Superyacht photography: Breaking into the industry

This month, Yachting Pages spoke to James McPhail of JM Photography to uncover the challenges and expectations of working as a commercial photographer trying to break into the superyacht industry.

Tell us about your business from start-up to today?

I started my photographic career over a decade ago shooting snowboarding photography in the French Alps. I worked as the senior photographer for the UKs leading snowboarding magazine, ‘Whitelines’, and for five years spent my time chasing winter and travelling to snow-clad mountains around the world. I learnt a huge amount in those years about shooting images outside a predictable studio environment.

After leaving the magazine to pursue my own freelance work, I started working on more commercial based shoots in London. I started shooting an increasing number of high-end interiors for editorial and marketing use and found that I really loved the challenge of taking photographs of beautiful spaces and trying to capture the feeling of actually being in a three dimensional space within a two dimensional image.  My freelance work is a balance between editorial and commercial commissions including everything from portraits and events to travel pieces and product shoots.

Describe your photographic journey. What have you learnt?

I studied naval architecture at university and when I finished my degree I worked with Simon Rogers Yacht Design for a couple of years. Learning photography was very much a trial and error process for me, but in the long run I think that this has been an advantage.

When you learn a lesson yourself by exploring and trying new things it can very often be a more meaningful process. I’ve never felt like there was a right or wrong way to go about taking photos, it’s a constant process of learning. Before making photography my full time career, I worked as a deckhand in the med for two summer seasons. Varnishing was my favourite part of the job!

Your three top tips for taking great photography in the modern age?

- Buy a light meter: My number one top tip for aspiring photographers is to buy a light meter and use it! Photography is all about light. There really is no substitute for using a light meter.

- Learn and understand the tools which are available to you: The post-shoot processing and editing of digital images has become a really important aspect of the job. Digital photography and powerful editing tools like Photoshop have opened up new realms with respect to creating great images. Fully understanding how to use these digital tools is hugely important.

- Practice makes perfect: It goes without saying that there’s no substitute for practice. Digital photography has made practice easy and cheap, which is great. It can be really tempting to shoot huge numbers of images with digital cameras so it’s important to remember to slow down and really think about what you’re trying to achieve with each individual frame.

Read more photography tips, here.

What are your thoughts on the current style and quality of photography used in the superyacht industry?

I think the world of superyacht photography is currently really lagging behind top end architectural and interior photography.

Over the last decade the digital revolution has pushed interior photography to new levels and it’s clear to me that the same drive forward hasn’t been present in the superyacht industry. That’s not to say that there aren’t talented photographers working in the industry who produce great superyacht photography, but without doubt, many yacht builders and brokers are still using marketing imagery that is very much sub-par, in relation to the current standards in high-end property photography.

How does the style of photography in the superyacht industry differ from the property market? Is there room for improvement and how can changes be prompted in the industry?

As with all photography, lighting is fundamental to making an outstanding image. A typical architectural interior shoot will involve multiple remotely triggered ‘flash’ units to light a space and really show it at its best. It’s rare to see superyacht brokerage imagery that has been lit really well. All too often it's a case of turning on the cabin lights putting some candles on the table and hoping for the best.  The naked eye sees light very differently to a camera and understanding how to use extra lighting sources creatively to accentuate the design of an interior or exterior space can turn a run of the mill shot into something really special.

The brokerage image portfolio of any yacht is generally the first thing a potential owner sees. Great photography does much more than help an owner visualise the interior of a yacht; the photographs need to evoke an emotional response and should be the first seed of an owner falling in love with a yacht.

I think the challenge is to get brokers to see the photography they commission as something more than just images that show what the yacht looks like. If you work within the brokerage industry, take a look through your current portfolio of yachts and the images that you’re showing potential owners. If you wouldn’t be happy framing each and every shot in a yacht’s portfolio and hanging it on your office wall then the question has to be asked - why not? If the yacht in question is beautiful then why are the photographs that you’re using to represent the yacht not beautiful in their own right?

What are the main challenges you face in winning clients in the superyacht industry?

As with most areas of photography, it’s really hard to get your foot in the door. People tend to stick to what they know and what has worked for them in the past. Unfortunately that doesn’t help push things forward or facilitate change.

In today’s highly competitive market you have to look at every aspect of your business and evaluate if there’s scope for improvement. The list of yacht brokers whose marketing photography leaves no room for improvement is currently very small!

Do you have any interesting industry stories to share about photo shoots you’ve worked on?

A property developer I work with recently sold his latest creation and told me that the new owner had fallen in love with the property as soon as he saw the photographs. His client had been looking for a new showcase London property for quite some time, but nothing had caught his eye.

Of course, it was the property’s beautiful design and build combined with it matching the new owner’s requirements that eventually made the sale a reality, but the seed was planted from day one before the owner had even walked through the front door. For me that’s what it’s all about. Photography is obviously not going to sell a property or a superyacht on its own, but it’s a crucial element in getting clients to make the first step towards visiting and becoming happy owners.

For more information, visit JM Photography.

To find more superyacht photographers, click here.

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