Ballet of the elements: Clive Booth's photographs of lifeboats in action

Islay’s RNLI lifeboat Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II sailing through thrashing seas.
The main RNLI lifeboat at Islay Lifeboat Station, named Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II, in action. The boat is a Severn class, the largest type of lifeboat in the RNLI fleet. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens. © Clive Booth

Clive Booth will never forget the first time he saw a 42-tonne Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Thames class boat up close. The year was 1994 and, fresh from assignments in the Arctic and the Eiger in Switzerland, he was on the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, off Scotland's west coast. He was shooting a film about whisky and sailing – "two things best left well apart," says the Canon Ambassador with a smile.

"The commission involved filming Islay RNLI," he continues. "It was a beautiful September evening. We were on a yacht in the Sound of Islay. I remember looking down the loch as the sun was setting and the lifeboat appeared. Even talking about it now I get a tingle down my spine. That boat represents something that's hard to explain in words."

Over the next 20 years, Clive's career took a different direction – towards fashion and beauty – but that moment stayed with him.

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Founded in 1824, the RNLI is a charity dedicated to saving lives at sea around the UK and Ireland, with a fleet of more than 350 vessels. "95% of people in the RNLI are volunteers," Clive says. "They risk their lives to help complete strangers, so when you see that boat coming towards you, it's a hugely evocative thing."

In 2013, back on Islay for a holiday, Clive decided he wanted to start a project about the islanders, known as Ileachs (pronounced 'ee-lucks'). Many of the islanders are part of the RNLI. He approached Canon with a treatment and we helped fund the project. It began in 2015, as luck would have it, right around the same time that the Canon EOS 5DS and Canon EOS 5DS R were released.

"At that time, I had the only 5DS in Europe," Clive recalls. "Canon said to be very careful with it. So what do I do? I take it on a lifeboat exercise and get quite a drenching."

Capturing the hearts of the crew

Since then, The Ileachs Project has continued and Clive has lost count of the number of shoots he's done on Islay. They have ranged from high-octane exercises out on the water with the RNLI crew to quieter formal portraits of them. "To get to know the crew and to photograph them in the sea, in storms and then at home, has been incredible," he says. "Spending time with them and their families, you realise what's at stake. Islay's an island of 3,500 inhabitants. There's a deep sense of community."

An orange RNLI lifeboat speeds through the sea, the mountains of Jura in the background.
The Helmut Schroder of Dunlossit II lifeboat on a winter exercise set against a backdrop of the snow-covered mountains on the island of Jura, which neighbours Islay. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. © Clive Booth

"On one occasion, I shot portraits of the entire crew in their kit in window light in the station using the Canon EOS 5DS and Canon EOS 5DS R on a tripod. More recently, I was able to do that handheld with the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV because of its low-light capabilities. With diffuse light and a reflector, you can create these really atmospheric, emotive portraits. I then de-saturate them in post-production – because the bright yellow of their kit somehow distracts from the person – and increase the contrast. It's gritty, most of my work in Islay; that's how I see the place."

Clive replicated this setup in relevant spots in the crew's homes or workplaces, to create diptychs to illustrate the crew in crew kit and then lit in the same style at work. "It was quite tricky," he says. "I photographed Raymond Fletcher, who is a farmer but also the lifeboat's second coxswain, in a barn. However, the light source came from the opposite direction, so I got him to switch his wedding ring to the other hand and then I flipped the image. This portrait series seemed to resonate with people. In just two pictures, you tell a story, as they say in the RNLI, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

Clive says he was attracted to Canon kit early in his career, initially for the lenses. But he soon fell in love with the cameras, too. "For most of my boat stuff I use Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lenses. I love using primes for portraiture. My go-to lenses are a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM and a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM."

A boy holds a black Labrador puppy in one hand and a red ice lolly in the other.
Robbie Brown, the nine-year-old son of gamekeeper Scott Brown, holds one of eight new black Labrador puppies. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Clive Booth

But when photographing Robbie, the young son of RNLI crew member and professional gamekeeper Scott Brown, Clive had something of a revelation about zooms.

