12 Things to Consider When Photographing Boats

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Many photographers have niche specialties for which they are known, intentionally or otherwise. My niche (one of them anyway) is… boat photography, a specialty I innocently and unintentionally stumbled into many years ago.

Photographs © Allan Weitz

The following 12 elements are worth considering when setting out to photograph boats, large or small. Some aspects over which you have control include cameras, lenses, shooting platforms, accessorizing, and the ability to choose when and where you make pictures. Other issues, such as weather and having the ability to delay or change the times for sunrise or sunset are beyond your control—you have to live by and work around these elements.

1. Light


Photography is about light, and boat photography is no exception. As with landscape and architectural photography, the best time to photographs boats is almost always early morning and late afternoon.

Sunrise and sunset offer the best lighting for boat photography.

Boat hulls typically taper toward the waterline. Early morning and late day sunlight illuminate the deeper recesses of the boat’s hull. As the sun climbs upward, contrast builds and these recesses fall into shadow. The color balance is also warmer and less contrasty earlier and later in the day, compared to the harsher, colder tones of midday sunlight. 


Midday light tends to be cooler and more contrasty, compared to early morning and late afternoon light. Shadows also tend to be darker. You can take good boat pictures during the midday hours, but you have to work within these parameters.

2. Wind

Winds also tend to quiet down at sunrise and sunset, resulting in still waters and better-defined reflections, especially when photographing boats at rest. If, however you’re photographing sailboats, the lack of wind makes it hard to fill the sails and get the boat moving fast enough to get good running shots. As a failsafe, many sailboats have auxiliary power that moves the boat along, but be aware—a boat powered by wind cuts through the water and fills its sails differently than a boat under power.

3. Cameras

You can photograph boats using any camera-and-lens combination, as long as you understand what your camera and/or lens can and cannot do. Larger sensors produce sharper pictures, but sharpness alone doesn’t define what makes for a good photograph, boat or otherwise.

4. Lenses



 

Firefly, a tandem sliding seat rowing boat, was photographed with an 18mm lens on a full-frame camera. The photograph of the Hinkley motor yacht was photographed with a 300m lens on a full-frame camera. When angled properly, wide-angle and telephoto lenses can be used to render boats faithfully and realistically.

The best focal length to use when photographing a given boat is greatly determined by the camera-to-boat distance. If you’re shooting a boat at rest, fixed focal length lenses are perfectly fine. Conversely, if you are shooting a boat under way, you’re much better off with a zoom lens, regardless of whether you are shooting from a fixed position on land or from a chase boat. The key is to maintain a balance between boat, water, and sky.

Depending on the boat’s positioning, you can best render the lines of the boat accurately using a normal lens. You can also capture distortion-free photographs of boats using ultra-wide and telephoto lenses if you maintain enough distance between your camera and the boat to enable level camera positioning. To minimize distortions when using wider-angle lenses, it’s always wise to avoid getting too close to the boat’s bow and stern.

5. Filters

The merits of filters are arguable, but when photographing boats, Polarizing filters help to eliminate glare and unwanted reflections, in addition to saturating colors, and making clouds pop from intensified blue skies. UV filters are also advisable if only to keep water and salt spray off your front lens elements.

Polarizing filters eliminate unwanted glare and reflections. They also darken skies, which in the case of marine photography, is invariably desirable.

6. Distortion

Avoid distortion when photographing boats. Period. Regardless of the focal length of your lens, unless you are going for a justifiable alternate point-of-view or are perched on top of the main mast, avoid getting too close—especially when using wider-angle lenses, and avoid tilting the camera up or down, to prevent keystone distortions. Remember: the goal is to render the shape of the boat accurately, not to reinterpret it.

7. Shooting platforms

Boats can be photographed from the shore, from docks, jetties, chase boats, or my personal platform of choice, a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter—preferably without doors.

When shooting from land or other stable, non-floating platforms, a tripod is recommended.

If you’re shooting from a non-rigid dock, boat-to-boat, or from a helicopter, you’re going to quickly learn to steady your camera through the use of your camera’s image-stabilization system and gimbaling, i.e., countering the motions of the boat using your body’s sense of balance.


The background was too busy to photograph these Chris Craft runabouts dockside, so I shot from the roof of the dock office across the way.

