Asher Kelman © Nicolas Claris

Nicolas Claris' photography is unique. In fact he’s one of a rare breed: he chases yachts. My introduction to Nicolas Claris was through discussions on censuring photographer’s discussions on the Internet. We found we had a lot in common, notwithstanding the Chirac-Bush divide which would have you believe otherwise and that Franglophile was an oxymoron.

© Asher Kelman

Nicolas, French lives in Bordeaux, home of some of the most ancient and prestigious vineyards in modern times.

He was about to really get to know a Brit who thinks Paris is wonderful and romantic, culturally strong, but like most of Europe, perhaps out of touch with the real harsh world.

California produces not only some of the finest wines. To me, the consumption of wines accounts for the fact that we never went to war!

California especially Los Angeles is a melting pot of cultures. I am one of the effete who believes in the hypothesis that we might have a little to learn from the French. So, naturally, I flew over to Bordeaux and meet him. Who was this Frenchman with love for the sea, this Captain Ahab, who lives dangerously?

© Asher Kelman

I was delighted! Nicolas is an adventure. His days as a boat builder and skipper show in his muscular build. He has a warm smile and a friendly disposition. Nicolas is gentle, making me suspect he’s somehow related to some Irish character one might meet in a pub who’s tell you tales of the sea.

© Asher Kelman - From left: Asher Kelman, Marine Claris, Wendy Kelman, Nicolas Claris

For sure, in another age he’s have been a pirate or smuggler. But a generous one! He never let us spend a penny in our visit! He’d just come off a shooting trip in the Bahamas and we took this time to get acquainted.

© Asher Kelman - Christine the lab manager and her baby in front of a Lambda 10 feet x 5 feet print

I was able to see his photography and visit a gallery where his work was being exhibited. I asked the master printer who was there with her baby, to stand beside one of the huge prints to get an idea of the impressive scale of his work. It showed how well the 1DsII images stood to enlarging.

I photographed a small portion of the stern of the yacht to show the incredible detail. The white quarter circle on the sail is just a reflection on the acrylic covering the print.

© Asher Kelman

I also was privileged to watch as he supervised the proofing of impressive CMYK full color brochures on a new series of boats.

I could see that Nicolas manages to stay landward for enough time to see his images through to CMYK printing. Marine his talented wife (and co-owner M&N Organization) deserves more than half the credit for its success as a premier design and publishing company for the yacht and boating world.

The name Marine, BTW, fascinates me. How does a boat builder-sailor-captain-photographer end up with a wife “Marine”? I guessed some pre-ordained fate or his insane love for everything nautical!

Be that as it may, the two make great partners. Nicolas now spends most of his time on architectural and action photography of boats: from the modest to the stupendously luxurious. Marine deals with the business aspects and the design of brochures, web layouts and books with their team at M&N Organisation.

© Nicolas Claris - 110' powerboat engine room

Nicolas photographs many smaller boats too. However, several times a month or so, Nicolas leaves the photography of the small boats that race safely in harbors, ply the rivers, lakes and hug the shores.

Equipped with a radio and Canon DSLR cameras, he’s off for the big game. His prey: huge luxury racing yachts.

However, introductions are rarely needed. He knows these boats better than any mother knows her child! Let me explain.

He could be described as “embedded”! He is, after all, right there even with the first dreams and drawings. So from the onset, Nicolas is part of the “team”.

These 10-50 million dollar beauties come from small but highly skilled shipyards scattered along the southern coasts of France. These individually designed vessels are sailors’ and rich men’s dreams put down to paper. The best architects and engineers bring them to life.

The end of this work is a magnificent ocean-racing yacht, each in fact a work of art and dedication. These boats are swift! They’re able to take on the fastest competitors, yet provide every imaginable luxury for the crew.

© Nicolas Claris - Shot made in a 190' powerboat owner's stateroom, for advertising... No Photoshop there.

Since Nicolas has watched almost every stage of construction from laying the keel, finishing the staterooms to fitting the latest electronic and architecturally designed sales, he knows this boat well.

© Nicolas Claris - Velsheda, a 100 year old splendor, beautifully maintained by her owner (at the helm)

So, when the wind is in the sails and she is cuts through the rough waters, Nicolas Claris, holding on to some rail of a small chase boat, sees her as awesome friend to love and admire as much as to photograph

Part of the initiation of the new yacht is a challenge to a seasoned racing team. This is one of the most exciting stages in the life of this sea creature; birth and then the ultimate test of its sea legs. Here's an excerpt from the writings of, Félix Aubry de la Noë, Mer & Bateaux Chief Editor and well known French Yachtsman.

If photography is an art, it also takes skill, particularly if, like Nicolas Claris, one chooses to focus one's lens on the sea, the boats and more precisely on the world of yachting.
A fascination for sailing from his days growing up in the Suquet neighborhood of Cannes amid fishermen and yachtsmen inspired him to become a professional skipper. This passion eventually put him at the helm of the legendary schooner Lelantina. Sailing charters, deliveries across the Atlantic and racing have given Nicolas a true professional yachting perspective
The sailing duel between the CNB 104', "Only Now" with a pendulum keel and the Class J "Velsheda" during 2004 "Voiles de Saint Tropez" will certainly remain one of his best memories.  Says Nicolas, "The magic certainly came from the ambient light we had, but it truly came from “Only Now”. Pure beauty, elegance, speed and ease emanate from this yacht as it rarely does on others of its kind.  I remember thinking, as I was flying over in the helicopter, that I wished I could stop shooting pictures and just watch, admire and be close to heaven."

