On The Water With Onne

For aspiring sailing photographers, an evening shooting photos with Onne van der Wal is like golfing with Phil Mickelson, hitting balls with Roger Federer or skiing with Lindsey Vonn—there’s nothing quite like hanging out with your idol in his or her element.
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For aspiring sailing photographers, an evening shooting photos with Onne van der Wal is like golfing with Phil Mickelson, hitting balls with Roger Federer or skiing with Lindsey Vonn—there’s nothing quite like hanging out with your idol in his or her element.

Last summer, SAIL designer Isa Pagani and I participated in an Onne van der Wal on-water photography workshop in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1500 hours to sunset, we and a dozen other photography enthusiasts rode aboard Gansett, a gorgeous restored lobster boat owned and operated by Jeff O’Brian, a former America’s Cup chase boat driver. As Jeff expertly drove us around his home waters, Onne lectured about how to take better photos of boats at anchor, boats under sail, well-lit landscapes, poorly lit landscapes, wildlife and people. The tour began in Newport Harbor, packed with impressive yachts, and continued along the shoreline, past Fort Adams State Park, out to Castle Island and to the darling lighthouse beyond, before heading back to shoot a Shields race and finally, the sunset over the Jamestown Bridge.

Along the way, Onne interacted with us all personally, watching over shoulders to offer helpful tips. In addition to teaching the basics, Onne also brought along six new Canon lenses, which students borrowed to broaden their skill set.

As we sailed along, Onne spoke into the loudspeaker, “This is a nice long-angle shot” as we passed a lighthouse; “This is good for a wide-angle lens” as the sun set beyond the bridge; “Watch your histogram here” when the sun finally broke through the clouds; “Your cameras will want to overexpose as the light grows.” Onne talked about composition, described how to read a histogram and helped adjust our settings to match the surroundings.

The 14 students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. A painter from Ft. Worth, Texas, came to take photos for her paintings—she’d never been to New England before and was delighted by both the scenery and the delicious complimentary lobster roll. A U.S. Marine from Florida came to learn about on-water photography, and several retired folks with a photography hobby drove in to learn from the master.

On post-production work, Onne said, “I don’t overdo when I’m editing. I try to think back and remember why I was struck by the image in the first place. I also don’t take endless photos; I wait for the right photo.” On setting up a shot from a boat, Onne said to shoot from “leeward and aft,” to get in the most faces and the most boat. Mostly, he encouraged us to practice. “The only way to learn to shoot with a modern-day SLR camera is to get outside and do it. Inside classes are fine, but there’s nothing like being out on the water.”

In his 25-plus years of sailing photography, Onne’s shot it all, so he has plenty of knowledge from which to cull. He teaches workshops in Newport three times a summer and is hoping to expand with workshops abroad in places like the Bahamas and Croatia.


As the Shields fleet took off on the final leg of their race, sailing toward the Jamestown Bridge and the sunset, Onne commented on the geometry occurring between the heeled-over masts and the uprights of the bridge. Anyone could have seen the beauty; Onne was there to teach us how to capture it.

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