If you want to shoot from a higher angle and helicopter rentals are out of the question, consider shooting from a bridge if there’s one in the vicinity. Your other alternative is to shoot stills from a drone (or pull 8MB stills from 4K video).

Always be aware of your surroundings when taking pictures boat-to-boat, from flying craft, or moving platforms. Deck shoes are highly recommended when working on wet surfaces, and if a situation arises that requires you to make a quick decision between protecting your camera gear and your personal safety, ditch the gear and don’t look back.

8. Shutter speeds

Shoot at faster shutter speeds if you want to freeze the action, especially when using telephoto lenses or shooting fast-moving boats. Conversely, you can also turn on the camera’s image-stabilization system and shoot at slower shutter speeds (1/15, 1/8, or 1/4 of a second) to keep the boat in focus while blurring the water. The latter technique is easier toward sunrise and sunset, when light levels are lower.

9. Trim all lines, fill the sails, and stow the bumpers

Sometimes it’s the details that make or break otherwise great photographs. When photographing a boat, be it under way or at rest, always be on the lookout for loose lines and hardware that’s not in place or stowed out of sight.

If it’s a sailboat, are the sails full or are they hanging like laundry? Are unsightly bumpers dragging along the waterline? And speaking of waterlines, is the hull clean? If not, try shooting from angles that hide or minimize dirty waterlines to minimize post-capture editing time. Remember: neatness counts.

10. Color

Most boats are white. Skies are blue, sometimes accompanied by white clouds. Water is usually, although not always, blue. White and blue go well together but, if you want to liven up your photos, try introducing a splash of red or yellow into the scene. It could be a shirt, sweater, life vests, flags; anything that jolts the eye can prove visually powerful. If the boat has colorful sails, unfurl them!

11. Don’t forget the details

Full-length portraits of boats at rest or racing in open waters can be exhilarating but, in truth, some of the best pictures can be found in fine details—close-ups of wood trim, stainless winches, folds of canvas, and the curve of a bow as it meets its own reflection at sunrise.

As with every story, if you want to capture the big picture, you have to step back, as well as step up to your subject. Long shots can be powerful, but the flavor is often in the details.

12. Composition

As mentioned earlier, light is the heart of every photograph. Equally important is the composition. Regardless of how stunning the light may be, poorly composed photographs are just that and nothing more.

And while there’s a limit to how much you can control light, composing photographs is something over which you have a complete say. 

Lastly, mind your backgrounds by avoiding distractions behind the boat or along the horizon.

33 Comments

Hey Allan,

 

Very nice article and superb shots! i agree with the lens stabilisation system but why need a gimbal when shooting stills (maybe i got it wrong from the article).

I'm shooting high speed boats from another boat and will be using a stabilized canon zoom lenses, other than a fast shutter speed do i need any other equipement by my side to get those sharp shots right?

 

Thanks!

Hilarious comments, but I wonder why nobody bothered to define BOAT.  I learned in Alaska that it's an acronym for Break Out Another Thousand.  

Adding the words "marine grade" or "aviation grade" adds to the price of any part or tool...  Thanks to Allan for not only his ability, but his ability to explain how these works happen.  

A photographer of many things, though my favorites are aircraft.  I got a great photo of a B-25 engine start, after helping to pull the props through a week ago.  As Hunter S. Thompson said, "Journalism is a ticket to ride!"    Or maybe it was George Plimpton...  

I thought Charlie Branch said it... maybe I'm mistaken... thanks for the feedback Charlie and glad you enjoyed my article.

 

AW

Hello Allan

Nice article and good pictures.  As an active marine photographer for 65 years, I would only disagree with Rule #1 - the best time to photograph boats is "early morning and late afternoon."  If you follow that rule you'll miss a lot of boats.  I would substitute, "Anytime you see something interesting."  Rule #4 is the most essential - filter on the lens at all times, especially a UV, if only to clean off salt spray without harming the lens.  A towel for the camera is also a good idea.

All good comments all around! - thanks Peter.

 

AW

My guess is that the motor yacht shown is neither Cheoy Lee, nor a Hinkley, but is likely the 1928 built, 64' LOA, Sparkman and Stephens design, Consolidated Commuter Yacht "Ragtime".

