Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Sunday 19 May 2019

Getting great photographs of boats under sail

How to get good photographs of boats sailing on the water
Frustrated with not having any decent photographs of my Welsford navigator ‘Arwen’, I signed up for a beginner’s digital photography course and now over two blog posts, I share some tips for taking good photographs of boats whilst at sea and try to work out how to get a perfect ‘under sail’ shot of my own boat!

A boat under full sail, the skipper leaning on his coaming gazing intently at his well-set sails, the small bow splash water droplets freeze framed in minute detail against blue skies and verdant green creek-side reed beds.  
I am very envious of people who possess such stunning photographs of their beautiful boats and long for some similar pictures of ‘Arwen, my John Welsford designed ‘navigator. But alas, I have nothing but boring static shots of cockpit interiors and a vexing conundrum.  How, exactly do you get such lovely images of your own boat under sail if you sail single handed and more often than not without the company of other boats?

Safely flying my photographic drone whilst simultaneously helming Arwen has proved impossible. A non- photographer friend on a jetty got only distant grainy shots. A boat owning friend and I tried to get shots of each other sailing our boat's last summer but results were variable - cluttered backgrounds, fuzzy focus, poorly exposed. The ‘spray and pray’ approach to photography resulted in few images of reasonable compositional quality. Even in light winds it proved almost impossible to get truly decent photos whilst simultaneously helming our respective vessel’s safely.

So, are we are being unrealistic in trying to pursue that one ‘classic’ shot to put on our respective study walls? Well, we are nothing if not tenaciously ambitious and so, as a very 'novice' photographer, I have think been rethinking ‘photographic shoot’ strategies for this coming season. 

A second person in a boat to take the photos was a good idea, but sadly, there were no takers in some local photographic clubs I approached. Photos of boats with blue skies, bright colours and lots of varnish work, yes please, so long as they are on a pontoon, dried out in a harbour or moored within reasonable telephoto lens distance of the shore. Donning a life jacket and bobbing about trying to take photos and transferring between two different boats? Er, no thank you! The one photographer I did find wanted an exorbitant fee beyond my means. So, plan A went down in flames!

Plan B involves taking better shots from within the cockpit whilst out sailing and I realise I need to get to grip with my GoPro Hero 5. It is capable of taking some stunning photographs and thus far I have only exploited its video capabilities. So, some reading to be done and I will post my findings at a later date.  Still doesn’t get my ‘at sea under sail distant shot’ though.

Which leaves plan C. Boat owning friend and I find a nice quiet spot of sheltered water with uncluttered backgrounds, take it in turns to anchor our own boat and the other person then sails his boat in circles around the anchored vessel, whilst its skipper takes photographs. It’s a good plan, an anchored boat will be more stable and we could sail quite close to it so needing only small zoom lenses.  Having upped our photographic skills as well, we should have a better chance of gaining useable high-quality photos and with some knowledge of how a sail boat behaves in different weather and tidal conditions, each of us should be able to proactively anticipate some good angled shots as well!

So, based on what I have learned thus far, here are some tips for shooting from a stable anchored boat. Other tips will be in a follow up post next week.

  1. 1.Pre-shoot thinking

Pre-planning a photographic shoot significantly increases your chances of obtaining high quality, compositionally stunning images. Think about exactly why you want photographs of your boat sailing and what the ‘essential essence’ of the boat is that you want conveyed in images.  Are you going for ‘mood’ or ‘action’ because it will dictate what lenses you use and what time of day you shoot in.  Photographs taken for magazines or your walls, for example, will differ in requirements to those taken for your social media or blog sites, so some thinking about ‘audience’ is needed.

  1. 2.Composing a ‘shots’ list

My photographic tutor made us research different photographers and their styles. We learned loads and became inspired novices! So, seek inspiration from Instagram, Facebook and various sailing journalism websites. Classic sailing shots of boats – from astern the transom lee corner, on a collision course with an approaching bow, from the leeward beam whilst on a reach. All give great views of decks, crew, helms-person, sails and rigging. Bow splashes, spray and a helms-person peering from under a sail create a sense of the dramatic. Drifting sail boat photos, with back lit silhouette shadows of crew through white sails and rippled clear reflections of the boat in mirror calm seas are stunning.

In addition to the inspiring ‘big picture’ ideas for a shot list beforehand, don’t forget the close-up ‘story-telling - water droplets on a finely varnished piece of woodwork or the seaweed covered moused shackle between muddy anchor and chain. Remember, think ‘Big picture- little picture’ for your shots lists.

