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Don’t Rock the Boat, Baby

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Don’t Rock the Boat, Baby

Photo Boat Driver TJ Beatty Is Known for His Smooth Moves

You won’t find “Wanted: Photo Boat Driver” on recruitment sites such as That job, which requires marine photographers to go anywhere and do almost anything to get the best on-water shots, is something you’re more likely to come across by accident.

Take TJ Beatty, for example. In 1974, the Central Florida native was hired as a professional water skier for Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Fla. When he first became involved with on-water film shoots, he was in front of the lens – as the talent.

“I knew all about what the photo boats were doing,” TJ said. “Then I got asked one time if I could drive a boat for a photo shoot, and I said ‘sure’.”

TJ progressed from water-skiing to flying corporate jets for a decade, then moved on to a successful career as a freelance key grip for the film and video industry. But he has continued to work part-time with marine photographers over the years, developing a reputation as one of the smoothest boat drivers in the business.

“The majority of my photo boat driving has been with Tom King,” TJ said, referring to the well-known boating photographer, who is based in Orlando.TJ has driven for Tom on photo and video shoots for catalogs and ad campaigns for major boat builders like MasterCraft and Malibu. “We’ve been all around the country.

Tom and TJ worked together early this year to shoot Mercury Marine’s new line of outboards at Mercury’s Lake X prior to the introduction of those engines. Those images can be found in Mercury advertising and promotions.

“TJ is the best photo boat driver out there,” Tom said. “He’s been my ace photo boat driver for over 30 years. I rely on him to keep us safe while I’m all wrapped up doing what seems like crazy stuff to get my shot.”

When the assignment is in Florida, TJ drives Tom’s trusty old Regal 21 center console, which is rigged with a tower and powered by a Mercury 250 OptiMax Pro XS.

“You need some good power because normally you are chasing a smaller, more maneuverable boat,” TJ said. “A lot of boats don’t look good at 30 mph; they look better at 40-plus.”

Having a photo boat with a reliable engine is also crucial.

“These companies spend thousands of dollars to be there. The last thing they want is to lose a day (due) to an engine problem,” TJ said.

TJ’s job involves expert boat handling as he maneuvers the vessel – with the photographer typically in the tower – into position for each shot.

“It’s kind of like flying an airplane in formation,” said TJ. “You’ve got to be right up next to the (subject) boat at times, you’ve got to lead the boat at times, you’ve got to keep your wake from spraying that other boat. A lot of times you have to run right behind the boat to get rear-end shots, and you have to ride the wake a little bit.”

Sometimes TJ has to pace the subject boat or run slightly ahead of it, staying at a consistent speed.

“You want to have a very smooth throttle,” said TJ, adding that it’s also important to shift smoothly into gear. “You don’t want the gear to clunk because it will shake the photographer.”

Tom’s the first one to acknowledge TJ’s skills.

“I call him ‘Mr. Smooth’,” Tom said.

Tom discusses each shot in advance with TJ, who draws from his experience in the film industry to envision how the photo will look before Tom clicks the shutter.

”You have to put the photographer where he needs to be. It really helps to know what it looks like through the lens,” TJ said. “As a key grip you have to know lens length.”

Another skill TJ brings to marine photography is his ability to design and build custom camera rigs that enable photographers to take shots that otherwise would be impossible to get. He has his own business, TJ’s Grip Design, that creates camera rigging equipment for marine photography and film industry clients.

“I do a lot of work with Universal Studios,” he said. “I rig cameras on their roller coasters.”

TJ has developed rigs for photo boats that incorporate a pole that holds a camera away from the side of the boat, and a remote control for the camera’s shutter.

“Tom and I were basically the first people doing that,” he said, adding that it frequently leads to the reaction: “How did he get that shot?”

“He’s really contributed to my photography,” Tom said.

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