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Riding the Waves: Shooting & Sailing with Matt Knighton

Would you sacrifice life and limb for your photography? When we spoke with Matt Knighton about his career as a professional sailing photographer, we learned there’s more at stake than capturing the shot in his field of work.

Matt is a local photographer who grew up around Chicago most of his life. He moved back to Chicago after studying film production in Austin and began freelancing as a photographer in 2010. Purely by happenstance, he grew up sailing in the city and when he reached out to his contacts, he noticed that sailing teams were looking for photos. “I loved racing so much I started racing every day a week as much as I could for a couple years.”

After shooting for several professional teams, he got his big break working on the Volvo Ocean Race. This nine-month race around the world precludes that photographers are embedded onboard the boats the entire time. That race catapulted Matt into his career as it stands today.

The most recent photos that Matt printed with Artmill include an onboard shot from 2014. He and the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team were four days off the coast of the Philippines in the Pacific during the Volvo race. Racing across the trade winds, the teams pilot super powered boats reaching up to 30mph while traversing ten to fifteen foot waves. Matt relays that the wind was angled that day, making the spray exaggerated, “Everything gets completely wet on deck. It’s like living in a saltwater bath. I used a very high shutter speed and stopped down and was able to get this crispness to the spray. If you take that shot too early everything is clear, if you take it a second too late the spray is so dissipated that it doesn’t have the same effect.”

The nuanced elements that factor in to any one sailing photo are numerous and Matt’s equipment compensates accordingly. On a regular trip he’ll pack three back-ups of everything except lenses, but overlaps his lens for better coverage. He shoots with Canon 1D camera bodies because of their superior weather proofing as well as Aquatek water housing. He also created a rigging system out of lanyards and carabiners to secure equipment below deck while still making it quickly accessible. All of this equipment and he retains bragging rights for having never lost a camera in the water. While his safety record is clear, he states that there is always a risk of going overboard on the ocean.

"For a unique angle, you may have to put yourself in harm's way. In 2016, I ended up placing myself in the path of an oncoming twenty foot wave while one of the guys was working on the boat. I created a body cavity around the camera so that you could see the sailor working while the wave was crashing around me." Matt recommends building a good relationship between yourself and the subject for the sake of setting up shots, but mainly for safety. "We had to talk about that shot for fifteen or twenty minutes and we both had to be tethered in because the wave is so strong that it picks you up and deposits it you somewhere else on the boat. In the place we were sailing, if you go overboard there's no one that comes in after you."

As for what’s next for Matt, he certainly isn’t slowing down anytime soon. This September he is heading to France and to shoot with the world record holder for sailing solo around the world, Thomas Coville. “Otherwise, I’m shooting locally for the next couple of months. After the next couple of sailing series start up in the fall, I’ll be traveling every month.”