A beginners guide to photography from a cruise ship

A beginners guide to photography from a cruise ship

Costa Approaching Harwich by Matthew Mallett

Top tips for taking photos while sailing in a floating hotel

Cruise ships are dull. They’re full of people eating, drinking and gambling where nothing of any interest ever happens. Not true! Go up on deck and a cruise ship can offer exquisite compositions, novel subjects and unique viewpoints that are impossible to replicate on land.

You might think that it’s only excursions that are worth lugging a camera around for, but from the most dramatic sunsets and incredible wildlife to sumptuous seascapes and impromptu portraits, cruise ships can be a surprisingly rich vein for photographers after unusual shots. Here are some of our top tips to get you started … 

1 Shoot sunsets, sunrises and the ‘green flash’

Green Flare Sunset. Photo by Andy Walker - f/6.3 | ISO 400 | 1/640s

Ocean-going vessels offer a unique vantage point on our planet’s rotation. In fact, you’ll probably never see closer to the horizon than when on a cruise ship, which makes it an excellent place to watch sunsets and sunrises.

The actual sun – glowing orange as it appears and disappears – isn’t of much interest to most photographers. It’s all a bit cliche. However, look around our star as it comes and goes and you’ll see everything from crepuscular rays (and even anti-crepuscular rays opposite) to ultra-colourful skies if there’s any kind of cloud. Something else to look out for is the so-called ‘green flash’, an optical phenomenon that sometimes occurs at the moment of sunset or sunrise.

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Twilight – the period before sunrise and after sunset – is an incredible time to be up on deck. It’s also a time when it’s possible to see Earth’s shadow. The easiest time to see it is after sunset when a gorgeous pink band known as the ‘belt of Venus’ rises in the east, quickly swallowed up by the blue of Earth’s rising shadow. 

2 Shoot the ship

Queen Elizabeth cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. Photo by Stockimo - f/2.4 | ISO 50 | 1/2900s

Don’t forget to get some images of the cruise ship itself, which can vary from small expedition ships to those of a massive scale. If the latter, include a smaller ship for scale. Shots of your ship can look great from shore and/or from zodiacs, particularly in the early morning or evening ‘golden hours’. You should also be on deck anytime the ship comes close to land, particularly when it’s in bays or about to dock in a big city port.

When you’re at sea and the weather is foul outside take a trip around the ship itself. You’ll find everything from vast staircases and flash restaurants to cramped corridors and unusual maritime signage on deck. You’re on a journey in an unusual environment that few photographers ever shoot, so make the most of it!

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There can also be some wonderful photographic opportunities on board. From themed parties where everyone’s dressed up to shots of the hard-working staff – little-visited but an integral part of any cruise – can be impactful. Avoid the harsh light of the midday sun if shooting on deck. 

3 Be on the lookout for wildlife

Humpback whale tail with flowing water backlit by beautiful gold. David Hoffmann Photography

Pelagics – seabirds such as albatross, storm petrels and skuas – are the most common wildlife you’re going to encounter on the average cruise. That’s because many species of seabirds follow boats. Since the birds and the ship are moving, it’s all about handheld photography of fast-moving subjects, which means using very high shutter speeds to freeze the action of birds in the air.

It’s tempting to use as long a telephoto lens as possible, but that makes it much harder to get your subject in the frame. What will give you the biggest advantage is the patience to practice your technique hour after hour while also looking for pleasing compositional elements that appear at a moment’s notice – such as huge waves, the horizon, or other seabirds around your subject. As you wait (and wait) for an interesting shot, keep an eye out for breaching whales and dolphins.

Mexico's Sea of Cortez is arguably the world's best place for whale and dolphin watching while Antarctica, Alaska, Australia, the Galapagos, Patagonia, Iceland and West Papua are also excellent whale-watching hotspots, depending on the season. If you’re on an expedition-style smaller ship the bridge will be on the lookout for larger whales breaching and spouts. If there’s a sighting rush the lower decks and get as close to the water as possible – you could get an incredible shot of a humpback whale breaching just below you.

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Antarctica cruises are not cheap, costing about US$8,000, so know what you’re paying for in advance. Generally the more people on board the less you’ll pay, but also the fewer shore excursions and zodiac trips you’ll make (IAATO regulations state that no more than 100 guests can land at one site at the same time). Certainly don’t consider paying for an Antarctica cruise where no landings are planned. Instead, look for cruises that include (often optional) activities such as kayaking, snowshoeing and camping out on the ice. 

4 Try for the night sky 

Celebrity eclipse under the Milky Way. Photo by Darryl Brooks - f/9 | ISO 640 | 1/2500s

If you want to see the darkest night sky possible then go to where others are not. That, of course, makes the ocean an incredible place to be if the sky is clear. If you’re cruising in the opposite hemisphere to where you live the night sky will appear dramatically different – and cruise ship astrophotography is a great way of interacting with it. However, there are a few problems.

The first is light pollution from the ship itself. You’ll need to find a dark corner, or at least somewhere in shadow, though on some cruises there the captain will switch off the lights at designated times (or perhaps just late at night), though for safety reasons there will never be a total blackout. The second issue is movement. Since the ship moving you’ll need to shoot as fast an image as possible, which given that night sky photography is all-out long exposures might seem a killer blow. However, there are ways around it. The best is a fast wide-angle lens – 14mm and f1.8 is ideal – which will let lots of light in without trailing stars.

As a bonus, it will also include something of the ship, which is important if you want to retain a sense of place. Be prepared to experiment with settings, but a reasonably high ISO and as short an exposure is helpful. If you’re using a smartphone then try using the Nocturne app, which takes lots of exposures and splices them together using its Autonomous Field Detection technology to identify and plate-solve stars.


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A popular subject for astronomers on cruise ships is a total solar eclipse. Since the path of totality for this every-18-month events are usually mostly at sea a cruise ship can very often be the best way to see them. Cue thousands of eclipse-chasers out on deck trying to capture the precious seconds when the moon blocks the sun and our star's corona momentarily appears. If the ship is anchored in a bay it can be as still as on land.  

5 Capture the Northern Lights

Northern Lights on Hurtigruten. Photo by Christian Kruse - f/2.8 | ISO 1000 | 6s

Specialist cruises to see the Northern Lights are common, with Alaska, the north Norway coast and Iceland being the most popular destinations. However, there are never any guarantees. To see the Northern Lights requires a geomagnetic storm, clear and dark skies, and patience. If you really want to see them, you may have to stay up very late – or set alarms for the middle of the night just to check if they’re active. You may even be able to register for a wake-up call if the Northern Lights make an appearance. Either way, have your warm clothes and camera ready to go. You’ll then need to find a dark area of the ship, which should be easy if it’s a Northern Lights-themed trip.

How to photograph the Northern Lights from a cruise ship is largely the same as when on land save for the fact that you should ramp up the ISO (to ISO 1600 for crop sensor/far higher on full-frame cameras) and use short five-second or so exposures to combat the motion of the ship.

Although displays are never guaranteed, the Northern Lights are more common and more intense during a period of the sun’s 11-year cycle called ‘solar maximum’. That will occur in 2024 or 2025 – scientists aren’t sure – but the few years before and after are also the perfect time to hunt for the Northern Lights.

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The few mornings just before and the few evenings just after a New Moon – the darkest time of the month so the best time to be on a Northern Lights cruise – are also perfect for seeing a crescent moon close to the horizon with moonlight glinting on the dark ocean. If you’re lucky there will be planets low in the east and west, too, which a crescent moon will sometimes pass closely to. Look up these so-called planetary conjunctions before you go on a cruise so you know exactly when to be out on deck.
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