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Marine Photography

Updated on April 10, 2011

The sea and its harbors and traffic of ships, yachts and small boats offers a wealth of subjects to the photographer. All these subjects are apart from ordinary photography as the sailor is apart from these who live and work ashore.

The photographer's approach to marine subjects is essentially pictorial; if the results do not convey something of the poetry of the sea and the drama of the life afloat, then they will have missed the most significant feature.



The most convenient type of camera for marine photography is the miniature, but it does not necessarily produce the best pictures. It is small, which is an advantage when moving around in small boats, and it will make a series of pictures in rapid succession- a useful point when following groups of small racing yachts.

Then, although there is no difficulty in filling the small viewfinder of a miniature when standing on shore, it is not easy to do it accurately afloat. A slight error in lining up the subject may call for serious cuts in the picture area to get the horizon straight again in the print.

Finally, the negative given by the miniature is uncomfortably small, and when it is enlarged to a reasonable size, such valuable details as the delicate tracery of rigging and the texture of a bellying sail are apt to disappear.

For the serious professional a quarter-plate or even a 4 x 5 inch camera is a more satisfactory instrument. The smaller amount of enlargement required for the bigger negative means that the essential detail can be preserved even when the subject and camera may both be moving.

Whatever type of camera is used, it must have a direct vision finder. It is extremely difficult to stand up in a boat and look down into a reflex or waist-level finder. With a direct finder, the eye observes the subject naturally and there is no difficulty in maintaining balance. It is always wise to allow a margin around the subject in the viewfinder so that the picture can be trimmed to make the horizon level. This tell-tale horizontal line in marine pictures shows slight errors in lining up that would never be noticed in a normal photograph.

The shutter must be speeded to at least 1/500 second for taking photographs of yachts and ships from another boat. It must be remembered that the camera is on a moving platform. (The fastest sailing boat never moves at more than 14 to 16 knots. At this speed, an exposure of 1/100 second would suffice to arrest the movement if the camera were operated from a steady platform, but a much higher speed is called for when the picture is being taken from another boat.)

One final essential is a really deep lens hood. This serves the double purpose of protecting the lens from flying spray and cutting off stray reflections from the surface of the water.


A good range of filters is an advantage because of the great variation of tone in sea and sky. It is very easy to under-correct or over-correct, and any errors will show up immediately.

When photographing sails against the sky, they must appear hide their true tone relationship. Seascapes generally need more correction than landscapes, but too deep a filter kills atmosphere and loses the beauty of soft gradation.

A pale green filter and a series of yellow (pale, medium and deep) cover all the normal requirements of the marine photographer. The most convenient form of filter holder is the type that screws into the back of the lens hood; in small craft the photographer must be prepared to "step lively" and a slip-on filter is apt to fall off in the process.

Sensitized Materials

The miniaturist should use nothing faster than a medium speed panchromatic film so that he can retain the advantage of fine gram. In summer the light may occasionally be strong enough to use a slow panchromatic film where there is not a lot of subject or camera movement, but generally it is wiser to use the faster film and cut down the exposure time. The user of a quarter-plate or 5 x 4 inch camera can afford to stick to the fastest panchromatic plates because at the normal scale of enlargement the coarser grain will not be troublesome.


The light at the seaside is very rich in actinic rays and the scene is mainly made up of blue sea and sky and light-colored stretches of sand. So everything makes for very short exposures. It is usually advisable to give one-half to one-quarter the exposure that would be given to a normal subject inland.

Photographs taken on the open sea call for even shorter exposures- one-quarter to one-eighth of the exposure for a normal inland view.

Breaking waves and moving water generally should be photographed at a shutter speed slow enough to show a slight blur- i.e., at not more than 1/200 second. A faster shutter speed than this arrests the movement completely and makes the water look stationary and "frozen".

Flat lighting is useless for catching the sparkle of the spray and breaking waves; the right time to take such pictures is when the sun is shining across, or even slightly towards the subject.

Seascapes call for careful development: overdeveloping burns out the delicate highlights- e.g., of sunshine on white sails and hulls. A soft-working developer and a leaning towards under- rather than over-development gives the right sort of result.


Ports and harbors offer a choice of subject material of such variety that it is impossible to give any general guidance. Since the water is still, however, it is always worth while to study the reflections of ships and spars and cordage for possible pictures. And the subject, whatever it is, should be simplified as far as possible. General views of harbors and craft are apt to be very confused and busy with distracting detail. Exposure should generally be based on the shadows.

When boats are packed tightly together in a harbor, a higher viewpoint will help to sort out the general effect of confusion. Side or back lighting also helps to separate the craft more and prevent their details merging.

There is nearly always plenty of activity worth photographing in harbors. Jobs such as the cleaning of boats or repairing of fishing nets are part of the everyday life hi some harbors, and as such are an essential part of the atmosphere.

Equally important as subjects are the local characters to be found in many harbors. It is usually better to photograph these people by candid techniques rather than to ask them to pose.

Subject Contrast

Photographs near or on the sea tend to be excessively contrasty because of the brilliance of the light and the absence of reflected light in the shadow areas. The contrast can be reduced by exposing fully and cutting the development time, or by using a soft-working developer.

It is not possible to reduce the contrasts of scene by providing a reflector to throw light into the shadow areas. But the same effect can be arrived at by taking the photograph on a day when there are large masses of sunlit white cloud in the sky. At such tunes the contrasts of the scene are very much lower than when the brilliant sun shines out of a cloudless blue sky.


The only safe guide to exposure with subjects at sea in sunshine is an exposure meter and even that must be checked by experiment before the reading can be accepted. On an average sunny day, exposure on a fast pan film with a medium filter will be of the order of 1/100 second at f11, but it will vary according to conditions to considerably more or less than this figure.

Finally, as both sand and salt water are bad for fine mechanisms and exposed metal, the camera should be kept covered up or in its case and taken out only for the shortest possible time when it is absolutely necessary.


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    • RenePogel profile image

      RenePogel 6 years ago from behind the camera

      A little accident can be an expensive mistake!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Excellent tips! I especially appreciate your camera safety tips. One can never be too careful with cameras around water!