Set sail with Lexar Elite photographer Onne van der Wal
I didn’t mean to become a photographer. In my twenties, I was happily immersed in the professional sailing circuit and was a technical kind of guy with an affinity for the water—whether it was fishing, or hopping aboard boats for the local regatta series off Cape Town. I was schooled in South Africa as an engineer and as soon as the choice was mine to make, I ditched the classroom in favor of any job or time spent on any kind of boat. I quickly discovered that sailing was superior to a fishing career, and I set off on any and all sailing races and adventures that came my way. Eventually it became clear that I could travel the world this way and I should have a decent camera in my kit to document my nomadic lifestyle.
The most exciting professional yacht race of my youth, other than the *dull* around-the-buoys racing typified in the America’s Cup, was for certain the high profile and slightly insane Whitbread Round the World Race. This was not the race your mother was begging you to sign up for, mind you. People were often swept off these racing boats in the middle of the sea at night and never recovered. But for me, I could enlist as the yacht engineer/deck crew and see the entire world inside of a year—by boat! This was the stuff of a daring young guy’s dreams. I was sold. When the prior race winner’s team from my native Holland announced another entry in the 1981-82 race, I was determined to join the team, tempting fate—and my poor mother’s nerves.
Before I moved aboard Flyer, our capable 76-foot ride for the Whitbread race, I pared down my sea bag to the bare minimum to save weight, as I had been instructed to do. One exception was my growing assortment of camera gear and over 100 rolls of Kodachrome, both of which I was going to fit into my kit, in the name of documenting the epic journey and a hopeful consecutive win for Team Flyer. I had convinced an impressionable marketing manager at Olympus that I was worthy of a few free lenses and a new body to take with me on this epic journey. And with that, my career began. With a marginal camera (Olympus OM-1) sandwiched between my sea boots and my allotted 3 pairs of underwear, I headed off for a year at sea.
We encountered 40,000 miles at sea of amazing weather, unbelievable sunrises and sunsets, seasickness, and breakdowns requiring my engineering skills—and I was right there putting it all on film for the world to see. And when we finished the race as the winning yacht, the world wanted to see what I had shot and what we had endured out there, so my photos “got a life!” The editors of Sail Magazine had caught wind of my pictures and while we were between race legs and anchored in a harbor near Boston, they signed me up to document the rest of the race for their publication.
Since that coverage in Sail Magazine, I decided I could make life easier planted in one port, Newport, photographing boats rather than sailing on them. Newport was a busy sailing town and there was plenty of opportunity to continue my travels shooting the multitude of sailing events around the globe. I invested in better gear and started shooting seriously, which meant shooting a lot, hitting every local event that came before my lens, and traveling to those that warranted my time and film.
In order to improve my art with every frame, I bought only the best Canon cameras and lenses out there and continuously upgraded to stay on top of the game. I learned to pack my gear in coolers for the wet rides on the chase boat, and how to steady my long lenses in rough seas. I discovered that fast shutter speeds were paramount to sharp photos of boats that were rarely still (especially when taken from another moving platform), and I developed my already keen eye and composition—something to which I attribute my early success! I had a vision as a sailor of what the viewer would be most engaged by in this tiny rectangle of a canvas. It is still the one part of shooting I tell my workshop and lecture students that simply cannot be taught: No matter how technical and sharp your photos are, if you don’t have an EYE for the image—for the composition, you are toast and should go work in the Post Office.
For years I shot regattas and hustled magazine editors, art directors, and marketing professionals for assignments. And the work was there—I was published often, had racked up tons of covers and features, and had a decent client list in the marine industry who called on me to capture their latest and greatest boats or gear. When the industry demanded it, I went digital and learned a whole new way of shooting and editing and taught myself this newfangled “workflow” on the computer—a medium I was not quite at ease with. I learned to work with models that had never set foot on a boat, and I trudged through staging under-budgeted commercial shoots, while keeping the finely dressed, landlubber art directors from getting wet and seasick in this unfamiliar territory. I was King of the Marine Photographers, a distinction I must continue to fight for as the hoards of younger, fitter photography majors with an affinity for sailing and deep pockets invent themselves as the next best thing with a lens to hit the water. It is a challenge to remain on top of a small industry of marine photographers, and with a struggling economy I rely heavily on my years of experience behind the lens and behind my desk, along with my willingness to race ahead at the speed of technology. If I must learn to shoot and edit digital video on a DSLR or on a dedicated video camera, then I will! My nearly 30 years of “practicing” have turned me into something of a machine—a machine for selling myself, putting my best skills and shots forward, and forging ahead—even reinventing myself in slow times.
I used all of this ammo to finally land my career dream of becoming a Canon Explorer of Light in 2006. It was a hard sell to those used to selecting fashion and car photographers, but I was a standout. I shot BOATS and I got WET, and I soaked, sank, or salted the heck out of Canon bodies that continued to fire and produce tack sharp images. Years later I can say that this is perhaps the best advice to give to any fledgling photographer looking for a career: Make yourself and your work STAND OUT. Be different. Climb the mast, swim with your $10k camera body in a waterproof housing at a packed mark rounding, dangle from a helicopter—scare your mother and tempt fate! Get creative and dramatic and noticed. Buy the best cameras and flash memory cards and spend the time to learn new things, as the photography industry now demands. Or drown in a sea of guys spending more time and money to beat you to the punch. And then you are toast, but don’t worry—the Post Office is usually hiring.