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Careers on the water

Marine photographer: an ever-evolving job 

By David W. Shaw

The battered Saab labored as Billy Black drove up I-95 May 8, 1983, his camera bags loaded for bear and an Avon inflatable lashed to the roof rack. He was headed to Newport, R.I., to photograph the winner of the first BOC Challenge, Frenchman Philippe Jeantot, steering the 56-foot aluminum cutter Credit Agricole across the finish line the following day after completing a solo circumnavigation in record time.

Salary range: the equivalent of part-time wages to $50,000-plus
Future employment prospects: steady to bright for those with exceptional talent
Training and education: college degree, workshops, work as assistant
For information: Maine Media Workshops (www.theworkshops.com), Photography Workshops International (www.workshopsinternational.com)

The car died in Connecticut. The Avon died, too, deflating like a leaky balloon and dashing his chances of avoiding the herd on the press boat. A member of the American Automobile Association, Black called a tow truck and paid the driver to take him to Newport instead of the nearest service station, per the AAA rulebook.

“It cost me a fortune,” Black says, “but I had to get there.”

Black wasn’t on a lucrative assignment at the time. He’d dabbled in marine photography, in part because he’d grown to love boats while sailing an Ericson 39 with his dad, but he hadn’t chosen it as a career. However, when Black watched Jeantot finish the race, he says he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. “It was a really big turning point for me,” he says.

Black, now 52 and a leading marine photographer, moved to Newport shortly after that, and he hasn’t looked back. Now based in Portsmouth, R.I., he shoots for top boating magazines, major boatbuilders, and giants among marine product manufacturers. It took Black time to break in, yet he says he’d do it all over again. “It’s pretty neat having the ocean as your office,” he says.

Times have changed since Black first started shooting for a New York-based media company that sold advertising space on the sides of buses, and freelancing for big studios in Manhattan doing product shoots for Xerox, Budweiser and other large corporations. You really had to know photographic techniques, he says, like how to set an F-stop.

With the advent of digital photography, anyone with a professional-quality camera can take good pictures, though composing the image remains more the artist’s domain. “Digital has leveled the playing field,” says Black, adding that he’s doing more commercial work because an increasing number of magazine editors are using digital cameras to take their own pictures. Digital technology also has increased the number of people trying their hand at marine photography, and shooting digital means more time at the computer, which Black doesn’t like much.

“It’s a saturated field. There are fewer places to sell to and more people out selling,” Black says. “But I think the prospects are still bright for someone wanting to be a marine photographer.”

Black cautions that it won’t be lucrative. “With enough time at it you can make a living, but it’s not a way to make a fortune. If you want the money, go commercial. You won’t make it on editorial assignments.”

A college education focused on photography is important, in spite of the advantages of digital cameras. Black graduated from Colorado MountainCollege, in Carbondale, Colo., which offered a two-year photography degree. But he says workshops are good alternatives, and working as an assistant to a pro is the best way to go. “You really learn the business when you work with someone who’s earning a living at it,” he says. “There’s no substitute for experience.”




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