On as­sign­ment

Fine art pho­tog­ra­pher Jonathan Chritch­ley, a key speaker at this year’s Dig­i­tal Splash show, talks about his pas­sion for shoot­ing clas­sic yachts

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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

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