A cruise is a lovely way to see a little bit of a lot of places, while enjoying fine food, drink and general relaxation on board in-between ports. But for a photographer, arriving after sunrise and leaving before sunset at these beautiful destinations can feel like torture. The best light is during the hour either side of both sunrise and sunset, and very rarely are you on land at all during these times. So cruises and photography must be incompatible? Absolutely not, but you do need to approach it differently.
I've been fortunate enough to have been taken cruising since I was 2 years old. Many years later and I now drop of my own children at the kids club that I myself was dropped off at when I was a little lad. Having cruised throughout my life, my interest in photography has developed in parallel so I have learned over time what works best. Beyond the normal travel photography opportunities on land, here are my top tips for photography on board...
1. Unique perspective landscapes
Effectively travelling on a 19 storey block of flats gives a very unique perspective on many cities and coastlines that few others get to enjoy. For things like the Norwegian fjords, the archipelago entry to Stockholm, or the vista of Venice this viewpoint will be as stunning as it is unique. But in any ports - plus the approach and departure - you get a unique angle to capture. That could be compressing the distant landscape with a long lens, or a wide shot of the stern of the ship with coastline in the background, they will be views that very few others will get to experience, let alone capture.
Venice with Dolomites in the background shot from side of P&O's Aurora. 160mm on crop sensor Sony A700 (240mm full frame equivalent), 1/350 second, f4.5, ISO 100 at 6:46am local time.
2. Birds eye view details
As with the unique perspective landscapes, there are many benefits to being on a floating 19 storey block of flats, but it doesn't have to be the distant horizon. Closer to the ship, particularly when in port, you can find some great opportunities directly below you. Look at the patterns on the quay side and roads , the way the shadows are cast throughout the day, and the way people flow for interesting top down view points. Here you're best served with a long lens, my 100-400 being an essential on a cruise to get a nice tight framing of the thing you've found interesting, or wider shot if you're lucky enough to have an attractive dock - as with the example below of the old town of Stavanger where a 35mm lens was possible. You may even find some events taking place in port. I've shot down on the world tour beach volleyball taking place in one port we visited.
Old town area of Stavanger shot from side of P&O's Ventura. 35mm on full frame Sony A99, 1/80 second, f11, ISO 200 at 3:52pm local time.
3. Panoramic sweeps
Many cameras have built in panoramic features, or you can take several and stitch them together. This high up view point also means few obstacles in the way when trying a long panoramic. Just take time to consider the framing of the shot. Where do you want the pano to start and end? How can you keep interest throughout the entirety of the wide photo? Bridges, spires, boats and interesting buildings all make good elements to include if possible. Including elements of the ship in the foreground like railings or a nicely presented cocktail can add some context and extra interest.
Sunset panorama shot from the starboard side of Ventura somewhere in the Med. 111mm portrait sweep panorama (camera in portrait orientation) on crop sensor Sony A77 (165mm full frame equivalent), 1/200 second, f4, ISO 400 at 19:54pm local time.
Depending on where your cruise is going, you may well encounter sea life sightings on board. Sometimes the bridge will announce these, but as their appearances are so fleeting, more often than not you need to keep an eye out for people excitedly looking over the side. So being prepared is key. After many cruises I think I've only seen a couple of whales and dolphins, so if you want any chance of photographing them you need to have your gear with you - by the time you've run to your cabin for your long lens they will more than likely be long gone. And given how high up you are on board, a long lens is essential. This is a tight crop (as you can tell by the loss of detail in the picture) of an image at 400mm on a crop sensor Sony A77 (so effectively 600mm), and this is the only time I've caught anything on camera well enough to be worth remembering it. You will need a fast shutter speed to capture them so if it's not a bright sunny day you may need to boost your ISO. Perhaps turn on auto ISO and set your camera to shutter priority mode and dial in 1/250 second exposure. Then fire off lots of shots tracking where you're expecting the dolphins to reappear after they submerge.
Pod of dolphins shot from the stern of Ventura somewhere in the Med. 400mm on crop sensor Sony A77 (600mm full frame equivalent), 1/250 second, f5.6, ISO 100 at 9:33am local time.
5. Sail away
On a nice day there's nothing more enjoyable than a cold beer watching the land slip away and the wake of the ship trailing behind. This is a great moment to capture in photography and since the stern of the boat plays an important role, the coastline doesn't even need to be particularly stunning either. Using a nice wide lens, or even a fisheye lens if you want something a bit more creative, get up as high as you can at the stern of the ship and try to get as much in the frame as possible. Important to keep the horizon nice and straight, although you can always correct this afterwards in software if you forget. Below is one of my favourite photos from sail away - the Croatian landscape in the top left, the wake of the ship, and two people (my dad and brother) enjoying a conversation with this perfect view. And it didn't need expensive kit - this was with my first DSLR the 10 megapixel crop sensor Sony A100 and it's18-70mm kit lens.
Sail away from Dubrovnik shot from the stern of P&O Oriana. 18mm on crop sensor Sony A100 (27mm full frame equivalent), 1/80 second, f10, ISO 100 at 6:44pm local time.
6. The milkyway
Light pollution is one of the main barriers to those wanting to get good photos of the stars at night, let alone the milkyway. You can find areas on land, but these are few and far between - and certainly not something you'll achieve anywhere near a large city. But by ship, on the open sea, the only light pollution in your way is from the ship itself. Passenger areas are generally well lit but have a wander around deck scouting out good locations. You can also ask the ships photographers who may also have some tips, or reception who could help you get access to a crew only 'dark spot'. If you're lucky enough to have a balcony cabin, you can even try shooting from there. Once you've found a good location though, you have a obstacle that photographers on land don't have - that your tripod may be stationery on the ship, but the ship itself is moving. So you can cancel plans for any star trails. The milkyway meanwhile is definitely possible.
