Most sports photographers, or almost any photographer really, takes their legs for granted.
You learnt how to use them at a very early age, you trained them to do what you willed, you may even have taken them to the gym a few times so they would be strong enough to carry you and your equipment around. You bought them all manner of shoes for the different situations and surfaces they might encounter. At the end of all that training and nurturing you have a pair of tools you can depend on without having to think too much about it.
Now imagine you show up to a job and there are a set of legs there that you have to use while on this job.
These legs may never have carried a photographer before. They may not be very strong. They may not fit very well. They might have the wrong shoes on. They might only speak a language you don’t. They may not even listen. They may get easily distracted or run off in the wrong direction without warning. They may have just had a big night out. You might even be sharing them with four or five or six other photographers and maybe carrying photographers around isn’t even their only job for the day.
This is THE main challenge faced by sailing photographers. Boats and their drivers are our legs. Whereas land based sports photographers can shift themselves to the positions they need quite easily without giving it a thought, water based shooters (and OK, also those lunatics that face the wrong way on the back of a motorcycle to shoot other loonies riding push bikes) need to communicate that change of position to another person who then has to manoeuvre the boat to the new position, hopefully in time to get the shot. These boats and their operators can really make or break a shoot.
A perfect photo boat
More often than not these legs are organised by someone else, someone who has not been a yachting photographer, someone who doesn’t understand what is expected of a set of legs to be used by a photographer of boats. Someone who has probably gotten to ‘Photo boats’ at the bottom of a long list of boats required to run their event and are scrambling around for whatever is left after mark boats, rescue boats, VIP boats, TV boats, Umpire boats and lunch delivery boats have all been assigned.
So what are the ideal attributes of a good photo boat and operator combo?
This is my wish list when showing up to shoot an event or assignment where the boat is supplied…
Twin engines for manoeuvrability and to allow the drivers to be able to hold position. This is important for safety as well as being able to hold position until the shot falls into place. The driver should always be pointing in a direction that enables a quick escape if something unforeseen should happen. Holding the boat with the engines into the wind at a top mark rounding is much easier for the driver, particularly if he only has one engine, but it leaves your escape route blocked by the fleet of race yachts. Nothing is quite so frustrating as getting in position for a shot you see about to develop only to have the boat drift or rotate out of position, except maybe not getting to the right position in the first place.
No antennas, nav lights masts or flag poles obstructing the field of view. When watching a shot come together as you pan with a couple of yachts about to make a perfect crossing shot, goes something like… yes, yees, yeees, YEEE… AntennaAARRGH, will really bum you out.
The operator should understand sailing well. Good sailors make good photo boat drivers. Knowing the points of sail of different yachts, what a lay line is, when a boat is likely to tack or gybe at you and anticipating it in good time makes life so much easier and safer. Photographers have tunnel vision when looking through the camera so having a driver with a good understanding of sailing who can see a situation developing and let you know, is a god send. Bonus points right there. It also means the photographer can concentrate on their job instead of worrying about wether the boat driver is going to get us run down because he hasn’t been looking around or doesn’t understand what to look for.
Thankfully no one was hurt
The operator should know the photo boat well too and be confident enough to put it almost anywhere safely.
Being able to jockey for position for the champagne shot at the end of a regatta or race when there are a hundred other boats all trying to get in there and knowing there will be one chance that might only last a few seconds is a test of anyones nerves and confidence. A driver with the balls to punch through the gap and get you the shot deserves a medal. Or at the lease a heart felt thank you and a round or two at the bar.
A clear unobstructed open floor so there is plenty of space for equipment cases.
An open floor plan boat is ideal. Balancing your case full of expensive photography equipment on seats can be quite nerve wracking.
Not so big that it can’t manoeuvre quickly but not so small that it is cramped and wet.
Around the 8 – 14 Metres range for inshore regattas and a bit bigger for offshore races. If the boat must carry five or six photographers then it needs to be big enough and powerful enough for us to be able to work without tripping over each other.
Like real legs, the more time you spend with them the better they will likely get. You teach them about what angles you like, what the light is doing and how it can help or hinder, you teach them about when speed and urgency are necessary and when subtlety and fine adjustments are required. You start to understand each other. Sometimes you start with a solid set of legs and over time you get to a point where they instinctively know what you’re thinking and communication becomes less and less necessary. Now you’ve got a great set of legs. You have reached sailing photography nirvana. Then the regatta is over and you move on to the next one and start all over again.