Photographing a Sailboat Race

Most small business owners will need to do some photography to support their web site and social media advertising. Although my business does not lend itself to a lot of photography, I am a serious amature photographer. Another hobby is sailboat racing. When looking for advice on shooting sailboat regattas; the only things I found were extremely basic discussions of aperture, shutter speed and ISO with minimal discussion of sailing-specific techniques. After shooting a couple of regattas where a professional photographer asked for advice and where I got a lot of requests for images, I decided to write an article. The article is aimed at professional phographers and amature photographers who will be photographing sailing events. It may also be of use for small business owners as a guide to thinking about photo shoot planning.

Equipment for Sailing Photography

The equipment necessary to photograph a regatta is actually fairly minimal under most circumstances. Plan to buy or borrow the following equipment:

  • Life jacket that is comfortable. You should wear your life jacket, even if others on your boat are not. When you are shooting, you will have both hands occupied. If you boat driver needs to take immediate evasive action to avoid a competitor who has lost control, you will fall and end up in the bottom of the boat or in the water. Although I have never ended up in the water, I have ended up in the bottom of the boat just about every time I’ve photographed a sailing event. Life jackets make good padding.
  • Hat. On a sunny day, this will make you cooler and more comfortable.
  • Sunscreen. Waterproof SPF 50 is best.
  • Rain/foul weather gear. If there is a breeze, you will get spray, even when it is otherwise a beautiful sunny day.
  • A waterproof count-down timer watch (preferrably a yacht timer with 5-4-1-0 alarms and a sync feature).

Photographic equipment:

  • Insurance, or an old camera. If your support boat is called upon to do a rescue, it is likely that the boat will spend a lot of time with the stern directly into the wind, which means a couple of inches of water in the boat. Even if your gear bag is waterproof, your gear may get submerged. If you fall in the water, your camera will go with you.
  • Waterproof equipment bag. You will probably encounter spray, rain, water in your support boat, or all of the above. A good dry bag designed for canoeing can save the day.
  • Camera(s). Any DSLR with auto focus, shutter priority exposure, and a continuous shooting mode will work. For continuous shooting of sequences for use in an instructional article, you will need a camera that can shoot continuously for at least ten seconds without filling up buffers. Unlimited continuous shooting capability is preferred.
  • 300mm to 400mm image stabilized zoom lens. For starts, 80mm will probably include most of the starting line. For most other parts of a race, you will want about 300-400mm. With a lens less than 200mm, you will not be able to get close enough to the action without your support boat getting in the way of the competitors. Because your boat will be bouncing around all of the time, all of your shooting will be hand-held; lens longer that 400mm can be heavy to hold and stabilize. Image stabilization is really a must, as your boat will be constantly moving in three axes; without image stabilization you will need to use a shutter speed that forces an ISO that will give you noise problems on all but the most current professional equipment.
  • Lens hood. At least some of your shooting will be into the sun, so lens flare will be a problem. A good lens hood is critical.
  • UV/Haze filter. Although any filter will degrade lens performance, the certainty of spray makes a filter highly desirable, as they are easier and faster to clean than a bare lens.
  • Polarizing filter. If you have a clear day, being able to darken the sky with a polarizing filter can be handy.
  • Lens cleaning kit. With 100 percent certainty, you will get spray on your lens. Make sure to have a cleaning cloth and kit available.

Equipment to leave at home:

  • Tripod. Your support boat will be moving up, down, forward, backward and sideways. You will not use it, so leave it home.
  • Monopod.
  • Flash. A flash will be useful for trophy presentations, but not for on-the water photography. One exception would be fill-flash for pictures of people on the various support boats.

Planning Photographs for a Race and Regatta

For any event, planning makes all the difference in the world, and photographing a sailboat regatta is no different. Once you have equipment lined up, you should start thinking about the plan for the day of the event, including objectives, the boat from which you will photograph, photographic technique, and where to be as the race unfolds.

