Sailing Photography Tips

Some would say that sailing is a fine art – mastering the skill, knowing how to read the wind and sea, and how to set the sails so that you travel into the right direction is indeed a skill. In the summer many people choose this relaxing pastime because they love to be on the sea. From a photographer’s perspective, it’s a chance to get some fine images of the vessel, the sea, and to capture the nautical atmosphere.


Sailing Boats

Sailing Photography - Old sailing boat in the Vele d'Epoca CUP, Imperia, Italy

When photographing a moving sail boat, you need to use a fast shutter speed. Turn the mode dial to TV or S (Shutter Priority) mode and choose a shutter speed of around 1/400th of a second to begin with. Let the camera select the correct aperture. Set the lens focus mode to AF (Autofocus) and select continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) mode to automatically re-focus the lens on the moving sail boat. If you struggle to get a sharp image you can push the ISO up although ISO 200 is a good starting point. Use a good quality wide-angle lens to capture the entire boat.


Beautiful Sunrises

Sailing Photography - Sailing boat floats against beautiful sunrise

Sunrise is one of the most peaceful and beautiful parts of the day, and on a boat you will be able to see it in all its purity. Get up and out there early as sunrise doesn’t last for long. Use a wide-angle lens (10-42mm) for a broad perspective, and shoot with a variety of different exposures. You’ll want to capture the natural light, so a tripod or still surface is a must. Remember, if you’re actually on a boat, a tripod won’t help with reducing the wave motion, so you’ll want to use a high shutter speed and high ISO. Turn the mode dial to AV (Aperture Priority) mode and use a small aperture (between f/11-f/32) for a greater DOF (depth of field).


Incredible Sunsets

Sunset view from a sailing yacht

Sunset will give you strong reds and oranges. Sunrise and sunset photos are taken during the “golden hour”, which is the first or last hour of sunlight. You must work quickly – place your camera on a tripod, turn the flash off and set the mode dial to AV (Aperture Priority) mode. Aperture priority mode is ideal if you aren’t used to photographing sunsets, as the camera will determine the correct shutter speed. Use a small aperture f/16-f/32 to keep the whole picture sharp. Set the exposure compensation mode to -1 or -2. Underexposing the scene will increase the saturation of the colors.


Shooting Sihouettes

Photograph of a sailing boat anchored in Alicante Beach

The key to capturing a striking sunset silhouette is to have a strong background of bright colors and a strong shape in the foreground. Remember to turn off your flash and use either spot or multi-zone metering mode. First take a light reading of just the bright area, then press the shutter half way down, point the camera at your subject and snap the photo.



Regatta sailing action in Meditarranean sea in Croatia.

Shooting a portrait while sailing gives an interesting angle as the ship and sky will also feature in the image. Use either a standard or wide-angle lens (17mm to 50mm) for the most flattering look, and set the aperture to f/11-f/32 to keep the foreground and background sharp. If the day is bright, try using fill-in flash so the subject’s face is lit, not just a dark shadow. Experiment with poses; have the subject look at you and then look away.


Zoom in for Details

Ship Knotted Onto Pier With White Rope

A boat has many interesting subjects for close-up photos; the fixtures, the sails, the ropes, the wheel, the anchor, etc. The best way to obtain high quality close-ups is by using special macro lenses, normally 50mm to 200mm. Focus on the object by using a shallow depth of field between f/2.8 – f/8. Choose a low ISO for good image quality and use a sturdy tripod for extra stability – blur is very obvious in macro shots. Remember to use a cable release, a remote, or the camera’s self timer to take the image. Remember that by pressing the shutter, you cause a slight movement, and when the image is magnified, any blur will be apparent.


Recommended Settings

If you are on a boat there will always be some gentle movement so make sure you have selected a shutter speed which won’t capture this gentle motion blur, at least 1/250th of a second. For sunsets and sunrises, or any dramatic colors in the sky, check your white balance – set it for daylight to get the deep reds, but you can change it to tungsten and obtain a different set of colors (still red and purple, but less pronounced). You almost want to exaggerate the reds, oranges and purples (something you can enhance during post processing). If you overexpose the image, these colors will be more dramatic (only ½ to a full stop of overexposure is necessary; try bracketing to get the most varied results).


Recommended Equipment

Wide-angle and standard lenses are useful for sailing as they are versatile and fast. A wide-angle can capture the scenery, the ship and the people in one image. A tripod or a beanbag is useful if you are on a ship to create a sturdy base, that will slightly compensate for the rocking of the waves. You might try to move your body in the same rhythm of the waves, too, but this requires a high degree of skill. Remember to use a polarizing filter and lens hood to prevent glare and reflections from the water. As you are working close to water, don’t forget to protect your gear; water housing is ideal and will protect the camera should you drop it into water, but you can also use plastic covers. Always have the strap attached to the body and wear this around your neck or loop it a few times over your wrist.



Sailing captures the essence of summer time and those breezy days that people spend relaxing and having fun. Don’t be restricted to just taking pictures of the boats, and remember to pay attention to the smaller details. Get photos of the people you are sailing with and the environment around you. Sailing is a unique activity that presents various photographic images only available on the water. The most difficult part about photographing on the water is compensating for the rocking motion of the waves. This requires using higher shutter speeds and perhaps a higher ISO to help counter the motion blur caused by waves.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.