by Nic Bothma
“At sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much.”
— Robin Lee Graham, Sailor
One thing is sure in life, nothing stands still, we are constantly moving, changing, developing, evolving in and with our environment and within ourselves. Sailing photography mirrors this maxim and embodies its essence.
When asked to cover sailing at Olympics I asked our experienced friend Captain Hoslet* from Brussels what I should bring. He replied: “You need a serious not too big pelicase, long long lens but not too heavy kind of 500 f4 as you hold your lens all day without monopod and a serious dose of non-seasickness …expect to spend all day out on a rolling boat rushing from race to race!”
Well that about sums it up, he was spot on.
Some days racing is inside the bay, with flat, sunny and spectacular backdrops. On these days, one might mistake the assignment for a vacation at club med…on other days it’s outside the bay in big swell, extreme rolling around in heavy seas, strong wind and waves crashing over the boat as you try to hand hold a 500 mm lens and catch some action in between cleaning your front element and drying your hands for the next frame all the while diesel fumes and constant motion prepare a special kind of cocktail for you to deal with!
Once the races are on you are too busy to worry about your stomach’s feelings. However, when the races are postponed you sit rolling around with nothing to do. That’s when the devil rears its ugly head and you dig deep to fend off waves of nausea even if you have been sailing all your life. If you have ever been seasick, believe me, at that moment death seems a rosier option than dealing with that feeling!
Then there is the politics of sharing the boat with various other photographers, their needs and egos and the boat captains who do not speak English. Sailing is a complicated sport with a lot of rules, hard to follow at times and even harder to comprehend the course, go zones and no go zones. You push the boat drivers to the limit each time to get the shots. It’s demanding, relentless and yet exhilarating.
Technically, it has unique challenges also. Your field of play is a 360 degree moving canvass and your photo position is also moving as well as the light. In and out of clouds, front and back light and spray on the lens element all add up to make your mind work fast like Bolt in 100m to find the correct exposure. I work off three manual presets programmed into the camera that I can quickly toggle between. Front light fast shutter, backlight fast shutter and a slow shutter option. From these base exposures I then tweak according to the angle of the sun, the glare and the cloud cover. The water reflects light and causes havoc with any kind of auto settings, shutter priority or aperture priority as do big white sails. It just does not work to get the desired affect so manual is best with a lot of shifting exposures going on as you move.
At the end of the day there is a lot of editing to do since I would usually have shot too much trying to capture the shots you want. The water housing images all come in upside down since I’m holding it that way hanging off the boat…a small quirk yet frustrating when you are tired and trying to file fast.
Finally, it’s rewarding when you manage to nail a couple of decent images…with over 30 000 nautical miles under my belt, this has been without doubt one of the best sailing experiences in my life.
Thank you Rio. Thank you Gernot***. Thank you Olivier**. Thank you epa.
Sign me up for Tokyo, please!
*Nic Bothma epa’s Chief Photographer West Africa
**Olivier Hoslet, epa’s Chief Photographer Belgium and EU Institutions
***Gernot Hensel, epa’s Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Head of Sports