What’s Your Niche: Sailboat Racing Event Photography
August 20, 2014
Photographer Allen Clark makes his living shooting sailing regattas along the East Coast and in the Caribbean, and selling prints afterwards to the competitors through his website, PhotoBoat.com. He launched the company in 2005 with his wife, Daniela Clark, who works with him part-time.
PDN: What inspired you to start your business?
Allen Clark: We were passionate sailors [and] we didn’t want to be pinned down by another business owner or a corporate job while in our twenties. So we quit our jobs (Daniela managed a large sailing school and I was selling boats) and started PhotoBoat.
PDN: What convinced you there was a market for it?
Daniela Clark: We worked as sailing instructors and saw Yacht Shots BVI doing this in the Caribbean, and we saw a market for it in Long Island Sound. It’s a great place to sail, and there are a lot of nice yachts here because of the proximity to New York City and the financial industry.
PDN: Was it a long learning curve?
DC: Our first regatta was a big success for us. It was a youth national championship regatta in Westport. [Another photographer] cancelled at the last minute. We had connections and got the job. Since then, we’ve honed our skills more from a marketing perspective. Our photography has improved as well. Allen worked with Yacht Shots BVI for about three months after we opened our business. It was a good experience, going out there every day to shoot and having [Yacht Shots BVI founder] Guy Clothier as a mentor.
PDN: What distinguishes your style and approach to sailing photography?
AC: Our niche has been close-up action photography, where you can see the spray of the water and the expression on the sailors’ faces. And we do a good job of covering everybody, not just people in the front. That works well when we’re selling to individuals.
PDN: Do you get close to the action with lenses, or with the boat?
AC: Mostly with the boat. Yacht Shots had an awesome way to photograph regattas: a large rigid inflatable dinghy with a powerful engine, extended tiller and a harness for the photographer. We would get into the racecourse, get the shot, and get out of the way quickly. [At PhotoBoat] we own a 19-foot rigid inflatable boat. [It] is lightweight, fast and maneuverable, which is extremely important for our edge on our competition.
PDN: What gear do you use?
AC: Our camera equipment includes a few Nikon D300s, a D700, and a D800; a 600mm lens, a 200-400mm lens, a 70-200mm, a 17-55mm and a 14mm fisheye with an Ikelite underwater housing for some fun shots from the waterline. The 70-200mm is our workhorse lens.
PDN: Are the spray and saltwater air hard on the gear?
AC: You’d think so, but we keep them covered with AquaTech SS Sport Shield Rain Covers, and the camera bodies are pretty weatherproof. Also, when a wave is coming up, you tuck the camera into your body.
PDN: Do you have a lot of competition?
AC: There are a few successful companies, and a lot that come and go.
PDN: Why are some more successful?
AC: It’s kind of a popular hobby profession. A guy into photography has a boat and wants to give it a try. It can be fun for a while, but it’s a job. You have to work really hard.
PDN: Where does the hard work come in?
DC: A lot of it is on the back end, with the processing. We sort the photos and put them online by boat name. That’s a lot of work. That’s not the magic solution, but it’s that kind of thing: treating it like a fulltime job.
PDN: How do you market yourselves?
AC: We set up a tent with monitors [at regattas], so people can see the pictures as soon as they get off the water. [Talking] to the sailors [in person], rather than being just an internet business, is really important. We have a lot of repeat customers who anticipate us to be at certain places.
DC: We also collect e-mail addresses so we can get in touch with them. We put up a gallery [for each boat] and send them a link. We’ve done minor advertising here and there in local sailing magazines, and there’s a popular sailing website we’ll advertise on now and again. But we can’t market too much to people whose photos we haven’t taken.
PDN: What are the biggest challenges you have?
DC: Things we can’t control, like weather. Not enough wind is the thing we probably complain about the most. The more you get out there, the better chance you’re going to get those 25-knot-wind epic days, when racers come off the water with their adrenaline up and they’ve had a great time.
PDN: Isn’t the work seasonal?
DC: November and December are the only down times for sailboat racing because of the holidays, but come the end of October we’re [fulfilling] a lot of [orders for] Christmas, so it’s nice that we don’t have to be out on the water as much.
PDN: How many regattas are you shooting each year?
AC: At the most, we’ve done 50. We’ve started to pick and choose, and go to ones that generate more income for us.
PDN: What distinguishes the events that generate more income?
DC: There are a lot of factors: the number of boats, the types of boats— some are bigger and have more people on them—and whether people travel from far away. That makes it more special to them, so they’re more likely to want photos to remember. Whether it’s a national championship, as opposed to a weekend race at the yacht club—the championship will be better for us.
PDN: What’s your advice to other photographers trying to get into this niche?
AC: Anybody who has the determination to do it should do it. But it’s not just a fun hobby. You have to do the work. Even after long day on water, you have to spend a long night on the computer.
PDN: After the novelty and fun wears off, what keeps you going?
DC: We have a lot of pride in this brand we’ve built. People know it, and our photos are on the walls of thousands of people’s houses. That’s satisfying, knowing we’re supplying a product that’s going to last and [inspire] conversation and memories.
© Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times2016 Photography Pulitzers Go to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Thompson Reuters
© ZOE ADLERSBERGPDN May 2016: The Video & Motion Issue
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