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1. Use light and mood to set the scene.

The most important element of any photo is the quality of light falling on the subject. Time of day and atmospheric conditions play a big part. Think of light as the personality of the photo. Smartphone cameras give best results in daylight.

Sailboat in fog

The lighting sets the mood of your photo. Fog brings soft light and mystery. (Photo: Mark Corke)

Blue hour sailboats photo

Shooting during the "blue hour" can give your photo an artistic feel.

Sunrise and sunset, called the "golden hour," will produce warm golden tones that give the viewer a warm feeling. Shortly before sunrise and after the sun sets are called the "blue hour," giving you cool blue tones and less contrast that may better suit your subject. Fog brings soft light and mystery.

Dog golden hour photo

Shooting an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset gives you warm golden tones.

If the day is sunny and you photograph midday, the colors will be more natural but the lighting harsher. Full sun can work well for seascapes because of the high-contrast lighting and definition it provides. With some exceptions, this time of day is usually not flattering for portraits as you can get harsh shadows. That said, more advanced photographers might utilize this shadowing to create additional form and depth in the photograph. (See below for more tips on photographing in challenging conditions boaters often face.)

Solving Specific Photography Challenges For Boaters

Strong sun/harsh shadows:

  • Avoid shooting when the sun is at its highest point, unless that's part of the story you're telling.
  • Keep the sun behind the photographer.
  • Put subject in an evenly lit area, either all sun or all shade.
  • Hats and sunglasses on your subjects create heavy shadows, which you may want to avoid. If you're creating a portrait, consider having your subject remove both.
  • To minimize harsh shadows on the face of someone wearing a hat, try shooting from a slightly higher angle and have the person look up at you, which helps even out the lighting and is more flattering.
  • Get creative: Create a silhouette by shooting from a low angle and placing the sun behind your subject. Touch the brightest area of the image so your subject goes dark.


  • There's not a lot you can do about the glare you get from sun reflecting off the water, so do your best to work with it.
  • Play around with shooting through polarized sunglasses held up to the camera lens.

Fast action (wakeboarding, water skiing, tubing, raceboats):

  • Stabilize your position to decrease motion blur. Tuck your elbows in at your sides, slightly bend your knees to absorb movement under you, and spread your legs to shoulder width to give you a more stable base.
  • Your smartphone's camera settings should adjust automatically to stop the action and leave your subject in focus. However, it needs a good amount of light to do that. If there's not enough, your subject will blur, which you may use to your advantage to create a more artistic image.
  • Be aware of shutter delay. When composing a scene with a fast-moving object, such as a boat or a bird gliding over the water's surface, pan (move the camera horizontally to follow your subject) to help cut down on blur and keep the subject where you want it in the frame while tapping the shutter button.
  • If you have an iPhone, you can use the "Live Photos" setting to select just the right moment. When this setting is enabled (the icon looks like a bullseye), the camera will record images starting 1.5 seconds before to 1.5 seconds after tapping the shutter. This creates a file that's made up of many high-quality images, and you can review, select, and edit the best moment in Photos. For best results, hold your phone steady before and after tapping the shutter button. Some Samsung phones have a similar function, and there are apps for other Android-based smartphones, like Motion Stills, that offer similar capabilities. (Note: Turn off this function when not needed; it eats storage on your phone.)


  • Stabilize your camera using the technique described in "Fast Action."
  • Make sure you and your subject are safe by following the adage "one hand for the ship." In other words, hold onto something.
  • Shooting in low light will give you blur or pixilation. You may choose to avoid taking photographs in these conditions, or use it to your advantage to create something artistic.

Monochromatic/Dull colors:

  • For posed photos, take time with your composition. Change your angle or move your subjects against a background that helps them stand out instead of blending in.
  • Spend time processing your photos before printing or sharing to help emphasize your subject (see tip No. 4).
  • If you're planning a photo shoot during your day on the water, ask your subjects to wear brightly colored clothing without big logos. Dark blues, blacks, and grays can blend in with surroundings, as can dark greens if you're boating in an area with lots of trees. White can blow out in bright sun leaving no details.