"When I was taking pictures of his dad, Robbie would appear on a quad bike trying to get our attention," he remembers. "One time he appeared with a puppy and an ice lolly. It broke your heart! I pulled up the camera, with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens, and put the focus on the puppy. Normally, with a prime, you'd see beautiful bokeh and super-sharp focus on the puppy. This was first time I'd used a zoom in that way and the result looked like a prime. I was an immediate convert."

High-octane shoots on the water

Shooting the lifeboats themselves brought plenty of other considerations. It's very much a team effort, and, in advance of a shoot, Clive sits down with the operations manager, himself a keen photographer, and the Coxwain. They have a second boat to shoot from and a safety officer in attendance.

Clive Booth's feet dangling from a rescue helicopter, over the sea. The helicopter’s shape is seen as a shadow on the sea, the rescue ladder hanging beneath.
Clive's view from the British Royal Navy's Sea King helicopter. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens. © Clive Booth

The weather in Islay can rapidly change from sun to snow to cloud, which gives great diversity to the pictures. But on one trip just before Christmas 2017, he was working in 50mph winds. "Safety is first and foremost," Clive says, "but once you've worked that out, this ballet starts to happen between your position in relation to the boat, the tide and the wind direction. It's challenging but it's very rewarding.

"One of the more ambitious shoots we did was in June 2015. I was fortunate enough to work with the British Royal Navy on one of its last-ever exercises with the legendary search and rescue Sea King helicopter from HMS Gannet and RNLI Islay lifeboat team before the service was privatised. For safety reasons I was only allowed to use one camera body and one lens so I chose a Canon EOS 5DS R and a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens, which was quite new at the time."

Dressed in an RNLI dry suit, Clive was winched into the helicopter where he'd been given special permission to shoot with his legs dangling from the open door. "I wanted to get this particular shot of the lifeboat in the shadow of the helicopter," he recalls. "I never thought we'd do it, but we did."

A close-up shows a volunteer’s hands fastening a harness over their yellow sailing gear and red life vest.
A volunteer checks their kit and equipment as they prepare for an exercise. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens. © Clive Booth
In the foreground is a swell of rough sea, while in the background a lifeboat approaches.
This lower angle gives an idea of the view that people might see before being rescued. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Clive Booth

Other pictures have been less calculated but no less breathtaking. On one occasion Clive forgot to put his lens on servo mode. "A wave rose and fell and there were two droplets of water at the point where the camera was focusing," he says.

"The focus was so quick it locked on to these two drops and what you see is the wave in focus, the boat out of focus, and the wake of the boat 50 feet either side. You see the spray, the drama and the mountains in the background. It's a happy accident but it's interesting because it gives the viewer a survivor's point of view."

For Clive, "lenses are connected with memories because they're linked with certain pictures." He has had many happy experiences and encounters on Islay that helped him form strong connections with the island. Last year, Coxswain David MacLellan was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal for Gallantry – one of the charity’s highest accolades – for his display of great skill and seamanship in an extremely arduous service. His four crew members were also recognised for their part in the rescue, an operation which lasted 18 hours.

Clive was invited up to the ceremony to give a presentation about his work to the volunteers and crew, along with islanders and Vice Admiral Paul Boissier CB MA MSc, Chief Executive of the RNLI. "I was incredibly proud to be involved," he says. "My passion for working in Scotland will never go away."

Scris de Rachel Segal Hamilton

Clive Booth's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photographer Clive Booth holds a Canon EOS 5DS with a long Canon lens.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. The ultra-high resolution enables extensive cropping and still delivers sharp image quality.


Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM

Offering an ultra wide-angle view with minimal distortion at all focal lengths, this zoom also features UD and Super UD lens elements and large ground aspherical elements for outstanding optical performance. Ring-type USM enables you to focus quickly and in near silence, with a manual override option too.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabiliser that makes it ideal for shooting handheld in low-light conditions, and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

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