A very cold idea..

The idea had been growing for a while: to do a photoshoot of a sailing ship from in the water. A few years ago I took a picture of a small ship in between two waves, which gave a unique view, and which I wanted to replicate. Easier said than done, as the camera at that time received some ill-timed waves for its troubles. Not something to repeat often, then. An underwater housing seemed to be the solution, but most professional cases cost more than my camera, and I was not prepared to lay down that kind of money. 

My inspiration.

Then I came across the brand Seafrogs, and a website that sold cases (for my camera) from inside the European Union, avoiding the hassle and costs of importing it from Singapore. A purchase of a Seafrogs case and lens dome for my X-T2 was duly made, and a few weeks later two carefully packaged boxes arrived.  There the project stagnated for some time. The first reason: as I would be in the water, and the boat would be sailing close by me, I wanted a crew I could trust not to kill me, and bringing the people together that I needed proved difficult. Secondly I must admit that the project was not at the top of my own priority list in the spring, and so by the time we started planning in earnest, it was June. We found our opportunity in July, and while most factors were ideal, on the day itself there was one big issue: there was no wind.

“The idea was to do this in July. Not November..”

The weather forecast was around 13 to 24 knots, so easily enough wind for some good sailing shots. The wind direction was favourable, and we hoped for waves to make the photos even more spectacular. Rain was also forecast, but this did not worry me much, as I would be in the water anyway, and the camera would be protected by the case. 

Finding another opportunity turned out to be harder than I expected, and I had almost given up for this year (as my drysuit had been proven to be leaky last year, I needed a water temperature acceptable in a wetsuit: doable in early autumn, not so much in spring). Then out of nowhere, we all were available in one weekend in November. Logistical difficulties regarding (rescue) boats were overcome by some improvisation, and we gave the project a go.

The Technical aspects: the camera used for the project was the Fujifilm X-T2. Launched in 2016, it is now a bit of a dinosaur in camera-land (that said, I’ve been using it for 6 years now, and it is still one of my favourite cameras ever). The autofocus is good, but not spectacular. Especially the continuous autofocus is a bit lacking. Then why did I choose this camera? Well, I reasoned that if the case failed, I could always buy a second hand X-T2 for cheap and still be able to use the case in the future. To overcome the autofocus issue, I decided to switch to manual focus. Paired with the Fujinon 10-24 mm wide angle set at 11 mm, an aperture of f/5.6, focused at 1,5 meter, everything from .65 meter to infinity should be more or less sharp. Not a great recipe for large amounts of ‘bokeh’, but a good focusing solution (I hoped).

The execution: as the day dawned I picked up my base of operations (a Valk, a type of sailing ship) and sailed it to our chosen location on the Kagerplassen (a series of interconnected lakes near the city of Leiden, The Netherlands), while my colleagues readied my subject, an RS500 skiff, and did some testruns. After anchoring, I checked the settings on the X-T2 one last time, as some settings could not be changed once the camera was in the case, and secured the Seafrogs case to my lifejacket. A bright orange buoy was placed 10 meters from the ship to indicate my general location to the RS500 and I launched two bodyboards to help as floatation devices, as well as to hold the camera above the water while not in use (the case itself is quite heavy, this saved a lot of energy). Testing the water in my wetsuit was a bit of a shock. It gave me a new understanding what people go through when they fall in freezing water and then have difficulty breathing. After relaxing a bit and getting used to the temperatures, I took my place next to the buoy, and signalled for the RS500 to begin their runs..

Beforehand, we imagined that the low water angle would be suited for shooting into the boat from the leeward side, giving a good view of the crew and the impressing gennaker. After several runs and some reviewing, we switched to the windward side. The angle the leeward side presented was not as impressive as I expected it to be. After some 30 minutes the cold became quite severe, and we decided to take a break. At this point I decided that I would go into the water only one more time, limiting the time I was in the water after the break to another 30 minutes. We tried a few different angles and also did some video shots, before calling it a day. Layering up with warm clothes, I still had to return the Valk home before we could warm up properly and see what the day had brought.

Some lessons for next time:

Do this in July

Wear a helmet, not a cap. We were acutely aware that there was an element of risk involved in this shoot. For me it was not as scary as I expected, as I viewed the world through a wide-angle point of view, but the RS500 came pretty close to me at high speeds. A helmet is a simple addition that will increase safety for next time (on the safety aspect, the RS500 can easily be stopped by capsizing her, but preferably not with me below her)

I used the 10-24 mm to get impressive wide-angle shots of the boat, but the case can also hold the Fujinon 18-55 mm lens, which might an option to try as well. Manual focus will be more difficult with this lens, so we might have to try the autofocus for this.

The wind did not have the opportunity to generate large waves, which made for a rather boring foreground (but made photographing much easier). Waves will probably present a whole other level of challenge, but will increase the awesomeness of the photos. The only waves we had now were created by the RS500 itself, and were therefore only visible on shots of the boat after it had passed.

Rain was more annoying than I anticipated: to avoid water spots on the photos I dipped the dome into the water just before I started photographing, but raindrops still ended up on the dome, and spots were still visible on most of the shots.

Some results, more on the website.

Waves make the foreground more interesting, but because of the direction of the wind, the only waves present were caused by the ship sailing past me.
Another spectacular wave. This kind of photo was what I envisioned.
Spectacular sailing shots, but a rather boring foreground. Something to work on!

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