What’s Your Niche?: Alison Langley, Nautical Photographer
July 9, 2018
Alison Langley turned her passions for photography and sailing into a career beginning in the 1980s. Here, a Herreshoff S-Boat under sail in Antigua.
Racing in the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta aboard the ADVENTURESS, an 83-foot schooner designed by William Fife.
“You have to know how to sail” to do nautical photography, Langley says. “They’re not going to let an amateur on board.”
PDN: How did you get started in nautical photography?
Alison Langley: I went to Rhode Island School of Design for photography. After college I worked in the film industry in Sydney, Australia, where I met people who were into sailing. So I learned to sail and I crewed on yachts for ten years, sailing all over the world. I did as much photography as I could.
PDN: Where did you first get published?
A.L.: My first publication was with Cruising World, and then I got in with Concept Publishing, who were making books about yachting. I did a story for Marie Claire on the Sea Gypsies of Thailand. I got a lot of tearsheets during that time. When I came back to the U.S. [in 1992], Onne van der Wal invited me to submit work [to Stock Newport, his agency specializing in sailing photography]. I ended up working at Stock Newport for Onne. We built that agency from 17 to close to 50 contributors.
PDN: What did you learn from him?
A.L.: He taught me a lot of technical skills. We shot slide film—Fuji Velvia, which we rated at 32 ASA—and your exposure had to be spot on. I also learned a lot from the images other photographers submitted [to Stock Newport], like Carlo Borlenghi, and Christian Février. They turned me on to a more artistic approach.
PDN: What are the biggest challenges of nautical photography?
A.L.: You have to be a sports photographer and an architecture/interiors photographer—two separate skills. When you’re shooting on the water, you’re moving, and the subject matter is moving. And there’s the weather. There are so many dimensions to it. So much changes within seconds: weather, wind, boat.
PDN: Does digital technology reduce a lot of the technical challenges?
A.L.: Yeah, there are not as many hurdles as we had back in the day, but maybe that was good training.
PDN: Is there more competition because technology has made it easier?
A.L.: Not really. First of all, you’ve got to have a love of boats and you have to know how to sail, or you’ll be in the crew’s way. They’re not going to take an amateur on board. The second part is, you have to shoot an awful lot before you’re good at it. There are some great shooters coming up, but it’s not easy to get into unless you live it and breathe it.
PDN: Why did you decide to leave Stock Newport to freelance?
A.L.: When Onne wanted to sell the agency, I decided it was time to go out on my own. It’s not that I had clients. I was putting myself out on a limb.
PDN: How did you get clients?
A.L.: At first I would take a lot of different jobs, including some adventure sports assignments. I produced notecards and posters that I would sell in shops, but also use as promotions. And then I [exhibited at] boat trade shows. I called it my wrap-around portfolio: a booth to display all my work. There I could sell my products and prints to the public but also do business-to-business with other vendors at the shows. I sent my book out all the time to boatbuilders, designers, manufacturers and magazines. In 1999 I did a personal project on boatbuilders because there are so many in Maine. I loved hanging around and seeing these amazing boats come together. It’s architecture with curves. It’s visually incredible. I had a little show at a local gallery, it got a little momentum and now I’m known for doing this work.
PDN: Those are all clients you still shoot for?
A.L.: Yeah, mostly, but now I’ve got a lot of private commissions, which is a new niche, coming up to 30 percent of my income. I’m hired to shoot a restoration or new build and then produce a book for the client. We recently did a book about a restoration [of a 60-foot yacht]—140 pages, four-color offset printing, with a print run of 250 copies just for the client. It’ll be out this June. [A few months into that project] I said [to the client], “This has got to be a film, this is an amazing story,” and he said “Go for it.” It’s my first long-form documentary film.
PDN: How much video work do you do for other clients?
A.L.: Most all my clients want video and photography. I’ve done a lot of advertising videos for manufacturers, builders and designers.
PDN: How long do the private commission projects run?
A.L.: Usually about two years, minimum. Right now I’m working on three other books for private clients.
PDN: For a job that takes two years, how do you charge?
A.L.: For a book, we charge for design and per page and by [trim] size. My assistant, Jane Kurko, has a graphic design background, so we can produce a high-end product. I know the [highlights of boat construction and restoration], so I can pretty much estimate what it’s going to cost in total.
PDN: How much of your business is fine-art prints, and how do you market that?
A.L.: It comes and goes. For ten years I had a gallery in Camden. I did a lot of sales through that. Not many of us specialize in nautical photography, so I do a lot of sales through word-of-mouth. A lot of my products and prints are in home design shops, and sometimes I do interior design trade shows. I have relationships with [interior] designers who do work for private clients. I also donate prints to high end auctions in the marine industry, and I’ll
get a lot of sales after I do that.
PDN: What’s in your gear bag?
A.L.: I’ll send you a list. It’s long. [Canon bodies: 5D Mark IV, 5D Mark II, 1D X; lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm, 100 mm f/1.2, 300mm f/2.8; Speedlite EXII-RT Flash; Osmo Zenmuse X5 video camera with Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm f/2 and 25mm f/2 lenses; Sony HXR-NX5R NXCAM camcorder with shotgun mic; GoPro Hero4; Arri Fresnel lights; assorted accessories.]
PDN: What camera and lens do you use the most?
A.L.: My main cameras are a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens. I also use the Canon 1D X. I’ve been totally doused in salt water with that thing and it’s never failed me.
PDN: Do you lose a lot of gear to salt water splashes?
A.L.: No, but I put my cameras in for service and cleaning an awful lot.
PDN: What advice do you have for other photographers trying to get into this niche?
A.L.: You have to have a passion, and that will lead you to a personal project. It keeps you from growing stale and helps you with whatever you’re doing. You can’t be afraid of putting time in [to personal work] without getting money back, because the money will come later if you’re passionate about it. I waitressed, I crewed on yachts, I bought a multi-unit so I could live rent free. I did whatever I could to keep going.