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Yachting through the lens

Copyright Ed HoltClimbing aboard a superyacht is an experience reserved for few, but that’s exactly what acclaimed photographer Ed Holt has been doing for the last 30 years. He has traversed the decks of many of the world’s most iconic vessels, flown high above their masts and toured their interiors, all in pursuit of the perfect shot. Riviera Insider caught up with the photographer to talk technique and technology in an ever-changing industry.

"When I left West Surrey College of Art & Design (now the Surrey Institute of Art & Design), I moved to London and opened my studio just off the King’s Road. I went into fashion photography - it was the late 1970s and fashion was an industry almost all young photographers wanted to work in - but I quickly became fed up with the social circuit. It wasn’t until a few years later when I was invited by a friend to sail from northern France to northern Spain across the Bay of Biscay that I discovered the yachting industry. I’d never sailed before, but I knew right away that I’d like to do more.”

After reading ‘lots of books’ in an effort to teach himself how to sail - “It seemed pretty straightforward to me!” - Ed bought a small 24ft gaff rig and embarked on the long journey to Greece, a country he knew well. But this first expedition with his boat wasn’t over the sea. Instead, Ed towed it all the way from England to the northern tip of the Greek coast - itself an arduous journey.

Once in the waters of the Mediterranean in a small port mostly harbouring local fishing boats, Ed finally had the chance to relish his vessel and eventually moved on board, where he would live for four years: “Without a shower or a toilet!”

He sailed the yacht to Rhodes and while he continued his photography on the side, Ed also started captaining bareboats for Vernicos & Kavos. While cruising the southeast coast of Turkey around the same time, where Ed began to receive requests from yachts for photography.

At the end of his four years aboard his first boat, Ed went back to London for a winter break and met his wife-to-be Fenella (owner of Antibes Books, the English bookshop in Antibes) at a drinks party in Clapham. Ed had just bought a second boat and was restless in London. After getting married, the couple spent several years living and working in Suffolk. Ed ultimately decided urban, city living wasn’t where he wanted to be after his bliss in the Mediterranean and the couple settled on Majorca, where they lived for 18 years and raised their two children before their move to Antibes and the French Riviera some eight years ago.

He established a successful career in yacht photography while living in the Balearics, but after nearly two decades of island life and their children mostly grown up, Ed and his wife decided to make the move to the south of France.

Through his long-standing affiliation with the yachting industry, Ed was able to transfer much of his work with him to France and he now counts a number of high profile shipyards such as Feadship, Amels, Heesen and Vitters among his clients as well as leading charter and management companies, and international yachting media - the likes of Boat International, Yachting World and Classic Boat.

“Shipyards launching a brand new vessel are the crème de la crème for yacht photographers - fresh off the production line - but they are few and far between,” Ed says. “We all want those contracts!”

He recently shot a 40ft Dutch-made speedboat in the south of France, which he describes as a difficult job, not least because the vessel travelled at 40knots and the rib he was shooting from struggled to keep up.

“This type of shoot requires camerawork from a helicopter. I don’t use drones - they are better for video and you can fly a small drone without a license, but you need a larger drone for good quality stills, and they require an expensive license and can’t fly in winds more than 20kmph! In 15 minutes from a helicopter, you can get a hell of a lot of work done for not that much money.”

The face of both industries - yachting and photography - have changed inexplicably since Ed first began shooting boats.

“A photographer used to get four or five days on board for a full charter shoot on a 50m vessel, but today one is lucky to get two or three,” he says. “It doesn’t seem to be a high priority anymore for the crew - one has a much shorter space of time and a lot more pressure - sometimes I have to remind them that I am here because the owner or the management company has requested it. I am there to photograph the boat in order to attract clients for charter - that is, after all, what pays their wages!”

“Today’s yacht photographer is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades. A client will say, ‘I love the photograph, but the sky is too grey, can you lighten it?’ I can, of course, but a stretch of sky with masts, sails and wires is a lot more complicated than brightening a simple patch of sky. It’s very different in the digital era to when photographers were shooting with film.”

It wasn’t until around 12 years ago that Ed deemed the quality of digital cameras on par with film, but the emergence of digital photography had already begun to change the yacht photography industry (and other fields) sometime before.

“All of a sudden, instead of having five top professional photographers on the scene, dozens of ‘photographers’ with all the digital gear began to turn up. All one had to do was walk up to a boat with the right patter and plenty of equipment - it was a blagger’s game. A lot of these photographers were self-taught and had had no training. With the advent of digital cameras, they no longer understood how light entered the lens, for example, or of aperture. The prices of myself and my fellow, trained photographers was seriously undercut and we decided we had to maintain our prices - it was to show the standard of quality. No one has ever complained about my prices yet!”

But the effects of the digital era didn’t just herald difficulties for professional photographers: “Before digital, I’d taken up to 60kg of equipment with me to a yacht: at least three complete camera systems, the film and a lot more lighting equipment. Now I have 20kg maximum and can take up to four or five cameras with various lenses. Digital allows much of the work to be done in post-production.”

Ed no longer shoots in film, but he has kept a number of his older cameras. “They are fantastic, beautifully-made precision instruments - such quality equipment!” he says with passion. “You can get a digital back for some of them now, but in the region of 15,000€. I’ll hold on to them and hope the price comes down!”

Despite his incontestable affection for his film cameras, Ed is enthusiastic about the technological impacts a post-digital age has had on photography.

“Anyone can access photography and it doesn’t need to be at great expense. The camera industry is a minefield for amateurs and professionals alike, with a constant stream of new cameras just a little better than their predecessor. Don’t be conned by marketing, you can pay 400€ for an excellent camera that will be good for everything and can fit in your pocket. The quality is so good now with smaller sensor cameras and you don’t need a full frame as an amateur. A budding professional can set themselves up for about 1,200€ and for that you can get away with a quality camera body and two or three lenses.”

Ed himself favours the 5D Canon Mark III for his professional work with a selection of lenses. For the ‘fun stuff’, he says that, amongst others, the Panasonic FZ1000 does everything he needs.

When he isn’t working to a client brief, Ed is free to indulge his creativity with stunning abstracts, travel photography in south Africa, Turkey, Greece and Provence, and nature and wildlife. He also continues shooting real estate for individuals and interior designers, such as a recent job photographing a private home on the Cap d’Antibes. But his love of the water - and being out on it - permeates throughout his work. One simply has to visit his photo library at superyachtfocus.com and look at the various galleries to understand his connection with the water.

And for Ed’s dreams of once again owning a yacht? “I wanted to buy a boat here,” he says, “but the mooring is too bloody expensive!”

Discover Ed’s work for yourself at superyachtfocus.com where you can browse his photography and purchase prints, wall art and direct downloads.