On a large ship (P&O's Ventura in my case) I've found a shutter speed of 2 seconds was feasible when the boat was travelling at a slow speed in clam waters. With a wide lens, ISO set to 8000 and aperture as wide as possible (smallest f number), f1.8 in my case. My camera handles high ISO noise quite well, but even if you have an older camera you can always reduce the noise in software afterwards if needs be. Use the widest lens you have, again I used the sigma 14mm f1.8, but anything up to 20mm should be fine. The boat is at its *most* stationery when transitioning from rocking in one direction to rocking in the other direction (similar to how a pendulum is briefly stationary before changing direction). I'm sure you could carefully plan this based on the phasing of the rocking, but I set my camera to keep taking 2 second photos for several minutes and then deleted the ones where the stars appeared as dashes instead of sharp points of light. There are many apps to help you identify where the milkyway is (if you can't see it yourself after several minutes in the dark) and I used the sky safari app. This helped me compose my shot, as well as check what time the moon sets - you will want a sky free of the moons light as well. I'd also recommend trying to get something else in your composition, for example the sea or even better, some coastline. It adds some scale and makes the image more interesting. The best astro photographs will always be taken somewhere extremely remote on land, but if you live in a heavily light polluted area, the open sea could be your best bet.
The milkyway over the bay of biscay with coastline of northern Spain and/or south western France on 27th August 2019 from my cabin balcony on P&Os Ventura. 14mm on full frame Sony A7iii, 2 seconds at f1.8 and ISO 8000 at 01:13am local time.
Cruising is also a great opportunity to dress up for dinner in the evening. With everyone you're travelling looking their best it can be a great opportunity to snap some nice portraits of people you came with or new friends you've made on board. Use a lens with a very wide aperture like f1.8. These are expensive but a 50mm f1.8 is the best budget lens here, or if you can stretch to an 85 f1.8, 35 f1.8 or even 135 f1.8 (or any of these with a smaller f number) then your subjects will not be disappointed. Set a wide aperture and try to focus on the persons eyes for a stunning portrait. You could even combine that portrait with iconic nautical items about the ship, like this portrait with a emergency life ring.
Portrait of young boy on a nice bright sea day, taken on the promenade of P&O's Aurora. 85mm on full frame Sony A900, 1/8000 second at f1.4 and ISO 400 at 4:15pm local time. (FYI, I should have used ISO 100 as the image is a little too bright. I needed the wide aperture to blur the background, but this pushed my camera to it's fastest shutter speed of 1/8000).
Cruising is fantastic for culinary delights. With so many skilled chefs on board every day is a treat for your eyes as well as your taste buds. So as well as the food presented on your plate, look out for crafted chocolates, immaculate cakes and - a particular favourite on P&O cruises - ice sculptures. You could try a medium lens for a compact top down view, a macro lens to pull out specific details or a wide lens to get the food in context. If you go with the latter, I would recommend getting very close to the food and trying to blur out some of the background. It will help the food take centre stage and make your photo more interesting
Waitress preparing salmon on the outdoor terrace of Pierre White's 'White Room' restuarant on the stern of P&O's Ventura. 85mm on full frame Sony A7iii, 1/125 second at f2 and ISO 250 at 8:45pm local time.
9. Infrared black and white
As discussed above, one of the biggest challenges of cruising for a photographer is typically only being on land from 8am to 5pm. That tends to mean you're missing the ideal soft golden light around dawn and dusk when the sun is low on the horizon. Midday in middle of summer, the light is hard and flat, casting deep shadows and rarely conducive to good photos. Aside from the options covered above, a good solution can be to move out of visible light photography and try some imagery in the infrared spectrum. I bought a 10 year old Sony A7R for around £400 and had the sensor converted for 'full spectrum' photography (camera sensors typically have filters to exclude infrared and ultraviolet light to optimise the camera for visible light, so these need removing). The work was around £200 I think, and then requires Infrared filters be used. I bought one that clips onto the sensor so I can use it with all my lenses. The benefit of infrared photography is that bright sunlight and blue skies are precisely what you want for good images. Infrared helps create strong contrast between subjects that typically have little contrast in visible light, as per image below creating strong contrast in B&W between the dark green foliage and dark rock face, that otherwise would have all been similar shade:
Norwegian Fjords, shot from side of P&O Iona. Shot on Sony A7R full spectrum with clip on 720nm filter at 94mm with Tamron 28-200, f8 and ISO 320 at 1/100s.
10. Infrared - colour swap snow effect
As well as new possibilities for contrasty black and white images, an infrared image can also be edited to a colourised effect. IR images naturally come out with yellow skies and slightly blue foliage. By 'channel swapping' the colours, you can give a snowy effect to a summer scene by creating blues in the sky and making all green areas come through as white. It takes a bit of practice to get the right scene and editing (and with the image below I'm still not sure I've got it nailed just yet) but I've found it a very useful option to have in the camera bag on bright sunny days.
Norwegian Fjords near Olden, from rear of P&O Iona. Shot on Sony A7R full spectrum with clip on 720nm filter at 130mm with Tamron 28-200, f8 and ISO 400 for 1/160s.
I hope you found this list and examples useful inspiration and please let me know your tips for photography on board that you think I've missed in the comments below. And don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have in the comments too, which I'll do my best to answer.