  1. 3.Location and timing is everything – apparently!

After gaining inspiration, think ‘Golden hour’ - the couple of hours after sunrise or before sunset - when winds are less, watery boat reflections more sharply defined and nature’s colour balance is warmer. Midday shoots with sun directly overhead give harsher, colder light and contrasty shadows in your images that hide the finer details of your beautiful boat. Of course, if you seek ‘spray over deck’ shots, then go when tide, wind and wave conditions are best.

A quiet water area with uncluttered background and horizon is the other pre-requisite. Backgrounds with marinas, tall shoreline buildings and other sailing boats visually confuse a photograph viewer and distract their eye away from your boat, which should after all, be the main subject of the image. If shooting from jetty or quayside, you can crop out clutter by using a tripod and a longer telephoto lens to zoom closer to the boat. The tripod’s stability will also give better longer exposures in lower light conditions. If shooting from the anchored boat, remember to switch on image stabilisation and use your body as a shock absorber to reduce the ‘bobbing’ motion transferring your camera.

  1. 4.Thinking about camera equipment

For everyday sailing I carry my mobile phone, an underused GoPro Hero 5 and a Sony HX 90 digital compact with a x30 optical zoom. Both phone and camera are good for general photography although using the latter on zoom leads to some significant handheld camera shake and fuzzy images. This season I will be using my new mid-entry range DSLR camera if conditions are relatively calm and making greater use of the GoPro for ‘cockpit at sea’ shots.

DSLR and mirrorless cameras produce very high-quality images. Bigger and easier to hold, with accessible controls and larger rear touch screens, these cameras accept different focal length lenses and give the photographer full control over exposure settings, film speed, aperture and shutter speed. The bigger sensor size of DSLR’s capture and hold more detail and autofocus is quicker than on most digital compact cameras. Using a DSLR may require other equipment – see Table One below. It is not a definitive list.  

Table One: other equipment to take with your DSLR
·        Lens hood prevents light flaring on lens and protects camera against accidental knocks.
·        Circular polarizing filter eliminates unwanted glare off the water, saturates colours and increases the contrast between the different elements in a shot.
·        UV filter protects lenses from spray and salt stains.
·        Two kit lenses – I carry a beginner’s kit of an 18 – 55mm and a 55 – 250mm focal length; better lenses are available
·        Spare lens caps – I always end up losing one on a trip.
·        Spare memory card - 64mb capacity with a class 10 card rating, so that I can use continuous shooting or burst mode to capture those spray over bow moments in fine sharp detail.
·        Either a Camera rucksack or a camera strap bag – On a small boat a rucksack may be too bulky, so a shoulder bag is better. I keep the latter securely on me by slinging the strap over my left shoulder and across my chest front so that the bag lies on my right hip as I am right handed. Everything is then secure and easily accessible. Contents are in small waterproof dry bags which are labelled on the outside.
·        One spare battery at least.
·        Lens wipes – I use them rather than the bottom of my fleece (We have all done it!)

Cameras don’t mix well with salt and water so protect your gear. Some compact digital cameras are waterproof and perusing the internet will give many examples and reviews of their merits. My friend’s 12 MP Lumix waterproof compact camera gives amazing quality shots. If, however, you have a non-waterproof one like mine, then invest in a good quality waterproof pouch for it. DSLR cameras can come completely weather sealed but with a hefty price beyond my budget. I bought a simple waterproof cover for my non weatherproof one. It doesn’t protect it from submersion but does from spray and rain.  A DIY option is to use a sturdy plastic food bag with a hole cut in the bottom just big enough to go over lens. Secure it with a rubber band behind the lens hood and access viewfinder and controls via the open end of the bag. Sounds Heath Robinson like but it does actually work. I also carry a dry bag big enough to take my camera bag or rucksack and camera should the weather turn really bad. 

In next week's post I share a few tips about camera settings and safety. if you have any tips on how amateur photographers can get better pictures of boats under sail, please share them below in the comment box. if you have any ideas on how I can get better photographs of me sailing Arwen, I'd love to hear those. Getting on a DCA rally is one obvious one for sure. DCA member's photographs in the Dinghy Cruising Association journal are amazing shots. 

If you are interested in creating sailing videos then see my blog posts below on creating YouTube sailing videos

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