Make sure to get a copy of the Notice of Race and the Sailing Instructions. These two documents will give the the schedule for the regatta and diagrams of the courses so you can plan how you want to photograph the races.


Before you go out on the water, think about your objectives for the event. Some common objectives for regatta photography might be

  • Photographs for club, national class association or other magazine or web publication. For these, you will want to concentrate on the top finishers in the event.
  • Photographs of all participants to encourage participation. If you get a servicable photograph of the last place finisher, you will make this person’s year and probably earn a place as a screen saver photograph.
  • Sequential photographs for instructional articles.
  • Group and award presentation photos.

Getting on the Right Support Boat

For good photographs you need to be close to the action; getting on the right support boat is key.

  • Most “spectator” boats are big and must stay a long way from the competitors to stay out of the way. It will be very hard to get good photos from the spectator boat.
  • The signal boat (AKA “committee” boat)is a the absolute best location for photos of the start, but is the worst location after the start as it is usually stationary or keeps well away from the competitors.
  • A mark set boat or rescue boat a good photography platform, up until the principal race officer decides to do a course change or a competitor capsizes and needs rescue.
  • A dedicated photography boat is best, as long as the boat is small and nimble enough to get close to mark roundings.

Recruiting a Boat Driver

A good boat driver can make a mediocre photographer shoot outstanding images, while a bad driver can prevent an excellent photographer from shooting even mediocre images. The credits for regatta photographs should really go to the boat driver not the photographer. Look for a driver who can operate a boat well, but who is also an accomplished sailboat racer. A driver who is also an active helmsman can anticpate the action and get you in place before the really cool action happens, and tell you what is coming up so you can prepare.


With an image stabilized lens, ISO 200, 1/400 of a second and f5.6 to f11 has worked well. If your camera’s sensor has low noise at ISOs above 200, by all means use higher shutter speeds.

Autofocus Mode

This is counter-intuitive for sports photography, but single-shot autofocus mode generally works best. Although continuous focus works well for other moving action, it generally does not work well in sailing. Because the shooting platform is moving in three axes and the subject is moving in three axes, continuous mode will frequently lose it’s lock on the subject and go through the process of re-acquiring a focus lock. Since the subject is relatively slow-moving, a focus from a half-press of the shutter is good for several seconds, and is much more reliable.

When to Shoot Single Photos

When you are trying to get photographs of all competitors, use single shot mode.

When to Shoot Sequences

If you are shooting to get photos for an instructional article on rules, tacking, jibing, or some other subject by all means use continuous mode, but recognize that on older or consumer grade cameras, you will fill up the buffer and may not be able to photograph the exact part of the sequence that you want to capture. If you are using a camera that cannot shoot an unlimited number of continuous photos, you may be able to extend the number of exposures by changing from RAW to JPEG, and by reducing the JPEG image size.

Photographing a Race

Pre-start and Between Race Photographs

This is the time to work on photos of every competitor; encourage people to sail by, look at you and mug for the camera.

For photos between races, you may be able to control the background of the photo, and get some exciting photos of boats planing.
Between races, get photos of all competitors and control the background.

Photographing the Start

If you are not on the signal boat, you will need to be below the lay line outside the signal boat and the starting mark (“pin”). Usually, the port or pin end of the line works best. Make sure that the stern is toward the wind, so that the driver can power to leeward to get out of the way of the competitors. If you have a second camera, this is the one time that you will want a lens of less than 80mm. For a 15-boat fleet, you can probably capture the whole starting line with an 80mm, but for larger fleets you will need shorter focal lengths.

Photographing the start from the pin end gives you an unobstructed view of the fleet, but you will not get the faces of any of the competitors. Keep the photograph boat stern to the wind so you can move to leeward to stay out of the way of the competitors.
Photographing the start from the pin end gives you an unobstructed view of the fleet, but you will not get the faces of any of the competitors.

