Taking pictures from a boat is one of the most common ways to capture coastal areas, wildlife, and birds. But it can also be very tricky. So here are 6 tips to help you when shooting from a boat

I recently received an email from an amateur photographer who wanted some tips for photographing from a boat. Because you are on a moving object, photographing from a boat can be far from straightforward. So whether you are on a big cruise ship or small rowboat, here are some top tips to keep in mind.

1 Get your spot

Captain Keith points out a humpback whale. Photo by David Hoffmann

Depending on the size of the boat you are in, you may find that only a handful of spots offer the best views of whatever it is that you are going to be photographing. For example, this might be a famous monument on a city river cruise. So it’s essential to try and think in advance about where the best spot on the viewing deck will be, and if possible, stand there to make sure you have your spot reserved.

Obviously, if you are on a big ship with lots of deck space or if the boat isn’t that busy you don’t need to worry too much as you can move around. But if space is limited, you may just miss a shot because you are not in position.

2 Position yourself carefully

On the Mekong. Photo by M24instudio - f/5 | ISO 100 | 1/200s

Your balance is crucial in photography as it can help minimise movement and keep your camera steadier. But on a boat, this is even more important, so you can avoid camera shake at slower shutter speeds and for your safety. If there is a sudden jolt from a big wave, you may fall and damage your camera equipment or, even worse, fall overboard. So, before you start shooting, ensure you are well balanced and won’t fall over if there’s movement.

Hold the camera steady with your spare hand under your lens and your elbows tucked in. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with one foot slightly forward to help distribute your weight evenly.

3 Use continuous focus

Sunset in Istanbul. Photo by Andrea Pilone - f/5.3 | ISO 250 | 1/25s

Now, this tip is really important for photographing from a boat (or any moving object), so make sure you remember it! As you are going to be moving, you need to set your camera to continuous focus because by the time your camera has focused on something and you have pressed the shutter button, the distance will have changed.

For example, let’s say you are photographing the city skyline from a boat moving away. You have pointed your camera at the skyline, pressed halfway down on the shutter button to focus, waited a couple of seconds to compose your shot carefully, and then pressed to take the photo. Depending on the speed at which the boat is moving, you may have moved 5 to 10 meters.

By selecting continuous focus, your camera will refocus if you hold the shutter button halfway. This will ensure that your point of interest will remain in focus.

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4 Select a bigger AF zone

Bird flying in the sky. Photo by Valentin Valkov - f/5.6 | ISO 400 | 1/1000s

Focusing correctly can sometimes be the most challenging part of photographing a from moving subject, especially when focusing on something small like a bird. Depending on how rough the water is, this can provide problems when shooting at a shallower depth-of-field because if you are not spot on with your focus point, your point of interest might be blurred. If, like me, you usually select one AF focus point for your day-to-day shooting, then trying to nail the correct point in your composition will be difficult if the boat is rocking from side to side or going over waves.

If you do find that you are struggling to focus on the correct point in your image, then try selecting a bigger AF zone or multiple points. This is especially useful if you are photographing subjects against a clear background in a scene, like for example, a bird against a blue sky.

5 Remember your shutter speed

Puffin taking off from the sea. Photo by Brian Triptee - f/6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/1600s

It is also important to remember that whenever you are moving, you also need to consider your shutter speed. Luckily most boats won’t travel that fast to cause problems, but for example if you are on a speed boat, then you need to select a faster shutter speed.

Also, aquatic wildlife and birds are the most common subjects to photograph from boats. Your shutter speed when photographing these subjects will also need to be much faster than when photographing static subjects such as landscapes. So, always err on the cautious side and set your shutter speed faster than you first think. For example, capturing a bird in flight will require a shutter speed of 1/1000 second or faster!

Another point to keep in mind is that often for wildlife photography, you will be using a telephoto lens. So you must ensure that your shutter speed is reciprocal to your focal length. This means if you have zoomed in to 200mm, then your minimum shutter speed should be 1/200th second even if your subject is perfectly still.

Although image stabilization has made it possible to go slower than this with your shutter speed, to be safe, my recommendation would be to stick with it.

6 Have a lens cloth ready

Fishing boat moored in a storm at sunrise. Photo by Jeffrey Schwartz - f/8 | ISO 100 | 1/250s

Even on days when the sea is calm, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of wiping your lens glass a few times. Because there will no doubt be spray from the water or even the boat crashing against the waves that will find its way onto your glass. And needless to say, when the sea is rough or if it’s raining, you will need to wipe your lens regularly. You may also find it useful in rainy conditions to take a small face towel with you to cover your camera and dry it when it gets too wet.

And make sure you remember to clean your camera thoroughly when you are back in the dry. Salty sea water can damage your camera equipment if left.

Author note:

Most photographers will end up taking pictures from boats at some point (or regularly) over the course of their career. So if you ever wanted tips or advice for shooting from boats, this article should help you capture incredible photos.