Tips: How the Pros Take Sailing Photos

These days, digital photography makes it so that just about anyone can fancy himself a pro. Still, there’s a big difference between the iPhone photo you shot last Wednesday and the professional image captured from a helicopter using a Nikon D800 at the St. Barth’s Bucket Regatta

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Photo by Cory Silken: Aperture 18, Shutter Speed 1/1600, ISO 400

Photo by Cory Silken: Aperture 18, Shutter Speed 1/1600, ISO 400

These days, digital photography makes it so that just about anyone can fancy himself a pro. Still, there’s a big difference between the iPhone photo you shot last Wednesday and the professional image captured from a helicopter using a Nikon D800 at the St. Barth’s Bucket Regatta. We can’t all be professional sailing photographers, but there are plenty of tips from the pros that can improve our everyday photos.

Last summer, we traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, home of veteran marine sharpshooters Cory Silken, Billy Black and Onne van der Wal. We visited each photographer in his studio as well as on the water, and we picked their respective brains on camera selection, camera settings, post-production tips and picture composition—all in an effort to find out how an amateur can create works of art like theirs. Here’s what we learned.

Take Heart

Here’s something encouraging: according to Billy Black, who’s been in the business since 1981, even if you’re not an experienced photographer, you can still get good sailing pictures simply by virtue of the fact that you are an experienced sailor. You’re already comfortable on a heeling boat, you know what looks pleasing to your fellow sailors and you can predict the paths of the boats around you. Don’t underestimate the power of your informed opinion when capturing sailing images.

Know Your Audience

Are you shooting for your own picture frames or for your adoring online community? Are you trying to develop your skills into a career, or do you simply want your Facebook albums to look polished? Do you care more about action or scenery? Do you want to create a dramatic mood or an inviting one? The pros are paid to take breathtaking images of gorgeous boats, and they plan their shoots accordingly. Knowing for whom and for what you’re shooting can help you do the same.

Pick a Camera

Once you’ve determined your goals, decide which type of camera best suits your needs. DSLR, or “digital single-lens reflex,” cameras are more closely related to old-fashioned film cameras in that you look through a lens, but the camera shoots on digital media (a memory card) as opposed to a roll of film. Point-and-shoots, on the other hand, have both viewfinders and electronic screens, which provide an electronic description of what the lens is capturing. They also shoot on digital memory cards.

If you’re taking candid shots of your crew, photographer Onne van der Wal suggests a point-and-shoot, as the lens isn’t wide enough to capture much beyond the cockpit. Plus, it’s portable and discreet. He says DSLRs, while more cumbersome, are better if you want to employ sophisticated photography techniques, experience the effects of changing settings or use interchangeable lenses. “With the control a DSLR affords, you can determine whether you want the lights in the background to be wavy or sharp—a point-and-shoot won’t offer that kind of precision,” van der Wal says.

Both types of cameras have become increasingly affordable in recent years. Depending on your goals, $200-$300 can get something suitable, especially if you familiarize yourself with the settings that exist beyond “AUTO.”

Of course, if it’s easy sharing you’re after, a smartphone camera may suffice. For some tips on shooting better smartphone photography see "6 Tips for Smarter Smartphone Photography".

 Photo by Billy Black: Aperture 122, Shutter Speed 30s, OSP 100

Photo by Billy Black: Aperture 122, Shutter Speed 30s, OSP 100

Learn the Settings

If you want to improve your photography, start by getting to know your camera’s capabilities. “The most important thing is to take control of the camera,” Black says. Modern digital cameras offer three options: fully automatic, camera-controlled modes and manual control. Fully automatic is just that: the camera does its best to adjust itself to whatever the current conditions are, based on a set of general parameters. Similar to fully automatic are the camera-controlled modes—indicated by icons such as mountains or stars—in which the camera optimizes itself for a particular type of setting, based on what the photographer selects. In manual mode, it’s up to the photographer to decide the settings, based on the current conditions and the type of picture he or she has in mind.

Ultimately, there are four major adjustments either you or the camera can make to ensure you get the picture you want: ISO, aperture, shutter speed and lens length.

ISO, refers to the image sensor’s sensitivity to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive your sensor is and the finer the grain will be on the photo. A low ISO of, say, 100 or 200 will result in clear, less grainy photos and is ideal in situations with a lot of natural light. Higher ISO settings (up to 10,000) are good for poorly lit situations, when you want to freeze the action in lower light or when you want to deliberately create a grainier image for dramatic effect.

Aperture, measured in F-stops, refers to how wide open the lens is and subsequently how much light is allowed in. It also determines the “depth of field,” or how large an area will be in focus. The wider the opening—controlled by leaves around the lens that close and open—the smaller the F-stop number. The widest aperture setting is F2.8, ideal for a scene without much light, perhaps twilight on board, when you need the lens to be wide open to let in whatever light exists. Beyond that, each increase in F-stop number translates into reducing by half the amount of light being admitted. The highest F-stop number is F22, in which the aperture is reduced to little more than a pinhole.

In terms of depth of field, a large aperture (and a low F-stop setting) results in a shallow depth of field, in which all but the main subject is out of focus. A small aperture (and a high F-stop setting) on the other hand, results in a larger depth of field with more layers in focus—ideal for landscape shots in which you want not only the main subject but far-off objects on the horizon to be equally in focus.

