Nine Tips for Better Sailing Photography

Improve Your Sailing Photography 

If you'd like to take better photos on the water or perhaps submit photos to SpinSheet for our Summer Cover Contest, or really anytime, check out these tips we've gathered from successful sailing photographers over the years. 

eyc boomerang sailboat racing
Summer evenings offer gorgeous light for photos, such as this one taken at the Boomerang Race; whereas noon can bring "boring" light for photographers. Photo by Will Keyworth

1. Get the settings right. Our longtime racing photographer, Dan Phelps, advises, “Check your camera to make sure that you have the right settings for the day. The worst thing you can do to yourself is shoot a regatta on a bright sunny day only to go home and find that your camera was set up for night fireworks.” He recommends long lenses: 200mm, 300mm, 400mm-plus. “A longer lens allows you to be away from the action and gives the racers the room to do their thing. It’s less stressful on you and on them, and it still enables you to stay connected with the action.”

Photo by Al Schreitmueller/ SpinSheet
Sailors in Annapolis, Maryland, on their way to race down the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Al Schreitmueller

  1. Make a plan. Dan pages through Instagram or magazines to see what the pros are up to, gets some inspiration, and then comes up with a plan. “I find that going out with a plan for myself to get a certain angle on a boat helps to give the session some purpose. I get to learn a new angle or style, and (hopefully) the shots live up to the art.”
  2. Get up close! “Close ups and faces are the key,” he says. “Don’t worry about getting the whole boat. If you look at the top pros, they often only have a very small section of the boat in frame, but their focus is right where the action is happening.”
    Photo by Shannon Hibberd
    Photographer Shannon Hibberd captured this sailing image. Always great to capture sailors' expressions.

  3. Horizon job. Shannon Hibberd chimed in: “Try to get a straight horizon. Nothing ruins a great photo like having the horizon slightly tilted (if it’s dramatically tilted, you can claim artistic license)…”
  4. When shooting boats… Hibberd says, “Don’t just shoot boats; try to get the expressions of crew and action onboard. If there’s a lot of wind/wave action, bring foulies, a towel, a lens cloth in case of splashing, and a waterproof bag or case for expensive cameras and equipment.”
    Photo by Al Schreitmueller/ SpinSheet
    You do not need to get the entire sailboat into the frame to capture the essence of what's happening onboard. Photo by Al Schreitmueller

  5. Find the moment. Mark Duehmig says, “My favorite weather is after a storm has passed. The sun is lighting up the boat, but the background sky is dark. When shooting onboard the boat, go for people shots and look for big emotion. The effort shown when grinding a winch or hoisting a sail. Concentration on a helmsman’s face. Even boredom by the rail meat, or the excitement while reeling in a fish. If you are racing and someone is down below pulling in the spinnaker, don’t forget about him or her... The golden hour really works for boats; noontime is the most boring,” Duehmig adds. “Boats at rest can be wonderful.”
    Photo by Dan Phelps/ SpinSheet
    For many years almost every weekend in season, Dan Phelps captured photos of Annapolis sailors on the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Dan Phelps

  6. Go for shutter speed. Al Schreitmueller kept his advice short and sweet: “Forget tripods and monopods. Go for shutter speed—twice the usual 1/mm’s, ie. 300mm lens use 2xmm = 1/600 minimum speed. Try hard to keep the sun at your back. If it’s really rough, don’t use your camera bag as a barf bag or for fish.”
  7. Better selfies: My niece Mia completed the pro advice with a tip on the best way to hold an iPhone for a selfie: “Put your two middle fingers on the back of the phone, and the pointer finger and pinky hold it in place. The thumb takes the photo.” Of course, some phones, such as an iPhone, have buttons on the side to make it easier. Find some great iPhone photo tips here. 
  8. Enter the SpinSheet Summer Cover Contest. Enter here by August 1. Also remember that anytime of the year, we welcome racing, cruising, sailing party photos, and anything showing Chesapeake sailors (or yourself!) having a great time on or along the water! Send all to [email protected].

This article first appeared in SpinSheet in 2018 and was updated in July 2024. Find SpinSheet's photo gallery