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Marine Photographers on What it Takes to Get the Shot

There's sometimes a love-hate affair between sailors and photographers. On one hand, racing sailors worry that a snapper might get in the way and cost them the race. But, at the end of the day, love rules when those incredible images – blue water, white puffy clouds; a beautifully well-heeled boat – come to light.

The Caribbean has the three things needed for outstanding yacht photography, says Tim Wright, who lives in Bequia, owns Photoaction and has shot most major Caribbean regattas since 1994. "You need sunshine to make the colors look good, you need wind to give the pictures action, and you need boats to photograph."

It's also easier to photograph in the Caribbean, adds Onne van der Wal, the Newport, Rhode Island-based professional photographer who traded life as a professional sailboat racer for photography in 1979 when he first made landfall in Antigua. "You don't have to wear tons of gear to stay warm and the imagery is striking. I've especially enjoyed shooting the J Class Boats in the Antigua Classic when the easterly trades are blowing 20 knots. Then again, I love the old wooden work boats with broomsticks for tillers and tree trunks for masts. The mix is what keeps it interesting."

Charter brochures, brokerage pictures and destination images are all popular subjects. However, it's regattas that really appeal to both photographers and sailors alike.

Each event brings its own special flavor and uniqueness that makes the event standout, says Bob Grieser, who lives in San Diego, California, and has photographed regattas in Antigua, St. Maarten and Puerto Rico for over 30 years. "For example, in Puerto Rico the venue, the sailors involved and the people make it special."

Dean Barnes, a 20-year St. Thomas-based marine shooter, agrees and offers up an example: "The St. Croix Hospice Regatta offers an opportunity to shoot Optis in incredibly blue-green water with breaking reefs in the background, multihulls against the white beaches of Buck Island and dramatic fleet racing in the channel with St. Croix in the background."

What does it take to get those spectacular photos? A camera of course, but the right platform in which to obtain the best vantage point is critical.

For example, Guy Clothier, who owns Yacht Shots and is based at the Bitter End Yacht Club on the British Virgin Island of Virgin Gorda, says, "We use an inflatable dinghy, actually a catamaran type made in South Africa for high speed racing. We have a kite-boarding harness hooked to a line going to the bow of the boat so we have our hands free and are very stable. It takes some practice and a few times one finds their heart ready to leave the body, but it's a perfect way to eliminate having to use big telephoto lenses. The dinghy is so maneuverable and light on petrol that I can come in really close to a boat to capture the crew in action or back way off for full rig shots, in a matter of seconds."

Van der Wal favors a power boat, but says, "Communication between and driver and myself are key. I rather have a good driver who listens in a bad boat than a bad driver in a good boat."

"Helicopter is a wonderful tool to have," says Grieser, "depending on the budget."

Being in the right place at the right time is important.

"My favorite position is at the first windward mark after the start," says Photoaction's Wright. "This is where you usually get the most action because the boats are usually still bunched close together and they all want to be in the same piece of water at the same time."

Then, there's technique. Having 'the eye' and knowing when to push the button on expensive camera equipment is a gift and so is knowing when to ask for permission and when to not ask. For example, Van der Wal, equipped with a carefully calculated plan he chose to keep to himself, took his chase boat driver by surprise by jumping in the water with his camera in a waterproof housing at the mark during the work boat championships in the Bahamas.

"The driver freaked out and a police boat immediately came over and start yelling at me," he tells. "But I had timed it so they both had to back away because the fleet was coming. That night, the race organizers were royally mad at me. I took their wrath up front, and then whipped out my camera to show them what I had – the waterline half way and boats heeling into the mark. As soon as they saw the images all was forgiven."

Today, digital cameras rule.

"With digital," says St. Thomas' Barnes, "I don't have to worry about dropping film canisters in the water when changing film or forget to rewind before I open the back of my camera. The downside of digital is that I spend hours in post-production on my computer sorting, selecting, cataloging, editing and backing up my images."

Video is on the horizon, says van der Wal. "In the next five years I see a big demand for video, to the point that I foresee shooting all video and pulling off the stills. It's a huge transition as you not only have to get the imagery, but also edit it into a short, sweet and lively segment orchestrated with music."

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.

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