Cruise Photography: Tips For Getting Better Photos
River cruises are extremely well-suited to photography. Your proximity to land can result in some amazingly unexpected opportunities that just don’t crop up on deep-ocean voyages, and the historic nature of your ports of call is any photographer’s dream.
In short, you’ll be taking pictures – and lots of them.
While the stunning vistas of Europe, Egypt, Russia or Asia will provide the backdrop, some simple photographic skills can turn your pictures from ho-hum into astounding shots that will be among the most important treasures you bring back from your vacation.
Get a Decent Camera
While the secret to a great photograph lies with the photographer, the type of camera you choose can make a huge difference. Inexpensive digital point-and-shoot cameras are perfect for brightly-lit sunny days, but their performance may decrease and result in abysmal pictures in low-light or fast-motion situations.
Fortunately, camera design and development has come a long way, and plenty of mid-range “pro-sumer” models are now available from nearly every manufacturer. For another $100-200 increase in price over the most basic models, you get better lens quality, larger CCD-image sensors, faster shutter speed, and better low-light performance. Go another $100 up the scale, and the features add up, including the ability to set your own white balance, aperture and ISO. Many mid-range cameras even shoot in RAW format, perfect for digital tweaking afterward.
Take Your Time
It’s a picture, not a race. Take some time to look at what you’re photographing. Is it a cathedral? Maybe try tipping the camera up and to the side to capture the enormous height of the building. Hold the camera still and steady while pressing the shutter, and keep it there until the camera has fully finished taking the shot. If you press the shutter and immediately move the camera, you’re going to be left with a blurry, unfocused shot.
Look for interesting angles and situations. Why take the same picture that is on postcards in the gift shop? Some of the most fascinating photos can be of an obscure detail that adds personality and feeling to a scene. It’s your vacation; make sure you take a picture of a moment you want to remember.
Likewise, “staged” shots can be good – but impromptu pictures capture the true spirit of the moment too.
The Rule of Thirds
Take a picture and divide it into a grid, three rows by three columns. This forms the basis for the “rule of thirds.” The idea is that there should be something in each “square” that captures the eye. Your eyes should flow over the photograph and be drawn from one end to another.
Sounds tough? It isn’t.
Let’s say you’re taking a picture of your friend in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. If you hold the camera up, snap the shot, and move on, it will turn out badly – I promise. But, if you have your friend move to the right a little, you can have the famous landmark on the left, running top to bottom, with your friend on the right. Scale is what matters most here: it’s important to show the height of the tower, so don’t cut it off!
Turn the Flash Off When You Can
Let’s face it: unless you’ve invested in some of the uber-expensive camera and flash kits out there, your flash is probably doing more harm than good. On mid-range cameras, better controls are in place to tell the camera when to fire the flash and when to hold off, but budget-level cameras aren’t quite as fine-tuned. No one wants to see pictures of the ship, people or food with dark backgrounds and blown-out highlights.
Outdoors in daylight, you never have to worry about the flash. Indoors, turn the flash off as much as possible. If you’re taking photographs of people, have them move near a light source that will illuminate their faces (this does the same thing as your flash, but naturally). Hold your camera as steady as possible, or better yet, place it on a small, telescoping tripod that can be collapsed and carried in a backpack ashore. No tripod available? Put your camera on a stationary object, like a table or a railing or even a glass, set the timer, and hold still. Voila! The result is a sharp, naturally-lit photograph.
Invest in Better Software
Now you’ve got the great camera, and have taken an amazing shot, but you’re stuck fumbling around with it using the (generally) terrible software included with the camera. Time to upgrade! For Mac users, the included iPhoto application is a tremendous way to manage and perform basic image enhancements. PC users looking for a simple app might want to invest in Adobe Photoshop Elements ($99; www.adobe.com). A sibling to industry juggernaut Photoshop CS5, Elements is a great way to take better control of your photos.
If you’re serious about great photos, or if like me, you take a gazillion of them, it makes sense to invest in more professional applications. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 ($299; www.adobe.com) lets you manage and manipulate your photographs in a completely non-destructive manner on your Mac or Windows PC. It handles RAW photographs natively, and includes support for a wide variety of custom-made image presets.
Lightroom is worth its weight in gold for those who upload regularly to sites like Flickr, Facebook or even WordPress; custom export plugins allow you to export, resize, upload, and even watermark images with the click of a button. Metadata and geotags can also be added to pictures right within the application.
Mac users can also use Apple’s own Aperture ($299; www.apple.com / $89.99 via the App Store), which performs many of the same functions as Lightroom.
What Do We Use?
I use two cameras when I travel: a small Canon Digital Elph 1300 IS, and a larger Canon G12. At roughly $150, the Elph is great for taking ashore, or in sticky situations where I don’t want to risk damage to the $600 Canon G12. In daylight, the Elph is a masterful piece of equipment. But it’s no match for the Canon G12 in low-light, fast-action or image quality. The G12 also has the ability to take three different exposures of one scene and merge them together in one shot – an incredibly useful feature.
The G12 is great because it features dial-adjusted ISO and F-stop settings (just like the old days!), but with the convenience of being relatively small and portable. It’s a great camera for people who want a more powerful camera but with the ability to tuck it into a coat pocket.
I also use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 on a Mac Mini and a PC laptop. I also use Adobe Photoshop CS4 for more creative image manipulation, but truthfully unless you’re involved in the print industry or need to create composite, CMYK-based layered images on a regular basis, save yourself the $800 and put it toward your next river cruise!
With a few simple tricks and some modest equipment investments, you can be well on your way to enjoying that long-awaited river cruise while at the same time bringing back photographs that will interest and inspire friends, family and co-workers.