When renowned marine photographer Onne van der Wal popped the question “Does everyone know what a histogram is?” and my hand was the only one raised to admit I didn’t, I knew I was in trouble. Van der Wal, one of about 45 top-end shooters in the “Explorers of Light” posse of professionals, sponsored by Canon cameras, was addressing a couple of dozen attendees at one of his regular photography workshops at his gallery in Newport, Rhode Island, last summer.
The occasion was the introduction of Canon’s new 1D X MKII camera — at about $6,000, it’s worth more than my ancient Silverado pickup truck — and the group consisted mostly of ringers: photography writers dispatched to review the gear for their respective websites and publications. A final spot had opened up that Canon graciously offered to me, but I realized from the outset that, talentwise, I was way out of my league. Then again, I’ve had oodles of photos published over the years to accompany my magazine stories, and reckoned a little pro instruction wouldn’t hurt anything. Heck, I might even learn a trick or two.
Like a lot of sailors, even when I’m not working, I enjoy taking photos out on the water. With an ongoing panoply of incredibly cool boats from every era going to and fro in the city’s busy harbor, Newport is an especially good place to do so. But great marine photography is both an art and a science, and not an easy one at that. Oftentimes you’re shooting one pitching, moving object from the deck of yet another one. A good dollop of sea spray can gum up the works of an expensive camera body easily, and the light changes often and quickly. I’ve always admired the best nautical shooters, like van der Wal, who have their own distinct style. I consider them nothing less than artists, with technical skills to match. Van der Wal readily admits that much of the magic and artistry in his work comes from the many hours he spends massaging raw files on his Mac.
Me? Not so much. And I figure if I take 300 images and get five or six worth publishing, I’m doing just fine.
But we can all get better, right? Like any sport or activity, it’s all about repetition: The more you do something, the more adept you become at it. And van der Wal had laid out an itinerary that would maximize our opportunities to get great shots. First we’d board a photo boat to shoot the Tuesday night yacht races on Narragansett Bay. The next morning, we’d set forth into Newport to capture street and city scenes. Finally, by car, we’d head out to Castle Hill, at the mouth of the bay, to catch the famous lighthouse at sunset. It was a nice mixture of activity on land and at sea.
As it turned out, the racing was my favorite part, and not a little because I was able to swap my knowledge of what was happening on the course with some tips from the camera pros, many of whom had no clue about the difference between windward and leeward. For a while there, I actually didn’t feel like an idiot.
And van der Wal couldn’t have been more helpful. At one point I asked him how cruising sailors could shoot better images. “Well,” he said, “iPhones are great, but you have to go to the next level and get a proper camera. You don’t have to break the bank. There are $600 cameras that are very good.
“If you’re shooting on board, get a wide-angle lens first,” he continued. “They’re much easier to work with — no shake — and you can really compose your shots. On a boat, 90 percent of my stuff is shot with a wide-angle lens. “And it’s so worth the money you spend on lenses,” he added. “If you’re on a budget and can bring just two lenses with you, I’d suggest a 24-105mm and a 100-400mm. That’s an amazing setup. Camera bodies aren’t as important. Some are better in low light, some have bells and whistles, but they’ll all shoot beautifully. You could send me off on an assignment with a $600 camera, and if I can put a good lens on it, you’d never know.”
Oh, and about that histogram. “It’s the little graph on the back of the camera that tells you what’s going on with the light hitting the meter,” he said. “It will tell you if you’re underexposing or overexposing and the quantity of brightness or darkness. Essentially, it’s a light meter.” That seemed appropriate. After a couple of days hanging with the pros, even I was starting to see the light.
*Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor. To learn more about Onne van der Wal’s photography workshops, visit his website (www.vanderwal.com). *