Fishing photos:

  • Follow the tips from "Fast Action."
  • Instead of the standard, overly posed "grip-and-grin" shots, think about capturing the action and ­emotion. Tell the story from beginning to end, from the first hit to landing the catch.
  • Try shooting from different angles, both high and low. Move around your subject, and even try shooting from outside the boat or holding the camera close to the surface of the water (provided you can do so safely and your camera is secure and waterproof).
  • Take lots of shots and/or use the "Live Photo" setting on your camera as described previously.
  • Pay attention to light and shadows. Move around or find ways to use the conditions to make a more creative image.

2. Think before you take the photo.

After light quality, consider composition. A few basics will generally cover most situations. Is there too much in the picture? Can you improve the composition? Does it tell a story?

Our eyes unconsciously scan a photograph from left to right and top to bottom, just as we read a page in a book. Viewers tend to feel more comfortable seeing objects or people in particular areas in a photo. These are called points of impact, and there are four of them.


For getting the most dramatic color in sunrise or sunset shots without a lot of processing, touch the brightest area of the scene to darken the overall photo and pop the vibrant hues.

Visualize a tic-tac-toe grid of overlapping horizontal and vertical lines that divide the screen into nine even sections. (Most Apple and some Android phones give you the option to show this grid overlay on your screen. To turn it on in your iPhone Camera app, go to Settings>Camera>Grid and tap/swipe. On Samsung phones, open the camera app>Settings>Grid lines.) These points of impact are generally places that "feel" natural for important things to be. (below for an example.) But like many photography "rules," it's a good general guideline but not absolute.

Photo divided into quadrants

When composing your photo, imagine your screen overlaid with a grid that creates nine equal boxes. The points where the lines cross are generally where you want to place your subjects. Also note how the horizon isn't in the middle of the photo.

One of the biggest mistakes we make, and our natural tendency, is to place the subject in the center of the photo. In general, an image tends to have greater impact if the subject isn't centered. An exception might be a closeup that fills the screen.

For seascapes that show the horizon, avoid placing the horizon halfway between the top and bottom of the frame, or dead center. Here you now have an interesting choice: If the sky is more dramatic then the water, put the horizon near the bottom third of the frame to show more sky. Placing the horizon near the top third might be the better choice if the water has more visual impact, such as family fun or interesting features. For seascapes and boats on the water, keep the horizon line straight so it doesn't dip to one side of the frame. But again, there are artistic exceptions to this.

Hoizon line not adjusted

Photo: Ryerson Clark

Photo horizon straighten

A good general rule of thumb is to pay attention to the horizon and make it straight. There may be times, however, where there may be an artistic reason to break that rule. (Photo: Ryerson Clark )

There are three things that draw the viewer's eye: large, bright objects; faces; and printed words, such as signs. If one of these is your subject, no problem. But if not, it will distract. If the distraction can't be removed, try changing the angle or moving your subject. Or, if you can do so safely, don't be shy to get closer. Pay particular attention to the edges of the screen for unwanted things that can creep in (a person's arm or that soda can on the counter) and draw your eye away from the subject. You can sometimes crop them out later (see tip No. 4), but it's less work to avoid them in your composition.

Finally, instead of always shooting at your eye level, try shooting from lower or higher angles to create more interesting photos.

Happy sailor

Photo: Getty Images/Shironosov

Inflatable fun

Photo: Kyryl Gorlov

Party on the water

Getting people in your shots, particularly if they're doing something, can help tell a story. And you can see by the image in the middle that photography "rules," like making the horizon straight, can give an image a sense of motion. (Photo: Ascentxmedia)

3. Take control of your camera.

Most amateur smartphone photographers don't know this, but your built-in smartphone camera app allows you to take more control of the camera settings and not leave everything to the camera. By using the touchscreen capabilities, select focus and exposure simply by touching parts of the image on the screen.

For land- and seascapes and subjects in the distance, compose your subject in the screen, tap the shutter button, and view the photo. Because the subject is distant, focus won't change by touching the screen. But you may be able to adjust the exposure. Touch a lighter area and your image will darken. In a scene with a bright sky and beautiful clouds, you might touch the sky area to keep detail in the clouds. This will also darken the land areas. If the sky is only a small part of the scene, try touching the darker land (or sea) and see what happens. Sometimes the change is dramatic, other times subtle. Shoot both ways and compare. It's a fun way to learn.