Her sister 66', 1929 built, "Dolphin", hails from Canada, and is sometimes shown with black fenders over the side, to match a black hull, and bears the same scroll pattern below her bow rails.  The portholes don't match though, while Ragtime's do, though after her Maine yard overhaul she had a white hull, twin 420 HP Yanmars, and was Documented to a Maine port of call.  Not sure why there'd be a Canadian flag, or what era would connect to the New York Yacht Club pennant.

It's clearly not the newer (1937), 64' CCY "Pheonix", with a much different cabin structure.  Nor could it be the 1939 56' CCY "Roamer", or the 1917 built 52' CCY, "Blue Mist".  It looks a bit like the 1929 66' CCY "Mohican", but that had a white hull, and a rigid upper helm cover.  She was listed for sale several years ago at $1.2 million.  That series of S&S designs reportedly have only a single digit number of surviving hulls, and are distinguished by most having a screened forward cockpit for owners or guests.

As someone who pushed major dictionaries to clean up sloppy and outright wrong definitions, including until recently often misdefined terms like yawl or ketch, and who grew up sailing and as a photographer, and has worked around industrial systems more hazardous than either, I'll side with those who expect professionals to learn relevant accurate word usage, while also applauding Allan's excellent artistry and photo tech skills.

Now, on to identifying the winches less obvious than Barients, each turning block, roller (funny round drum at the bottom metal things below rollup genoas, since oddly, B&H's software refuses the normal sailing term) system, etc?  Or, is it better to remember sailing a Hinckley 42, but know why fiberglass hulls are so much easier as cruising boats when self maintained?  That might not fit Allan's theme of "Classic Wooden Boats", a more extreme version of those nautical dictionaries adopting the "hole in the ocean into which one throws money" definition re: yard bills and professional crews. 

 

ps:  Isn't it idiotic and abusive for a company that caters to professionals who often front 1st Amendment legal rights issues and cases, to impose broken censorware that blocks normal terms for items in pictures they host and promote?  

 

Daaaaaaannnng...you are correct  - it is Ragtime!

Would somebody please buy Loki57 a box of donuts please... and make it a fresh box!

Yawl apparently do know your way around boats my friend (pun intended),

I photographed Ragtime onboard and boat-to-boat during a get-together of wood Commuters in Ottawa some years ago.

Great boat with a great back-story too!

And thanks for cutting me some slack in the terminology department.

 

-Allan

 

Nice article. Clear, practicle, and with great photos to illustrate each point. It reminded me of some points and taught me a few things.

Thanks

Nice article as a sailor and retired TV producer.  The polarizing filter was and still is in my photo kit, very usefully. Next time please add information about your photo f/stop and shutter speed.  Thanks

 

 

 

 

Dear everybody who has read this article or might some day read it... I hearby appologize for my fender/bumper blunder.

As somebody who has shouted at countless boaters to haul them aboard and stow them away when I'm shooting, I am truly amiss.

And thanks for the kudos on my words and pix.

 

Allan

Being a sailor for as long as I can remember I understood exactly what he meant. It is a very good article on marine photography and what to look out for, not one on marine terminology.

Thanks for the kind words Bruce...

 

AW

Truly superb photographs speak for themselves; all the terminology in these images is beyond question.  As a long-time sailor and Navy retiree, it has been my experience that most recreational power boaters call fenders "bumpers," and some intentionally avoid nautical terms as pretentious.  Sailors generally seem to be more willing to learn and use the language of the sea.  But anyone with an eye like this gentleman doesn't really need to worry about a perfect seagoing vocabulary.  One point that does need clarifying, though, is that the big motoryacht appears to be a Cheoy Lee, not a Hinkley.  The sharp-bowed red sailing yacht is a Hinkley, though, as the sheer stripe logo indicates.  The more elaborate design of the logo on the motoryacht looks very much like a Cheoy Lee, as does the very old-fashioned and elegant brightwork topside.  Great photos!

Uh, pardon me but as one of the photographers in the Working Harbor Committee and someone with 4 years on your dime on the USS ESSEX, I don't give a darn what you call those bumper/fender/cousin its things. What I do appreciate is the article itself with reminders to me of things I already knew but tend to forget, and a look at that lovely rowing skiff in the lead photo.

Superb use of perspective. We all love boats and here is a verity of types in their natural setting..A  few images of wood boats being built in the craftsmen's shops would have been also welcomed.