© Nicolas Claris, shot from helicopter, the sailing duel between the CNB 104', "Only Now" with a pendulum keel and the Class J "Velsheda" – One Century between these two boats…

Nicolas’ job is to capture all that power and elegance. This is the challenge. The event is a once in a lifetime occurrence and everyone depends on the photographer. This type of work is nearest to sport photography but without the limitations of a fixed arena.

In an actual shoot, Nicolas may have to fly to wonderful locations like the Bahamas or to the beautiful waters along the southern coast of France. However, it’s hard and grueling work. The chase boats are hired locally and must be able to keep up with the yacht no matter how high the waves and rough the water.

Photography is from rough, changing and difficult positions as the chase craft manœuvers for the right shot. A lot depends on the crew that is hired just for the day and may or may not appreciate the photographer’s difficulties.

In fact, the choice of captain of the chase boat may be as critical as the selection of one’s shooting lens!

Speed, angle, position of the sun, angle of the boat to the water and height of the boat to the waves change by the second. Radio messages keep things from getting out of control and to coordinate Nicolas’ view of the yacht.

This requires teamwork like lions hunting and chasing down prey.

© Bill Parlatore - Nicolas Claris in the chopper (speed is about 25 knots) , shooting a serie from which the image below comes from:

© Nicolas Claris

Helicopter shots can be a peaceful part of the work. Sometimes, taking pictures from high up on such a fast moving set is a challenge with angles changing, the wind altering the sails and the yacht rising and falling below in the huge endless ocean. Eventually, the only "for sure thing", the horizon, also joins in this crazy dance around.

Hopefully, by that time, the work is done!

© Asher Kelman - Nicolas Claris checking a sheet with the press man, a real good understanding between both is needed in order to achieve a perfect print, just like with the "tireur" at the lab.


After each adjustment, Nicolas and the master printers examine the print under the light of the viewing box and again in daylight. There’s a discussion and, after some repeat runs, Nicolas approves. Now the giant presses go to work, devouring paper and delivering perfect prints to be bound in a brochure or part of a rare book on a particular boat.


Likely you have seen his work. It’s scattered in catalogs of expensive boats: speed boats, catamarans, sports-fishing motorboats or other BMW’s of the sea.

The books Nicolas produces, however, are unique and highly valued. This is a special and almost private side of luxury boat photography. For all the expense and effort in producing the “book” for a particular racing yacht, the number of copies made depends on the whim of the client; just 7 copies or perhaps 1000.

In the latter case, the boat builder is delighted. He distributes them to his clients and architects as a prestige item. It celebrates the achievement of a dream. It indicates the luxury and speed obtainable with enough money and the best of French nautical engineering. However, mostly, this is not the case!

Many clients want to be “invisible”. They insist on privacy and even draft images on websites are protected with layers of security more at home with a spy agency than with photography.

When such an owner’s “book” is made by Nicolas, just 7 copies of the book may be allowed, distributed as follows: one for the architect, another for the builder; one each for the boat, the owner’s three homes and, of course, the vault at the bank.

Imagine the book as a work of art made to be secret! This custom of a limited production is "what it is"! Must be a European thing. Why print so few? There seems to be a lot of narcissism in this, since more than a few of these super yachts end up being rented to the wealthy anyway, so the boat is hardly secret. I guess the idea is to keep the origins of the boat exclusive and so it is!

The photographs for the “book” memorialize every stage of the creation of the luxury racing yacht: from conceptual drawings, architectural and engineering alternatives to documenting each part of the construction, fitting and finishing.

The construction pictures are governed by the norms of architectural photography whilst the maiden voyage and first races require a totally different esthetic to capture the sheer energy of the powerful sea monster, a master of the water.

The first voyage might require a cast of actors to model entertainment and luxury lifestyle on this unobtainable yacht.

In the end, a book is produced which shows the transformation of a dream to a real yacht that can take on the finest racers on the water. Each boat made pushes the envelope of nautical engineering and the photographer is the historian of this process.

Don’t look for one of these super-yacht books in stores: they’re unavailable. If you have to ask for one, you're probably out of luck!

I was privileged to view one such book on the super yacht “Only now”. Here Claris’ photography captures the dreams of the owner, talents of designers and prowess of the yard.

Then we said goodbye over lunch. It was pleasant, sitting in the open, watching the lunchtime rush of the French, eating, pushing bicycles, kissing, arguing and yes drinking wine. Well, while we were absorbed with all this, there was that shrieking of the Police wagons and they took away some vagrant who must have done something pretty evil. The police waved away my camera and Marine advised me it was not a good idea. Of course I took some pictures! Then I returned to the table and Nicolas slipped a package to me.

© Asher Kelman

To my surprise, my copy of the book, signed by Nicolas!