Photo not color processed

Photo color processed

Spending a few seconds processing the photo before you post it can mean the difference between a snapshot and a "wow" photograph. (Photos: Ryerson Clark)

For subjects closer to the camera, selecting focus is a creative way to make your subject stand out from the background. And even better, it's already built into your phone's camera app. Simply touch the screen where you want the camera to focus and, if close enough, your background should blur out. If shooting portraits of people or animals, the eyes are an ideal place to focus.

Want even more advanced control over focus and exposure similar to settings found in a digital single-lens reflex camera? There's an app for that, too. For Android a good choice is Camera Zoom FX; for iPhone I like Halide. But apps are constantly changing and improving, and new ones are being added all the time. Try a few to see which works best for your needs.

Many of these apps also give you extras like filters, overlays, RAW (an image format that contains minimally processed data allowing for more precise adjustments), and post processing. Controls vary by app but are generally simple to use, and changes you make are viewed in real time on your screen. Play with the controls, take several photos of the same scene, and compare the changes.

4. Process your images.

For most smartphone photos, point/shoot/share works fine. To create a better photograph, such as something to print and hang on the wall or put in a photo book, a certain amount of processing will improve your image. If you use Instagram, there are filters you can apply with a single touch, or click on edit and select contrast, exposure, saturation, and a few other things and adjust manually with sliders.

Of course there are apps for this, too; I like Snapseed — perfect for both amateurs and professionals and free. Snapseed was built for mobile use, so controls are intuitive. Swipe left or right to add or subtract contrast, saturation, detail, exposure, and more. You can straighten horizons, crop, add a vignette, and remove small defects or some unwanted objects. There are also one-touch filters much like Instagram — a good way to explore what you can do with your photo if you're not sure how to start.

Photo exposure foreground

Photo exposure no adjustment

Photo exposure sky

Most people don’t realize they can control the exposure on their smartphone. Depending on the scene, tap the screen to make adjustments. Want to emphasize colors in the sky? Tap the brightest part of the sky to darken the image. Want to lighten up a subject? Tap a darker area to lighten up the overall scene. Not sure what is best? Play with different exposures to see what you like best. (Photos: Ryerson Clark)

Here's how I'd process a scenic photo: I'd choose "look" first to check out the filters offered. If one will do the job, my work is done. If I want full control, I'd choose "tools" and start with "tune image." Here I can choose from several functions including contrast, brightness, and more — all basic adjustments. I find most photos can use a little higher contrast or some lightening or darkening. I may also want to fine tune the shadows and highlights or increase color saturation.

Next, I usually choose "detail." Here you find the structure slider. This will make the photo look sharper, but use sparingly or the picture will start to get pixelated. In the end, I might apply a light vignette to darken the edges of the frame, which subtly helps put the viewer's attention on the subject. One caution: With so many filters and sliders, it's easy to get carried away. All adjustments should be applied just enough to improve the look without making the photo look fake or overdone, unless that's the look you're going for.

After you've finished all your processing, hit "export" and save a copy. This leaves your original image intact so you can go back and reprocess if you change your mind, want to try a different look, and/or your processing skills improve.

5. Experiment, have fun, print them out.

Unlike with film cameras, smartphone photography costs nothing beyond the cost of the phone and apps. Photos should include all aspects of boating — cooking, onboard projects, navigating, and the sights you see along the way. And while they're fun to look at on your phone or share on social media, consider printing and framing your favorites, or creating a memory book of a trip or as a record of a full season of boating to look back on, share, and smile about.

Protective Cases

Smartphones are thin and slick. Add in a bouncing, moving boat and loss or damage is likely. There are many options out there for cases. Some give you more grip, others are splashproof, and some are fully waterproof. I like Lifeproof cases. You can get them for everything from basic fall protection to full waterproof, depending on your needs and budget. Top of the line is the FRE model that is waterproof to 6 feet for one hour, sandproof, and drop protection from 6 feet — a good choice for boat or beach.

Waterproof phone case 

If you don't need a waterproof case, get one that accepts a lanyard. If you lose your grip, it's still attached to you and not overboard.




Ryerson Clark

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Ryerson Clark of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, was trained at the Hallmark Institute of Photography and has worked primarily as a successful stock image, event, and travel/location photographer. A sailor for 35 years, he's built 20 different wooden boats including sailboats, canoes, and kayaks.