Focus on Onne van der Wal: Master Boating Photographer
September 20, 2011
If you read—or even just look at—boating magazines, you’ve likely seen one of Onne van der Wal’s photos. The work of this prolific, Newport-based photographer has appeared on the cover of every major boating publication, not to mention hundreds of advertisements and editorial features.
Early Photography Success
Born in Holland and raised in South Africa, the 55-year-old van der Wal moved to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1985 after attracting the attention of the sailing press in 1981 while crewing on the Flyer during the boat’s winning run in the Whitbread around-the-world race. “I had always enjoyed taking photographs while sailing, for my own enjoyment, and thought I had a pretty good eye,” he recalls. “I was on Flyer when an editor for Sail Magazine came onboard. I showed him some of the photos I had taken and they published them.”
Buoyed by that early success, van der Wal eventually moved to Newport and got serious about selling his photos. Other than attending a few photography seminars, he received no formal training in the field.
“I’d say it took a solid 10 years before I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay the rent or buy groceries,” he laughs, remembering the days when he lived in a small loft apartment in Newport. He points out that the key to being a successful photographer, aside from taking good photos, is to deliver on time, be easy to work with and treat the job as a business.
Boating Photography Challenges
Van der Wal’s passion for boats and sailing go back to his childhood days in Holland., where he often sailed with his grandfather. He says that his knowledge of the way boats handle in certain conditions, and what it takes sail them, are essential parts of taking good boating photos. For example, he has to know where to position himself on board so as not to be in the way of the crew, or when to anticipate the roll or pitch of a vessel in heavy seas.
Even so, the challenges of boating photography remain daunting. “It’s wet, it’s windy, it’s bumpy,” he says. “You gotta get wet. There’s always movement—you’re getting thrown around. Then there’s the elements, especially salt water, which is the worst on equipment. Sure, I can take good photos on calm days, but you don’t get the dramatic stuff.”
Despite the abuse his gear receives, van der Wal doesn’t need to replace his equipment too often. “I don’t baby the gear, but I take care of it,” he says. “It also gets serviced throughout the year by the manufacturer.” He is sponsored by Canon, and was selected as one of Canon’s Explorers of Light, an honor shared by just 60 photographers in the country. Throughout the year he hosts Canon-sponsored seminars and workshops, dispensing advice to aspiring photographers around the country.
As van der Wal’s reputation as one of the top boating photographers in the world has grown, so too has his list of corporate and advertising clients. He shoots for many of the world’s top boat manufacturers, as well as companies outside the marine world. His work has taken him all over the world, including Antarctica, the South Pacific, Chile, Argentina, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. One of his more memorable assignments was the 4 weeks he spent on South Georgia Island, some 900 miles east of Cape Horn, shooting documentary photos of a sailboat builder and retracing the route of Ernest Shackleton. Another was his 2-week visit to Cuba 7 years ago.
Although he loves to travel, he is happy to make his home base in Newport, where he maintains an office and studio on Bannisters Wharf, in the heart of the Northeast’s sailing capital. “It just makes so much sense to be based here,” he says. “I know the breezes, I know the waters. There are a variety of backdrops to choose from.” Van der Wal often shoots aerial shots around Newport, working with Jeff Codman of Birdseye View Helicopter.
While van der Wal isn’t likely to run out of subjects in Newport, he’s got a full docket of assignments to keep him busy through the winter, including gigs in Holland, Martinique and a reunion with the crew of the Flyer. Also, he has recently started shooting video for some of his clients, further expanding his repertoire and opening new markets. He says he would love to travel to offbeat venues and shoot documentary footage of unusual boating subjects, such as the builders of Bahamian sloops in the Exumas.
No matter what the visual format, if van der Wal’s eye is behind the lens, it’s bound to be worth watching.
Onne van der Wal: Online Store