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Boat Photography Tips

Take great sailing pictures with these simple tips for nautical photography

Boats are a great subject to photograph - they're attractive, evoke a sense of adventure and freedom, and can generally be found in abundance if you know where to look. They're also a great subject for beginners to photograph, as it can be quite a forgiving subject. If you're not sure where to begin, have a look at our tips to help you get started.

Best locations for boat photography

There's a surprising amount of variety when it comes to types of boats, all of which can make for great subjects.

A few things you should consider when location scouting include what kind of vantage point you can get on the boats, will they be moored or sailing, what kind of background will be in your shot and so on. If you intend to start photographing on any private property, you should always check with the relevant owner, while it's polite to double check with a boat owner if you see one before you start taking lots of photographs of their property.

You should also pay close attention to the weather conditions when thinking about a boat photography shoot. You're unlikely to get amazing photos in the pouring rain, but if it has been raining earlier that day you could get some interesting close-ups which feature water droplets. A moody sky can work very well, but a brilliant blue sky tends to be quite striking against a white boat. If you're intending to photograph sailing boats in motion, you'll need the wind to be reasonably strong to get the best shapes in the sails, too.

The time of day which you head out to take your shots is also important. As with many different subjects, the “golden hour”, where the sun is low in the sky just after sunrise, and just before sunset, is the ideal time to photograph. With moored boats, shooting early in the morning can be a good way to avoid crowds, while sunset sails provide excellent light.

In terms of best viewpoints to photograph from, there a number of different options you could try. Photographing from the jetty, harbour or marina allows you to get super close to the boats. If you're lucky enough to have access, photographing a boat at sea from another boat can allow you to get some stunning contextual sailing photos - if you don't have access to your own boat, look for boat trips and cruises and discuss with the tour operator to see if you will be sailing close to other yachts and boats.

Shooting from the shoreline allows you to photograph the boat doing what it does best - sailing, again, you can get some good context from a distance, especially if you have a long focal length lens. A higher vantage point allows you to get some aerial-type shots - look for nearby hills or bridges which offer a good view over a local harbour or marina.

Best camera equipment for boat photography

The good news is that you can have a go at boat photography with almost any kind of camera. That being said, something which allows you to change lenses will give you the best flexibility when it comes to taking different kinds of shots.

Have a look at our range of excellent DSLRs and CSCs (compact system cameras), to find one which suits your budget.

When it comes to lenses, you may want to consider packing a host of different options to get good variety in your sailing images. If you're photographing boats at a harbour or marina, and you can get nice and close, a wide-angle lens is a good choice for making sure you get that all-encompassing shot and some context for your shot.

Anything wider than 24mm is likely to lead to quite a distorted look, which is fine if it's the look you're going for, but it may be less than accurate. A wide-angle between 24mm and 28mm is ideal for getting all of the boat in while still keeping lines straight and ship-shape.

A prime lens with a wide aperture, such as a 50mm f/1.8 is great for taking close-up crops of certain details you're likely to find on ships and boats - think rope, anchors, navigation controls and so on. A macro lens is even better as you can really bring out that fine detail.

If you want to photograph boats which are in the distance, or sailing, then a telephoto lens is in order. Something which offers a flexible focal length, such as 70-200mm, or 70-300mm gives you scope to get closer to the boat if you need to, while also being able to frame slightly wider shots too.

Now on to other accessories which can be useful for this subject. A polarising filter is great for helping to reduce unwanted glare and reflections, which can be problematic with boats which have a high sheen. They also have the added bonus of saturating colours for a deeper and more vivid look - ideal for blue skies. Alternatively, a UV filter can also be useful for protecting your lens from water and salt splashes, which can be damaging to your lens.

A tripod can be a good idea if you're photographing boats in the distance with a long telephoto lens, especially if your camera or lens doesn't have in-built optical image stabilisation. Make sure you look for one which has a panning head to allow you to keep up with the movement of the boat. This Manfrotto MK190XS-2W Tripod and Fluid Head System is great, especially as it allows you to photograph from some really low angles.

As another option, you could go for a monopod, which you can move around with you but still offers a good level of stabilisation. Again, if you're photographing on private property - be sure to ask permission before using tripods, and always bear in mind safety - never block a walkway which is close to the water's edge.

Best camera settings for boat photography

It pays to experiment with different settings, but there are some ideas you can start with, altering settings as you get more familiar with the subject. As you'll likely be shooting in bright light, a low ISO is a good idea to make sure detail is as sharp as possible.

For shutter speeds, if you're photographing a boat in motion, you'll want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze action. Alternatively, if your lens has good image stabilisation, you can try shooting for slower speeds (such as 1-2 seconds) to try blurring the water but keeping the boat sharp.

Best composition for boat photography

In terms of compositions, to get the best sailing pictures, there are no hard and fast rules. However, there are some tips to get you started with that generally result in good boat images. First of all, shooting low allows the boat to look majestic and imposing, something which can really work well with larger boats and yachts.

Secondly, you should pay attention to any distractions in the background. This can take the form of many things, including other boats, something floating in the water and people walking by in a marina. Take a little time to run your eye around the frame in order to check that the background is free before pressing the shutter.

Shapes, angles and tight crops all work really well for abstract shots, and can look very effective when you group together shots for a montage or collage. Finally, including the scenery for context is a great idea, especially when you're in a beautiful location. At such times, placing the yacht or boat according to the rule of thirds can lead to an attractive composition. Imagine your scene is divided into three with lines, both horizontally and vertically - where the lines meet is where you should place the boat in the scene. This also gives you the advantage of having space for the boat to sail “into”.

All that said, rules are made to be broken so try experimenting with different compositions and ideas until you find something you like.

Will you be giving boat photography a go? Let us see your best shots via our social media channels on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.