Pete Hallock

Orcutt, California

I loved the article from a wonderful photographer's view.  Gave me lots of inspiration and I am looking forward to photographing tall sail ships in the future.  Beautiful pictures, and very helpful

Sorry folks, but using the correct terminology not only makes communication more efficient, it can be critical to the safety of the crew and property when bringing a heavy boat into a slip, or dock, in less than desireable conditions (strong winds and/or currents, etc.). Why not get it right?

There are bumpers, and there are fenders in the yachting world–anyone associated with, or working around, boats should know the difference. 

dotyman, you're spot on.  The language is an important part of the art.

if you were photographing flowers You wouldn't call a Bee  that Thing with wings or a Fly  If you were taking photos of Dogs You wouldn't call them mutts on and on The sea and the different vessels on them are Important and the terminology is all important to those who find the Sea a Life 

 

I would bet most of you don't even spend much time on the water, or for that matter sail. Get over the misnomer, stop slinging poop, and grow up. You must feel quite smart.

Great article and pics, thank you.

 

 

 

 

To all you commenting boaters out there- Thanks for the boating terminology lesson but it was, however, a photograhy article. I'm betting everone reading it could visualize those 'fenders' when he wrote 'bumpers'!

Excellent article Allan, thank you.

Bob D.

Amen to that - you're comments said all that needed to be said.

Guys, If you can shoot marine objects like Allan, you can call a fender a bumper in my book !  He never said he was a mariner, just a photographer. So, let's say I like shooting pictures of beautiful women.  So, what do I call those things that drive most men crazy most of their lives?  Do I care what YOU call them ?  Hell no !  And do any of us understand them ?  I'll stop now.  Good work and a good article, Allan !

Shiver me timbers,  pipe me on deck.  Where is that bilge rat that called me fenders bumpers?

Great photos.

Capt. and Kevin - Take a pill. Thanks to Allan for doing the hard work of creating something of value to share with the rest of us.  Good article and helpful advice.

 

Sorry! There are NO "bumpers" in boating.  The port side is on your left facing forward.  Starboard is on your right facing forward.  The pointy end is called the "bow".  Every time you say "bumper" - put a dollar in the cookie jar and donate it to marine safety organizations.  The only thing worse than saying that erroneous word is allowing the fenders adangle while underway. 

Right on! Only a non boater would ever say bumper!

No "dirty laudry" (dangling fenders underway) allowed!

Hog wash – in the marine world bumper is typically used on docks a fender on boats however a boat can have fixed bumpers and dock can have fenders dangling-- so if one interchanges the term – SO WHAT  = quack quack! The meaning and use come through depending on the circumstance

Now the real point is the top notch article with the excellent descriptions on how to correctly photograph boats -- is the topic here --  

Really don't think one of the all  time great boat photographers Stan Rosenfield would give a toot whether you called an object whos' purpose is to protect  a fender or a bumper -- --

So simply put stick to the subject you lame brain quasi nautical rummies!

 

 

Thomas,

Funny you should mention Stan Rosenfeld - he was one of my instructors at the High School of Art & Design. Unfortunately I never knew  (or appreciated) the nautical side of his story until way after I graduated. I later met his brother, who kept up the business started by their fater - Morris Rosenfeld.

 

Regards!

 

AW

Excellent article! Timely as well, I just went through a boat shoot with drone, go-pros and a 5d with choppy waters. wind, etc.. Was a real challenge, have another coming up, thanks for sharing your insight.

Under your last item.... they are FENDERS not bumpers. Minor detail, but you show your lack of knowlege when misnaming  things.

 

Actually, the proper term is "fender". However, when I learned to sail on Lake Michigan in the 1950s, the owner of the 38-foot ketch I learned to sail on called them "bumpers" and "fenders" interchangeably. I have not called them a "bumper" since about 1960 and I am a licensed 100-ton captain with more than 100,000 miles at sea.

"Bumpers" are in the nautical vocabulary, however. Bumpers are found on docks and wharfs. Fenders are found aboard boats. Check out "bumpers" on West Marine's web site.

 . . . . and I'll bet all the nautical linguists who commented on the fender-bumper issue put hitches on sheet winches and on docklines.

If you do, keep your trap shut, because you embarrass yourself every time you do it because you're doing it wrong. Actually, in sailing it is not so much what you say, but what you do that makes you a mariner, even if you do have white shoes and belong to a yacht club.