Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Photographing from boats and ships

Hubbard Glacier from Disenchantment BayI don't know about you, but I like cruising. I've been on large ships and small. I also enjoy canoeing and rafting. Taking photographs from any of these craft can be a real challenge.

Viewpoints can be highly limited. On a ship you may be far above the water's surface. In a zodiac or raft, you're right at the water. Water can change light conditions, and its movement can affect the photographer's ability to capture the image desired.

The photographer's ability to transmit the scale of the image is often impared in water shots as the frame of reference relevant to the photograph's viewer is missing or unfamiliar. In addition, the environment of being in a boat or on a ship can be hostile to your photographic equipment, and taking photographs.
There are many techniques we can use to meet the challenge of shooting photographs from boats and ships.
  • Pearl Harbor - Arizona MemorialResearch the climate conditions you can expect when you are “at sea.” Some locations may have times of year when the area is particularly windy, or have considerable precipitation. Know when sunrise and sunset will be, as those times on the water may give you special lighting opportunities, and problems.
  • Use a polarizer filter to reduce sunglare and reflections coming up from the water.
  • Be prepared to handle foul weather and wet conditions while in your craft. Salt spray can cloud lenses and is corrosive to your equipment. When I’m in a raft, zodiac, or other small boat I keep my extra equipment in a waterproof camera equipment backpack (Lowepro Dryzone 200) and keep my other belongings in my waterproof duffel. In small boats watch out for the spray as you move and bob in the water. On short jaunts aboard a boat, leave your other equipment in a secure place ashore. I use Purosol Optical Lens Cleaner with a nonwoven lens cloth to keep my lenses clean. It can cut through the film from sticky salty sea spray.
  • Iceberg in Disenchantment BayI always use a UV filter on all my lenses to protect them from breakage. On the water they can protect your lens from salt spray.
  • When white-water rafting, consider using an underwater housing to protect your camera. In rain or snow, use a storm cover for your camera. On rough water make sure you keep your camera firmly strapped to you. You don’t want to loose it overboard.
  • Make good use of cloudy, or partly cloudy weather, if any. The clouds provide a break from seas and skies having the same or similar color.
  • Xpedition zodiacs on their way to landUse details to breakup the endless look of sea and sky. Blank space (water and sky) are the enemies of water shots, even though they will probably encompass much of many photographs from boats and ships. Objects on the ship or boat can make the shots far more interesting. Catch a gull or other bird in your shots. Animal life in the sea makes for great water shots. Icebergs in northern waters are excellent details in sea shots.
  • Telephoto lenses or zoom telephoto lenses allow you to focus closely on your subject where you would otherwise have too much blank space in your photograph.
  • When you have islands, shorelines, mountains, etc., in the background available for your photograph, a wide angle lens, or zoom wide angle lens can be perfect for the shot.
  • Take shore or water’s edge shots which include wildlife; plants, birds and other animals.
  • Kicker RockThe biggest problem photographers encounter when taking photographs from boats and ships is water and craft movement; shakes from waves, motor vibration, pitch and roll of the boat. Fortunately, there are both techniques and equipment which can mitigate problems due to boat and ship movement.

    • Use a shutter speed of at least 1/500th of a second to avoid the shake and vibration of a speeding boat.
    • Use autofocus to make sure your image is sharp. Consider using a group focus setting instead of single area focus in case the movement of the boat causes the subject to momentarily not be in the chosen focus area. Group focus, if your camera has it, allows the camera to track focus.
    • Set the aperture to f/8 or higher to have a more forgiving depth of field when you’re trying to focus.
    • Consider raising your ISO setting on a digital camera, or using fast film. An ISO rating of 400–800 may be necessary to use high shutter speeds and moderate apertures.
    • For the best chance at getting a well composed and framed photograph, rapidly take a reasonable number successive shots. Use continuous shooting mode if your camera has one, to accomplish that.
    • Use your camera or len’s image stabilization of vibration reduction settings.
Brown Pelican with Great Frigate below off Santa Cruz Island


Neal said...

You shots in the Galapagos are amazing. In some it looks as though the birds aren't even afraid of you. It looks like an amazing place.

We're going there in March. I understand that you get back and forth to the boat from zodiacs, a boat you mentioned in your article. What actually are they? Am I going to need a waterproof camera equipment case to go there?

Thanks for the great blog. It's a real educational service.

George said...

Your article is an eye opener. I had never thought of the sea and sky being an extension of each other, making my sea shots so boring unless I had a cloudy sky to break it all up.

Now I understand why I got home and hated the photos of scenes I thought were gorgeous.


Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Neal,

What cruise are you taking at the Galapagos? Zodiacs are rigid inflatable rafts with sidewalls. They usually have a hard floor.

Take a look at this link:

These were the zodiacs we took on our Galapagos visit. You sit on the sides facing in.

