Fine art photographer Jonathan Chritchley, a key speaker at this year’s Digital Splash show, talks about his passion for shooting classic yachts
Sail away with Jonathan Chritchley, capturing vintage yachts in action
My interest in classic yachts came about as a result of seeing black-and-white images from the 1920s of old sailing boats, taken by people like Bekan of Cowes. Those photographers were very brave as they were clambering up the masts of these wonderful yachts as they took the pictures with (by today’s standards) basic gear. The abstract nature of these images really stuck in my head.
When I moved to Biarritz in France, I heard about the yacht regattas they hold on the Côte d’Azur from May to September or October. Around 2008, I thought I would like to have a go at shooting them. I felt it would be an interesting addition to my portfolio, and I have always been drawn to the sea. I also wanted to push myself as a photographer, so the classic yacht project ticked all the boxes.
In 2008 I began by going out on one of the press boats. Shooting classic yachts has been my ongoing project since then, and nowadays I get invited to go along automatically. This will never end as it’s a huge passion and I go once every couple of years. It’s really nice to be working with some of the same yachts that featured in those original images from the 1920s (the yachts have been renovated). Some are 60 or 80 feet long.
The main photographic challenge is the speed of these huge wooden vessels. I shoot from a rigid inflatable with a skipper. I also have an assistant trying to keep my gear dry. As I am bouncing up and down, framing can be hard. Shooting on the Côte d’Azur sounds great, and it is, but it’s hard work. I am out between six and eight hours, there’s no toilet, and it’s bumpy and windy. I often get bashed in my nose or eye by the camera, so I come out looking like a boxer. And during all this I am trying to create ‘peaceful’ images! I have never gone overboard, but I have broken gear. I need to shoot a lot of images to get a couple of good ones, and for the seven shown here, there are couple of thousand that didn’t make the cut.
To keep the images sharp, I use very fast shutter speeds – at least 1/1600 sec. It’s also about timing as my boat goes up and down all the time – you get used to the rhythm. When it comes to focusing, I use single-servo AF. I can’t get on with continuous. I focus as I compose and I signal to my pilot (either of my boat or of a helicopter) to speed up or slow down. As I am shooting in bright sunlight, I check the histogram all time to avoid blown-out highlights. On very bright days I tend to underexpose, and I use a soft grad filter to control the light better, all while shooting handheld.
My favourite photo is the top-left shot on the opposite page, as it captures what I have been striving for. There is a lot of space, and action down the left-hand side. I like creative space – the image feels still and sculptural.
My yacht images become limited edition prints in two different sizes. They are often then used for commercial work. Ralph Lauren is using four or five of the images in 20 or 30 stores globally. North Sails, a sail maker based in the US, has also approached me, again for in-store images. I shoot for myself and see if there is commercial interest. I use three D810 bodies with the 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 200-400mm f/4. My images get blown up very big – up to one and a half metres square – so I need the resolution that the D810 delivers!
Learn more about Jonathan’s work at this year’s Digital Splash show from Wilkinson Cameras, which runs from 15th-16th October at Exhibition Centre Liverpool. For full details, see www.digitalsplash.tv
As I am bouncing up and down, framing can be hard… I often get bashed in my nose or eye by the camera… And during all this I am trying to create ‘peaceful’ images!
1 The sails of Moonbean IV – which took Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly on their honeymoon
2 Jonathan has to use a very fast shutter speed to capture yachts like Moonbeam IV
3 Images like this, of the sails of Mariette, look peaceful, though getting the shots is anything but