Photography Under Sail: Tough But Doable

by Christine Ridout
Photos by Budd Titlow

Summer is almost here and it’s time to drag the sailboat from the garage or get it out of drydock. Sailboats give us access to beautiful and isolated places. The Midwest's lakes and rivers, its coves and inlets, and wide-open water are home to a wide variety of waterfowl and songbirds. At water’s edge, otter, deer, and wading shorebirds are common sights. Small islands abound, villages are scenic, sleepy. The infinite stretches of blue—both water and sky—render us insignificant. Other boats, particularly sailboats, create postcards in our minds. How can we capture these warm summer memories? How can we describe to our friends where we’ve been, what we’ve seen? How, on a cold winter night, can we recreate these images in our mind?
Photographs. But photography from a boat is a struggle. How many shots fail to catch the majesty of the distant sailboat because it is a speck amidst sky and water? How many wildlife photos are blurs because the motion of the boat made sharp focus impossible? How many of those scenic villages aren’t so scenic because a crucial element of the composition was omitted? Too many!
But there are tricks to boat photography that give us photos that capture what we saw and felt. A big issue in boat photography is composition. Because photos from a boat are most often taken from a distance, they tend to encompass too much blank water and sky. Blank space diverts attention from the subject, fails to convey a mood, and is extremely boring. To create interest, photos need balance. This can be done with either a strong foreground, such as a catamaran racing across the water with the wind, or a strong background—rainbow-punctuated storm clouds would probably do.
A second trick to eliminating blank space is to add foreground framing, such as the boat’s rigging, a portion of the boat itself, or objects on the boat. Sometimes, the rigging itself is an interesting photo. Blank space can also be limited by using a telephoto lens that allows you to focus closely on your subject. Fill the frame with the heron, the canoe, the deer, the small village, the sailboat.
Telephoto zoom lenses in the 70-210mm or 100-300mm ranges are also useful because they help overcome limited maneuverability. On a boat, it is not possible to walk or drive to a position that gives you the best compositional angle. Telephoto zoom lenses compensate by enabling you to eliminate undesirable elements in the composition and compose tight graphic shots of villages, wading shore birds, and boats in the distance. Also, with telephoto lenses, depth of field is not an issue because you’re focusing closely on a single object, omitting the background. This enables you to use wider apertures and faster shutter speeds to compensate for the motion of the boat. And, if you focus carefully, the dock on the point will be just as sharp at f4 as at f16.
The second problem in boat photography is motion. On land, tripods solve this problem. But on water, the tripod is on the moving boat. So leave your tripod onshore and use a fast shutter speed of a least 1/500 and fast film---ASA 200 slide film or faster if you shoot prints. The fast shutter speed freezes action and compensates for the motion of the boat. Open the lens to its widest aperture (the lowest f/stop number) in order to increase shutter speed. Although depth of field will be reduced, shallow depth of field will not be a problem if the subject is surrounded by water and sky.
Next, brace yourself as best you can: spread your feet widely, tuck arms tightly to the body. Take a deep breath, relax, and gently release the shutter. Also, keep arms free as opposed to bracing them on the boat. Any part of your body which touches the boat will transmit motion and to the camera. As you get the hang of it, you can use your legs as shock absorbers to buffer the boat’s motion.
Proper exposure is also tricky from a boat: the boat is always moving in relation to the sun and the light is constantly changing. To ensure the best lighting on your subject, be ready and able to move around the boat easily. If there's an upper deck, it will allow you to change sides without running around the cabin.
Water can also create exposure problems because it tends to be darker than middle tone (a gray card). To compensate, set exposure to –0.5 and then shoot a three-stop bracket around it (-1.0, -0.5, auto). In extreme lighting conditions, such as strong highlights off the water, use a five-stop bracket around the auto-exposure setting (-1.0, -0.5, auto, +0.5, +1.0) for each composition. This will ensure at least one proper exposure as the sun dances on the water’s surface.
A motor drive is another must for boat photography, particularly when shooting other moving objects such as deer or waterfowl. A motor drive allows you to shoot continuously, enabling you to capture wildlife at the height of action. A motor drive is also important even when shooting stationary shore scenes. The barn by the river may not be moving, but the boat is. This means your perspective is constantly and rapidly changing and, once you’ve passed the best compositional angle, you won’t have a chance to try again. A motor drive helps capture the best view the first time you sail by.
Wildlife photography can be particularly rewarding from a boat. Since you’re “in the same element” as your subjects, you are less threatening and wildlife tends to be more receptive, less skittish about your presence—they may even ignore you or, perhaps, be curious and come closer to get a better look at you! When photographing wildlife, knowing something about their habits is helpful. Be sure, for example, that you’re just offshore when the warming sunrise awakens a bird colony or deer come to water's edge to drink. With a little knowledge, your wildlife photos will be knockouts.
For pure fun and potentially unique photos, try photographing just the water. Water with interesting reflections, wave action, or unusual lighting patterns creates photos that resemble abstract designs. This is often most true at sunrise or sunset, when the light slants off the water rather than bouncing off it with such intensity. For a variety of abstract effects, vary shutter speeds from 1/15 to 1/1000 second.
Finally, effective boat photography requires concentration and anticipation. On a moving boat, perspective is constantly changing. The farmhouse that was too far away suddenly becomes the perfect background when a sailboat swoops around the point. The fishing boat that was in deep shadow a minute ago, swings broadside into perfect light. If you’re anticipating, you’ll get both shots. If you’re not, you’ll see the compositions too late to trip the shutter. And on a boat, you can’t walk back and try again.
But, you can vacation again—with your photos.

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Christine Ridout is a freelance writer and director of the BostonWest Center for Writing and Photography in Wayland, MA. Her website can be found @