nose of the sailor should be on spot at 3 inches. This slight asymmetry is something you will find in classic compositions of naval paintings and throughout the history of art. Learn it. Use it. Then screw it. Developing your own style is a crucial step to successful sailing pictures – first of all, however, you should know the “toolset” of classical composition.

8.) Crop your pictures: This can be part of step 7; take pictures and crop them ruthlessly to achieve different styles. Make a landscape picture more “extreme” by cropping it into “ultra-wide” and let the boat sail on the very edge. Compare the “extreme crops” with the original shot and see what you like about them and why.

Typically, you will get into extreme formats and finally discover that slightly less extreme ones are more suitable for what you want to express with the picture. However, it is a great exercise to play around with different formats. You can also use fish-eye lenses and crop the images to achieve a strong wide-angle effect.

9.) Keep people from posing for you: There is nothing as boring as the standard “all-American smile” of somebody staring into the camera with an artificial body-position. Try to take your pictures when people feel unobserved. Use tele-lenses. Press the button whilst the people in front of your camera are getting ready. Take a pic after the first one when the people start to relax again.

Another way to get more “natural” pictures is to ask people to pose with an object. A sailor holding a shell he once found on a cruise might quickly loose his “artificial” touch. Ask the people to tell you the story of the object they hold. Children are particularly great models, they love to pose with objects and usually loose all coyness after a few shots.

10.) Try advanced techniques: Once you are familiar with basic photography techniques, try to get involved with more advanced ones. Slow shutter speeds and dragging your camera with a moving object can result in spectacular images in which the object is sharp in front of a motion-blurred background. Get involved with digital post-processing.

This doesn’t mean that you should “fraud” your photographs – it just means that you can fully explore the potential of sailing photography by controlling the picture from its capture to the final print. Check your area for photography clubs. Meet people online to discuss pictures in forums. Read books and magazines. Most importantly, though: enjoy the opportunity to combine two of the greatest hobbies ever, sailing and photography!

Further Reading

Back to "pictures"

Pictures from a Mediterranean Cruise

General Digital Photography Tutorials

Sailing Photography at its best

Amateur Sailing Pictures