Photographing the First Windward Leg

For the first windward leg, you can either follow the fleet up the leg and get stern-on photos of boats sailing upwind, or do a high-speed circle around the fleet to get photos of the windward mark rounding. Windward mark photos are good for publication photos; this can also be a good place to capture an image of each of th competitors as they round the mark. If there is very little wind, the wake generated by speeding to the windward mark will anger the competitors, so windward mark photos are only good when there is enough wind to generate waves that are equivalent to you support boat›s wake.

After the start, you can follow the fleet to windward to get stern-on photos of individual competitors. If there are interesting background features, ask the boat driver to try to line them up for you.
After the start, you can follow the fleet to windward to get stern-on photos of individual competitors.
Skipping the start and photographing the first leg from upwind can give you opportunities for good crossing photos. On the second and subsequent legs, the boats may be too spread-out to take good crossing photos.
Photographing the first leg from upwind can give you opportunities for good crossing photos.
Photos of the starboard layline at the first windward mark can be dramatic, but you either have to skip the start, or make a high-speed run to get there.
Photos of the starboard layline at the first windward mark can be dramatic.

Photographing the First Run

If you take windward mark photos, you will only be able to get stern-on photos as the fleet goes down wind, and you will not be able to get leeward mark rounding photos. If you stay at the bottom of the course for the windward leg, you will be able to get leeward mark rounding photos, which can be exciting in a breeze.

Positioning below the leeward mark will give you colorful spinnaker photos of the fleet.
Positioning below the leeward mark will give you colorful spinnaker photos of the fleet

Photographing a Leeward Mark Rounding

For leeward mark rounding photos, the best place to be is probably directly leeward of the mark about three to four boat lengths away. Unless they are out of control, you will not be in the way of any competitor, and you will be very close to the action for some very good photos.

If you are doing multiple races, you should shoot one rounding from a point slightly below the port-tack exit from the mark, but about ten boat lengths away. For this, make sure that the driver keeps the stern to the wind, so that you can power downwind to get out of the way of competitors, since you will be directly in their path. For publication photos of regatta leaders, this is the best location.

Photographing an Upwind Finish

The finish is an excellent place to capture images of each of the competitors, as this is the time when they will be the most spread out. The best position is about five boat lengths directly upwind of the port end of the finish line; from here you can capture bow-on photos of the boats approaching the signal boat on starboard tack, and upwind photos of boats approaching the pin on port tack.

Setting up to windward of the pin can give you upwind photos of port-tack finishers.
Position the photography boat to windward of the pin end
When taking photos that include the signal boat, make sure that autofocus captures the competitor. Setting up on the starboard end of the line will put the signal boat in a position to obstruct starboard tack finishers.
When taking photos that include the signal boat, make sure that autofocus captures the competitor.

Photographing a Downwind Finish

When the finish is downwind, you can get closer to the competitors than you might otherwise try to do; you know exactly where they are going and can get close without getting in the way. This offers some good crew-work photos of downwind sailing.

A downwind finish allows you to take some close-up downwind crew-work photos.
A downwind finish allows you to take some close-up downwind crew-work photos.

Post-processing Sailboat Photographs

The post-processing for regatta photos is similar to most post-processing but there are a couple of things that will require special attention: white balance and value, and figuring out the horizontal.

Maximum White Value

Because sails are white, some automatic exposure and white balances can be off. Sails may not be overexposed, but can appear so without some attention to maximum white levels. Spend some time working on this so that the very white sails have detail.

Horizontal is a Flexible Concept in Sailing Photography

Figuring out the orientation for sailing photos can be a challenge; the boat is almost never level, the shoreline may not be level if you are shooting on a lake with an irregular shoreline, and the horizon may not be level if there are hills around the lake. Since you will be shooting handheld and quickly from a platform that is bouncing around, is unlikely that many of your images will be perfectly level. If you shoot more than one day, look at your images for a common clockwise or counter-clockwise bias, and work to correct for that in the next day’s photos.

If you really want a laugh, try the auto leveling transformations in Lightroom.