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On Watch - Billy Black

by COLLEEN PERRY

© Meagan BeaucheminLuxurious yacht interiors photographed in exquisite lighting; cruisers slicing through the water or resting in a quiet harbor at dusk or dawn – these are the images of world-renowned photographer Billy Black. The summer of 2013 will always stay in my memory as the year I crossed paths with Billy. I was immediately impressed with Billy’s friendly, gracious nature. Later, as we talked about his work, I was struck by his humility as he gave credit to his wife Joyce and assistant Meagan for their work behind the scenes. With Joyce’s help – and a bit of modern technology – I caught up with Billy for this interview while he was on assignment in Antigua.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Englewood, New Jersey but spent summers on a lake in upstate New York where my family had a cabin. We had a little motorboat that my father built and I loved being on the water, but I didn’t start serious sailing until after college. My father and I bought an Ericson 39 when I was 23, and we had one great summer before he died of cancer. I moved onto the boat after that to feel closer to him. Now, I live in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

When did you decide on a career in photography?

I started college as a Business major, but struggled until I took a photography course. All of a sudden I was having fun and doing well, so I switched to Colorado Mountain College for their excellent photography program. My first job out of college was as a photographer, but not on the water. I always liked it but being a professional means being able to sell the photos you take. That transition happened when I came to Newport in 1987 for the finish of the BOC race. Some of my most formative mentors were the singlehanded sailors I encountered in the BOC and Vendée Globe. They inspired me to be independent, resourceful, and to solve problems even if they seemed beyond my abilities.
What makes your images unique?

The important thing about any professional photograph is to understand the message our client wants us to illustrate. My wife Joyce has a favorite quote: “Any idiot can paint a picture. It takes a genius to sell one.” Getting the work and consistently delivering what the client needs no matter what you encounter is the trick, but we are proud of our interior photography. It’s a combination of the right setting, the right time of day, help from the crew, and a few post-production tricks. Joyce is essential to the business: making proposals, handling logistics, and feeding us all from her garden. Our assistant, Meagan Beauchemin, drives our photo boat, assists on shoots, and works her Lightroom and Photoshop magic post-production.

Who are some of your clients?

We’ve been very lucky to have many loyal clients, and we stay very busy. Some of our favorite jobs are for the big charter yachts, shooting interiors, aerials, water sports, and lifestyle photos. We work for several great powerboat companies including Sabre, Hinckley, Fleming, Hunt and Minor Offshore. Our sailboat clients include several custom builders as well as Jeanneau, Morris and Beneteau.
This year is great because we have two friends sailing singlehanded around the world. Dave Rearick has sailed Class40 Bodacious Dream from Newport to Cape Town, South Africa so far, all the while writing informative updates on the science of sailing and what he’s seeing out there. Stanley Paris, 76 years old, just left St. Augustine, FL to sail non-stop around the world using no fossil fuels on Kiwi Spirit, a Lyman-Morse custom 63-footer.

How about some tips for amateur shooters?

A tripod is essential for working at the ends of the day, when you get the most beautiful light. If you don’t have a tripod with you, find a rock or a fencepost and take the camera off program mode. We normally work in aperture priority because we like to control the depth of field. The higher the aperture number (f/22, for example), the more depth of field you have and more of the image will be in focus. The lower the aperture (f/2.8), the smaller the depth of field. That’s when you get those dreamy photos where one small part of the image is in focus and the background is blurred. Experiment with shutter priority and different ISO speeds…sometimes the best photos come when you move out of your comfort zone.

What are some of the locations you’ve worked?

We do quite a bit of work in New York City, and getting our boat from Newport to the ramp off the Statue of Liberty is a sometimes exciting challenge. I’ve loved going to Thailand, South Africa, France and New Zealand, but there’s probably no place more pristine and beautiful than Maine. We also like to show how boats are built and maintained, and some of our favorite places to shoot are Front Street Shipyard in Belfast, Maine and Newport Shipyard. I usually photograph the starts and finishes of the ocean races I cover, but had the good luck to race transatlantic on the 105-foot Fontaine design Whisper with Hap Fauth, and I did the Newport Bermuda Race shooting video for Gary Jobson on a boat chartered by one of the sponsors, Remax Realtors.

Are you able to find time to do any racing or cruising?

We race from job to job and cruise up and down I-95, but hope to buy a lobster yacht soon for power cruising and story telling.


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