Of all the emails I get, the most frequently asked questions all relate to my photography. Many people want to know what kind of camera I’m using, or if I do any post-processing to my photos, or they’re simply seeking tips to make their own cruise photography better.

The sun sets on Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii last December. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Now, I’m certainly no Ansel Adams, but I have picked up some tips and tricks along the way, so today I thought I’d offer up a few pointers to make your cruise vacation photography better. After all, the memories you return with are likely to leave the longest-lasting impression, and there’s no better way to get that “I-was-there!” feeling than through good photography.

Pick a camera that suits you – then learn it.

Use your camera’s Macro feature to get cose-up detail shots of things like flowers. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Though it does induce a certain drool factor, you don’t need a Canon 5D Mark III to take great photos.  However, you do need to know your camera, how it operates, and what you can do with it.

I use a compact Canon G12 to take the majority of what you see here. I could use a DSLR, and do carry one around from time to time on certain trips. But they’re big, bulky, and require multiple lenses in order to be truly versatile. For 95% of what I shoot, the G12 works just fine for me. I needed RAW capability (check), a decent lens and image sensor (check) and a compact body (check.)

If you’re headed somewhere like Antarctica or even Alaska and are serious about taking good photos, spring for the DSLR with a decent zoom lens and a tripod – the shots you get of calving glaciers and wildlife will pay off.

For warm destinations, you might want to invest in one of the reasonably inexpensive waterproof cameras that are available at most electronics stores. These can be fully submerged several feet, and are great for beach use (or for that all-important video of the ship’s waterslides!)

No matter what camera you have, be sure to learn all its features and what they do; you might be surprised how powerful your existing camera is!

Turn off the flash.

Getting up in the pre-dawn hours allowd me to capture this shot of the main Lounge aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra as we were docked in Nuremberg, Germany. The pre-dawn and dusk hours create a beautiful blue light that illuminates the windows, and using natural light and a tripod ensures the ship looks as it does in real life. Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Unless you buy professional flash equipment, the built-in flash on most cameras is the kiss of death for interior shots. It blows out your colors and highlights and generally makes rooms dark and unappealing. So turn it off and place your camera on a stable surface like a table, bench, chair-top, set the timer, and remove your hands from the camera.

Natural light and a stable television desk allowed me to capture this shot of my room at the Trump Hotel in Toronto. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

If your equipment is decent, you should end up with a natural-light photograph of that amazing public room on your favorite ship. This takes some trial-and-error but can yield great results.

Buy some decent photo-management software.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom helps me organize, edit and properly format all my photographs. Shown on-screen is the bow of Windstar Cruises’ Wind Spirit. Screenshot © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Let’s face it: the image software included with most cameras is crap. The image software that comes with most computers is crap. So in order to truly take control of your photos, you need some decent organization and editing software.

I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which not only keeps all my photos organized (I take roughly 2,000 per trip), but it also allows me to subtly tweak them non-destructively, which means the original files are never altered. I use both a Mac and a PC, and Lightroom is available on both platforms with a single license. It also allows me to re-size images for the blog with a click of a button, or export them swiftly to Flickr, Facebook, or other popular sites.

Another popular option is Apple’s Aperture, which does much of what Adobe Photoshop Lightroom can do but is only available for the Mac.

Both programs also let you edit your images, which is an important step in making your photos as good as they can be. You can adjust nearly every aspect of your photos to bring out the most detail in them. For me, I generally adjust the depth of my blacks slightly (I like high contrast photos), and I will also crop and or rotate them as needed.  But these tools can only enhance a good photo; they can’t make a badly-shot photograph great.

Take pictures of everything, but leave out photos of nothing.

A mock-up model of the new cruise terminal in Hong Kong at this year’s Cruise Shipping Miami convention. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

In a past life, I was a television editor for nearly a decade, working on over 300 animated television episodes. This required a year-long stint at film school, where probably the best advice I ever received was to always question what you were shooting. Our cinematography instructor would go through footage every student had shot on ancient Arriflex cameras and rip the composition to shreds, questioning every little detail.

But the best thing this often-embarrassing exercise taught me was to ask myself, “what the hell am I taking a photo of?” If you can answer that, great. But if you don’t know what you’re taking a photograph of, stop what you’re doing. Re-evaluate why you want that picture; is it something about the lighting? A texture? A piece of scenery?

It won’t win an award but there’s something about this sunset, taken from a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt in December, that captured my imagination. And I’m glad I snapped the photo! Photo © 2011 Aaron Saunders

Try to avoid situations where you’re never (or rarely) going to get a good shot, like out of bus and car windows. Sure, it looks beautiful to look at, but the tinting that’s on most motorcoach windows, coupled with the speed you’re travelling down the road, is likely going to make the photo look not nearly as impressive as the real thing. Did you turn your flash off? Most photos I see taken from a bus have a significant amount of flare from the firing flash.

Have fun!

Few things are as magical as sunset aboard a cruise ship, when the departing daylight turns the white superstructure an incredible burnt amber. Photo © Aaron Saunders

There’s no right or wrong way to take a photograph, despite what some people might tell you. It’s all about what fascinates you and what interests you.  So experiment; have fun; take photos of everything!

Just don’t trust your vacation memories to a disposable camera!

 

3 Responses to Five Tips for Better Cruise Photos

  1. Erin says:

    Great information. Although I have DSLR equipment that goes with me on most of my major adventures, I find that the G12 does a great job as a carry-around.

    Curious … when you export out of Lightroom, what size do you use – 70%, 85% … smaller? I don’t want to degrade the image quality, but I want to make sure that the images I link to (I store in SmugMug) in the blog display quickly.

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Thanks, Erin!

      I usually reduce them to 640×480; it’s a great display size for the web, but it ensures they’re not large enough for someone to grab them off the site and use them for print-purposes. If you use Lightroom to resize your photos when you export, it usually retains the quality nicely.

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