Up for Discussion: Challenges of Photography While Sailing
Recently I was down the coast with Chris from sv-takeiteasy and we were talking about taking photos on the boat, so I asked her if she would like to do a post on it. She thought she wouldn’t have anything to say, but I think you will agree with me that there is a lot to consider when you are on a boat and want to take photos. I hope you enjoy her post on the challenge of sailing and photography.
The special challenges of photography while on a boat…
When Leanne asked me to do a guest post on the special challenges of photography while on a boat, I responded “what am I going to talk about and how is this of interest to most photographers?” But as I thought about it, and talked to my partner Wade, we came up with a list of things that might in fact be useful to more than the sailors amongst us. So here we go!
Movement & Camera Shake
When you are on a boat, movement is constant, even at anchor! A tripod is useless whilst on board. So how else do you minimise camera shake? For any photos taken on a moving platform, you need to shoot at high shutter speed. Slow shutter speeds simply produce blurred shots! Most of my images at sea are taken at shutter speeds in excess of 1/600 sec. I also have the Vibration Control (VC) or Image Stabilization (IS) turned on to reduce camera movement.
It’s really hard to keep a straight horizon line. Keeping your balance while shooting on a boat is a challenge already, but when you have your eye on the viewfinder, and everything is moving around you, it’s even harder to keep your images level. So I have become very familiar with the “Straightening Tool” in post processing. For me it’s automatic, I check the image in post and when needed, which is often, I straighten it. However sometimes, you do want to convey the lean! For instance in this picture, we felt like we were in a roller coaster, going up and down, leaning sideways… I wanted to convey that movement and did not straighten the horizon line. Here is a photo taken at Point Perpendicular on a rough day… The settings were F9, 1/640 sec, ISO 200, 18mm focal length.
Out in the ocean bright light and reflections are intensified. So on sunny days, I use a circular polarising filter to suppress the bleaching effect of sun and water glare. It’s a bit like putting your polarising sunglasses on. You reduce the glare but get deeper colour tones and definition in the water and sky.
My default lens on the boat is a Tamron 18-270. I want the flexibility to go from wide angle shots for seascapes to zoom for birds, without needing to change lens!
I take lots of photos of birds from the cockpit or from the deck! So I have learned to pan, but that is not all there is to it. I set my camera on high speed continuous shooting, spot metering, ISO 200 and AI Servo. I have these settings memorised in a Custom Function so when I decide I want to capture birds in flight, I just switch to ‘C’ on my camera and don’t fumble around. I find AI Servo great. For those who don’t use this setting, it is for moving subjects when the focusing distance keeps changing. You hold down the shutter button halfway, and the bird will be focused continuously as you pan. That goes for taking birds or any sports scene on terra firma too!
Taking photos of the sea and waves is a challenge! Not just because the platform you stand on is moving, but also because the ocean always seems to look flat as a tack in photos, even when it is heaving! I find that my wide angle lens stretches perspective, whereas my telephoto lens compresses perspective. Either way, you cannot discern relative distances between distant objects – and the net result is the sea looks flat and the waves are little more than ripples, which is rather disappointing when you are trying to show how impressive the ocean looked! After lots of experimentation, I have found that when I want to convey movement, big swell, or spectacular waves I have to zoom in. This photo was taken at F9, ISO 200, 1/640 sec, 92mm focal length.
Camera & Lens Cleaning
Salt gets everywhere, it coats everything. Cleaning the lenses and camera regularly is a must. On a boat, you are likely to get lots of spray even if you don’t see or feel it. The same goes if you are ashore photographing seascapes on a windy day. Salt water should not be left to dry on your lens especially on the front element. The salt is abrasive and can cause microscopic scratches to the lens when left to dry then cleaned. So I religiously clean my camera and lens. I have a supply a clean cloth and some lens cleaner spray at home or on the boat. I also carry “Mack’s lens wipes” in my camera bag. You can buy a box of these at chemists or optometrists; they are individually wrapped pre-moistened cleaning towelettes. I find these more practical than cloth which can end up smearing things around and damaging your lens unless you wash them regularly. The back element of the lens shouldn’t need cleaning but if it does use a blower to remove dust or a cloth for anything else.
If you shoot near the sea, make sure you pull apart the entire camera removing battery grips, lenses, tripod brackets or any other attachments before cleaning everything with a damp cloth. As I said, salt gets everywhere. I found some corrosion in my flash shoe mount for instance and now pay particular attention to this.
Lens changes & your Sensor
I don’t own multiple camera bodies, so I change lenses quite often. If I need to change lens on board, I make a point of doing this inside the cabin, not out in the cockpit. When on terra firma, I try to avoid changing lenses when it’s windy or dusty. I also always try to shelter my camera and lens when making a swap and make it quick. But over time, it is pretty much unavoidable that dust spots will appear on your sensor and spoil every one of your photos. I can cope with one or two spots, but during our last trip, I collected more than a few! Cloning out dust spots from your images can be time consuming and frustrating!
I now get my camera sensor professionally cleaned after major cruises. Some photographers choose to clean their sensors using special sensor cleaning swabs but I personally don’t trust myself to do this and there are times when manual cleaning isn’t sufficient, so I prefer to leave it to the professionals. Most camera cleaning services have a 24 hour turnaround or less so you don’t have to be without your camera for days on end!
Protection from impact
Everything moves on board, even on a catamaran, and it’s easy for the camera to fall… I once damaged an old camera when a sudden wave rocked the boat and the camera fell off the table, smashing something in the view finder. Although it was the perfect excuse to buy a better camera I wouldn’t like this to happen again! So, having the discipline to put away the camera safely back in its case is important. When on board I use a ‘neoprene’ type cover to give a bit of protection to the camera and lens from impact, moisture and dust. I use Op/Tech USA pouches which come in different sizes, depending on the size of the lens, but there are other brands available.
Dry Bags for transport
Getting ashore in a dinghy can be a risky business… You can get swamped by waves, or fall over as you get out of the dinghy or simply just get splashed. If the camera is in a dry bag, at least you’ll get wet but it won’t! I tend to either put my camera in its neoprene sleeve into a light weight Sea to Summit dry bag, or use a larger dry bag that can take my camera back pack. I never ever hop in the dinghy with the camera unprotected.
A lightweight bag is essential. I hate carrying a heavy weight on my back, so for me it’s a compromise between protection and portability… The bag I use most often is a 10L Flipside Sport Lowepro. It is light, comfortable and is designed to take my camera with a zoom lens with enough space for another lens or set of filters. It has a spot for my tripod and for a water bag too if I want to.
So there you have it. The challenges of photography at sea, and my ways of coping with them! Even if you don’t get on a boat too often, I hope there are a few aspects in this post that you can apply to your own environment.
I hope you will all join me in thanking Chris from sv-takeiteasy for this wonderful post. Thanks Chris. She has included a lot more photos for you to see, all taken on the boat.