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Sailboats, Photography, and KAP

Posted by Tom Benedict on 28/04/2012

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced while restoring Smilodon, our Pacific Catamaran 19, is the scant photographic record of this boat. It fell out of fashion and manufacture was discontinued long before digital cameras came to market. Because of this, any photographs of the P-Cat in its heyday were made on Kodachrome or any of the print films available at the time. Unless someone was motivated to scan all their old transparencies and negatives and post them online, they simply aren’t available.

I’m doing what I can to address this, but to date all the photos I’ve made of my boat fall under the category of illustration rather than photography. I’ve made no effort to compose with aesthetics in mind. I’ve made no effort to choose my light. I’ve documented. But I haven’t created anything pleasant to look at. We’re about a week away from the water at this point. If everything goes according to plan next week, we should have it out on the water next weekend. And oh heck yes, I’m bringing a camera!

But this raises a question: How best to photograph a sailboat?

Almost every photograph of a sailboat is made from ground (or water) level. There are almost no underwater pictures, and the aerials you see are almost always made from high altitude using a long lens. There are some very good masthead photos looking down on deck. They were few and far between in the days of film, but have become more common with the advent of digital cameras and purpose built cameras like the GoPro. In my mind, there’s a lot of room for improvement here.

The trick with any form of photography is to look at the subject as objects in space. You can choose your light. You can choose the objects that make up the subject and arrange them to best effect. And you can choose the vantage point of the camera to best take advantage of the composition you created.

Anyone who says the choices are limited when photographing boats hasn’t seen the lengths a movie film crew will go to in order to get the shot they want. They’ll attach camera rigs to the sides of cars. They’ll remove doors. They’ll provide chase vehicles as camera platforms. They’ll follow cars with helicopters if that’s what it takes. (And sometimes it is!) Those same opportunities are available to someone wanting to photograph their boat if they’re willing to step outside their comfort zone and not hold the camera from where they’re standing next to the tiller.

I think the best example of what this kind of approach can produce can be found with kite aerial photography. Since I started doing KAP and seeing all the fantastic photographs my fellow KAPers have made by suspending a camera from a kite line, I can honestly say my favorite photographs of sailboats have been made using KAP. Some of the best I’ve seen were made by Pierre Lesage, who lives in Tahiti. His set from the FaaFaite Vaa proves my point. I don’t think KAP covers all the bases from the standpoint of documentation, but for exploring the aesthetics of a boat powered by the wind, a camera powered by the wind does a darned good job.

Similarly, those masthead camera rigs that the Hobie Fleet used in the 60’s to produce the directly-down photographs of their catamaran decks can be extended to a huge degree to provide wild new angles that really haven’t been explored. For example, recent catamaran designs have sported bowsprits that project between the bows, from which a skipper can fly an asymmetric spinnaker, a reacher, a genoa, or some other overly large foresail. If you look at the rigging on one of these, they amount to a pole that is held in place with three stays: it’s just a big tripod.

That same idea can be used to suspend a camera almost anywhere in space around a boat. Sailboats provide lots of attachment points for stays on their hulls and masts. It’s entirely possible to mount a pole to the transom of a boat with a stay running up to the masthead, and one down to each side of the pole. By adjusting the tension on each of these, the end of the pole can be steered around in space through a pretty large volume. Stick a camera on the end of the pole and you have a vantage point for photographing a boat that may never have been used before. Instant newness!

These ideas can be applied to practically any boat for the sake of creating an aesthetically pleasing photograph, or for creating action shots during a regatta. In my case I’m driven to make them in order to document the Pacific Catamaran.

In the coming weeks I hope to post some results from these tests. I’ll try to share what works and what doesn’t, and show you the pictures that go along with the successes (and failures!) But first I need to take Smilodon out on a shake-down cruise and put it through its paces. Once I know we’re safe, then I’ll start rigging camera gear. Please be patient.

– Tom



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