Islander takes to the sky to capture his shots
Onne van der Wal’s decision to carve out a career in nautical photography flowed quite naturally from his sailing background. “I was originally a professional sailor,” van der Wal said. “I was racing professionally from 1979 to 1984. I got a little tired of living on boats and traveling around. I decided to set up shop in Newport. I started shooting full time in 1987.”
There was never any question about what the nature of his work was going to be. “It was always nautical, whether it was ships, or boats or nautical locations, be it a lighthouse or a beautiful bay in the Pacific,” he said. “It always had that same theme of boat.”
The renowned photographer, who has called Jamestown home for the last 14 years, knew that it would not be easy to make a name for himself in the field. “I was single at the time so I could dedicate 100 percent of my time to my career,” he said. “It really took 10 years to get the wheels turning and get to the point where I could live off it, and know that there was work coming.”
He said that it takes a long time to establish a name in the industry and a photographer has to consistently deliver good work if he wants to succeed in the business.
Early on, van der Wal understood that he wasn’t going to get all of the great shots he envisioned with two feet on the ground, or even from the water. He said from his first assignment work in 1987 he realized that photographers have to be in flight to get certain angles and certain looks.
“The first time you’re up in the air it’s a little daunting because you don’t know how to set up the camera and communicate with the boat and the pilot,” van der Wal said. “Obviously, now I do a lot of it and I’m quite comfortable with it.”
These days, when the occasion calls for it, van der Wal charters a helicopter for his assignments. Helicopters can cost anywhere from $600 to $1,500 an hour, but van der Wal has learned to work efficiently. “You can shoot quite a lot in an hour,” he said. van der Wal said that he works with Jeff Codman at Bird’s Eye View Helicopters in Newport. “He has the red helicopter that everybody sees flying around. He’s a wonderful pilot.”
In the last year, van der Wal has expanded his horizons to include video. “Video is new to me. I’ve been shooting video for about a year, and it’s always been a steep learning curve,” he said. “I’m a Canon Explorer of Light, which means I’m sponsored by Canon. So I have a lot of support from them. About a year ago the guy who runs the program told me not to get left behind with video and I listened to him.”
He said that the challenge of video is keeping the camera steady and not moving in too tight because that can cause a lot of shake. “The video is very challenging and fun. I enjoy working with the movement and the audio, and everything is a huge factor.”
When the time comes to get those great on-the-water shots, van der Wal is ready to go. He said that he has a 25-foot inflatable raft that he can use and a boat that he can put on a trailer and take wherever he’d like. The name of his chase boat is Onne Signment.
Although van der Wal has had numerous interesting assignments over the years, he has certain favorites.
“I enjoy shooting in Antigua. It’s very windy down there, with beautiful color water,” he said. “I’ve also shot a lot in Hawaii.”
One subject holds a special place in van der Wal’s heart. “I’m really passionate about wooden boats, the old Herreshoffs, and all the sails and the rigging and the wooden spars. I would say that’s probably my favorite.” Recently, van der Wal shot video from a helicopter of two of the three starts of the Transatlantic Race 2011. “The people from Rolex called me up and asked me if I wanted to shoot one or two of the starts for them in stills,” he said. Rolex sponsors the race. “I said I would love to and that I would also like to do video. I think we did a nice job of capturing the whole spirit of the start.”
Future projects for van der Wal include advertising campaigns for HBI in Portsmouth, who makes high-end inflatables; Tartan, who has a new 45-foot sailboat; and Andrew Winch Designs in the United Kingdom.
Onne van der Wal’s photography book, “Wind and Water,” is available at his gallery on Bannister Wharf in Newport and on his website, vanderwal.com. A new book will be published in 2012.
“We’re working on a new book now with Rizzoli. I think it will be a bigger, better book. The existing book, ‘Wind and Water,’ was all film. The new book is all digital, so it’s a whole new phase of my work.”