 Photo by author Becca Oken(above) and photographer Corey Silken (below) of the same view shows how understanding and harnessing your camera's capabilities can make all the difference

Photo by author Becca Oken(above) and photographer Corey Silken (below) of the same view shows how understanding and harnessing your camera's capabilities can make all the difference


Shutter speeds are measured in seconds, typically ranging from 1/15th of a second—the slowest—to thousandths of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the image will be if the subject is in motion, which is of course particularly useful when shooting, say, a crew hard at work in the middle of a sail change. A slower shutter speed allows you to show some motion or intentional blurriness, which can be a fun effect when you’re on shore shooting a boat under sail. If the shutter speed is too slow (much below 1/60) you risk showing your “camera shake” (exactly what it sounds like), so be sure to use a tripod. Generally, sailing photographers prefer a faster shutter speed because their subjects are rarely still.

Lens length is measured in millimeters and determines a camera’s focal ability; the millimeters refer to the distance from the center of the lens to the image focal point. Shorter focal lengths denote wide-angle lenses, which are ideal for capturing sprawling scenes or boat interiors. Longer focal lengths are found in telephoto lenses, which are good for capturing distant objects or close-ups of your crew or of parts of your boat. At SAIL, for instance, we often use wide-angle lenses to capture interior shots for boat reviews and telephoto lenses for close-ups of step-by-step boat projects. Silken, whose photos primarily feature boats under sail taken from afar, prefers a longer lens, because it allows him zoom in and capture more details.

In practice, all four components—ISO, aperture, lens length and shutter speed—are interconnected. If you adjust one, you have to adjust another. “The rule is that the shutter speed should be the same as the number in millimeters on the lens,” says van der Wal, “because longer lenses will accentuate camera shake and necessitate faster shutter speeds.” For example, if your lens is 50mm long, a 1/60 shutter speed is okay; if it’s 200mm, 1/250 will be better. What’s more, a faster shutter speed lets in less light, so you’ll have to compensate by increasing aperture by one stop to get a similar exposure.

Black uses a real-life metaphor for visualizing the way these four variables work together: picture two sinks, one with the faucet on full blast, the other just at a trickle. One will take longer than the other to fill up, but both will fill eventually. In a poorly lit situation, a high aperture/slow shutter speed combination will create a richly colored image (picture a dripping faucet); in broad daylight, a smaller aperture combines with a more rapid shutter speed to create the desired effect (picture a faucet on full blast).

According to Van der wal, “With ISO, aperture and shutter speed together, you can create beautiful imagery, but you have to understand the effects of each. Then, it’s up to you to get creative.”

 Photo by Billy Black: Aperture f6.3, Shutter Speed 1/640, ISO 200

Photo by Billy Black: Aperture f6.3, Shutter Speed 1/640, ISO 200

Look Around
“Before I pick up the camera, I always sit back and take a look around,” Silken says. Black calls this “situational awareness” and says that just like in racing, sailing photographers have to be aware of what’s around the boat and predicting what’s next.

While shooting out on the water in Newport, for example, Silken was quick to notice the motion and position of the boats around us. Approaching one sailboat from its leeward side, Silken pointed out how the angle made it easier to capture all of the action on deck. Sailing toward another boat, Silken suggested the slot between the well-trimmed sails would make an attractive image, so he sailed into a position that captured the boat, sails and slot.

As we sailed, he encouraged me to shoot horizontally to capture maximum action on board. He also talked about the “Rule of Thirds,” in which you divide the frame into a tic-tac-toe board, align the horizon on a horizontal line, and place the subject, probably a sailboat, in the left or right vertical section. I also thought back to Black’s suggestions of getting a variety of angles, from wide establishing shots to close-up detailed ones and of using interchangeable lenses. He had emphasized the importance of capturing the interactions between people and their boats, syaing, “Boats, as much as we love them, are inanimate objects. We should try to show the joy of sailing.”

Silken said, “When you grasp how to make a good photo using these rules, you can start to make an even better photo by learning when to break them.” And he shot a photo of just the sky.

Go With the Flow
As I snapped alongside Silken, I tried to remember everything I’d learned. But with boats whizzing by and my boat heeling, I had a hard time focusing on more than just pressing “capture.” How do these guys do it so effortlessly, I wondered.

Then again, they are pros and they do this every day. They practice. As van der Wal says, “You can’t go on holiday, shoot for three days and put your camera away for a month. You have to shoot at least three times a week, to start to get the hang of it.”

 Chatting with Onne while he reviews his photos

Chatting with Onne while he reviews his photos

Black reminds us there are things about sailing photography that will be out of your control, most noticably, the weather. “Don’t worry when the weather’s bad,” he says, “instead, think about how unfavorable conditions can create a more dramatic picture.” Finally, all three talked about the extensive post-production work they do using computer programs such as Photoshop and LightRoom to polish their shots. For each week-long photo shoot he’s on, Silken spends an additional three weeks in pre- and post-production. Amateurs looking to achieve similar effects can try a free program like iPhoto and Picasa, both of which are capable of surprising results, especially when combined with a nice digital camera.

Chatting at his studio on Bannister’s Wharf in downtown Newport, Van der Wal helped to put it all into perspective: “For me, the best part about taking pictures of sailing is that you get up early in the morning, create these beautiful images, and preserve the whole experience. And then a week, a year, 10 years later, you go back and relive that whole thing. That’s very rewarding.”

 Becca Oken is a senior at Northwestern University and a former SAIL intern. Her family keeps their Grady White, Odd Man Out, on the Magothy River in Maryland


More on Sailing Photography


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