You don't need a waterproof camera equipment case for these as you'll leave your extra equipment aboard your boat. Only take what you'll need for each excursion. The norm is two excursions per day; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Sometimes there's an extra one too.

Enjoy your trip.

Neal said...

Ned, we're going on the same ship you went on, Celebrity's Xpedition. I didn't know it when we made the reservation, but realized it when we saw your photos of the ship. It looks better than we thought.

If you had it to do again, would you still take the same cruise?

Ned S. Levi said...

I'd take the Celebrity Xpedition to the Galapagos again in a heartbeat.

It's a wonderful yacht, the staterooms are not the size of a big ship, but you're not on a big ship and the size is still generous. The public areas are excellent, and the crew is wonderful. All the equipment is first rate.

Moreover, the cruise itself is carefully planned with more than enough time on the islands, and cruising around on zodiacs in a few spots. They use the required Galapagos guides who are incredible. There are opportunities to snorkel at beaches and on separate snorkel adventures, and even an opportunity to dive.

We brought our own wetsuits and were glad we did, but you do have limited luggage you can bring on board, so you have to be careful about that. The Xpedition's wetsuits are short legged and sleeved. Ours have long legs and sleeves which we prefer. A few people got cold before the snorkeling times were complete, but we stayed comfortable the entire time. Most of the boats which cruise in the Galapagos apparently use the short legged wetsuits. It's personal preference.

Thinking about wetsuits, the one thing I would bring if you have a bald or semi-bald head like mine is a hood for the wetsuit if you're going snorkeling to protect yourself from a bad sunburn. In seawater most sunscreens wash off too quickly. A hood will save you. This is really important.

Another note about the Xpedition. It's the biggest boat in the Galapagos, which if the water gets rough is a big deal, as it has better stability than the other boats there. We hit one rough night. Folks from the other boats said they were really sick. We were okay. While rough water there is unusual, it obviously happens every once in a while.

Neal said...

Thanks Ned. We don't have wetsuits as we rarely go snorkeling and we've never dived, but I will get a hood online. They're inexpensive and I don't have a hair on my head.

Ned S. Levi said...

Neal, I suspect you'll take many more photos each day in the Galapagos than you normally take. The opportunities are boundless. As a result, make sure you take an extra battery for your camera. If you don't have a spare, buy one! You wouldn't want to run out of power in the afternoon, or miss a shot because you're conserving power for that unreal shot at the end of the day, and miss other shots which are great.

Also, if you have a good point and shoot camera, consider getting an underwater housing for it, for snorkeling. They are inexpensive compared to ones for DSLRs and you will have lots of opportunities for great underwater shots while snorkeling. You can get some great pictures underwater with today's point and shoots.

Steph said...

Ned, how do you normally keep a bird in flight shot in focus? Mine are rarely good because they are blurry. Your pelican shot at the bottom of the article is great.

Ned S. Levi said...

Steph, that photo was taken about 10am so there was plenty of sunlight for it. The ISO was 100, the aperture f5.6, shutter speed 1/800, and the focal length 200mm. I had my EV set to -1/3, which is typical for my camera to get the exposures right.

I was on auto-focus with my D200 which can focus with 11 areas, not as good as many of today's pro DSLRs but more than adequate. I used group focus so that if the pelican was within the group of focus points the camera could track it and keep it in focus. I was also on continuous focus, which uses a lot of power, but is the right choice when you're panning your camera to keep up with a moving object. VR was turned on for the lens.

I set the shooting mode to continuous at 5fps. That way if the pelican was out of focus for one shot every once in a while I was still going to have some real keepers in focus.

That's how I take photos like that.

Sometimes, I'll have a longer lens, but then I'll use a tripod with the lens as it's too hard to hold the camera steady with longer lenses, even with VR on. So I can move the camera quickly for panning, I use a Wimberley Sidekick attached to my ball head on the tripod. The Sidekick converts your ball head into a gimbal head which is ideal for birding and other wildlife opportunities.

Vidal said...

Ned, following up on Steph's questions and your answers, could you put together a primer on birding photos? I'll be there are many here who would like information on that.

When visiting National Parks and seaside locations we see gorgeous birds in flight, but have a tough time capturing quality photos of them. In your wildlife galleries you have so many incredible bird photos, I know you can help us.



Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Vidal,

I'd be happy to do that. I'll try to write the article for December.

Do you have any upcoming National Park trips planned?

Vidal said...

We're going to Olympic in February.

Ned S. Levi said...

Are you aware that much of Olympic is closed in the winter. For example, Hurricane Ridge Road is closed Monday - Thursday during the winter season. An on Friday - Sunday during that time they try to open it, but often can't, due to snow. For me, Hurricane Ridge is one of Olympic's highlights that I wouldn't want to miss.

I love Olympic as a park and have been there several times. Along the shoreline the birding opportunities in spring through fall are especially countless.

Vidal said...

I didn't realize that. We're rethinking the park of our choice.

Thanks very much for letting us know about the park.

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