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Can Expedition Cruises Enhance Your Photography Skills? You Bet.

Carolyn Spencer Brown
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Sponsored by Lindblad Expeditions

Wildlife photography

Last summer I was onboard a photo expedition cruise in Northern Europe that featured a trio of National Geographic expedition photographers (and their impressive cameras). Before the trip, the knowledge that these craftsmen would teach us tips and tricks for getting great shots made me slightly apprehensive. Not technically minded in the least, I was prepared to hear a lot about f-stops, macro mode and differences between fixed and telephoto lens. My fear was that I’d be crowd-shamed when I whipped out my iPhone instead of the big fancy Canon I just couldn’t get comfortable with.

Instead, our one-week trawl around the Baltic Sea and the Swedish and Finnish archipelagos emphasized the art of expedition photography and storytelling through the viewfinder over sheer technical specs. Sure, there were those among our cadre of 100 passengers who attended technical sessions with the pros in addition to our other photo workouts. But what really resonated were the lessons learned about telling visual stories, of learning how to better see the world as a traveler, using whichever kind of equipment best suited. That rocked my world.

Maritime photographer Mike Louagie, whose work appears in magazines in Europe and Asia, and who clearly understands the technical specifications of great pictures, chimed in with an insightful look at his own philosophy. "I always work with my heart," he says. "It's not only about technique. It's really a feeling."

Best Tips

We reached out to some of the world's top professional photographers -- with travel specialties in maritime; people and culture; and flora, fauna, icebergs and animals -- and challenged them with this: What's the toughest subject for you to shoot well, and how do you work around it? We figured that if it's a challenge for them, it's even tougher for the rest of us. Their candor -- and their we-learned-from-experience advice -- resonated.

  • "Exposure is one of the most difficult things we deal with," says Rich Reid, who publishes in National Geographic. "Particularly when it comes to shooting glaciers and polar bears on ice. Cameras' light meters are designed for 17 percent gray, so the camera is going to be fooled every single time. You need to use exposure compensation."
  • "The hardest thing for me is to shoot people, different cultures, city scenes," says Ralph Lee Hopkins, director of expedition photography for the Lindblad and National Geographic partnership, who's recently returned from a trip to Cuba. "Natural photos of people in cultures living real-life moments is a big challenge." Go to an urban plaza where people naturally gather, he advises, and use one camera with shorter length lens so you're less intrusive."
  • "Don't go ashore and start to take pictures immediately," Louagie tells us. "Take your time, absorb. Even if you're only onshore for an hour, wait 10 minutes. It's not about coming home with thousands of pictures; it's coming home with really good pictures."
  • Do your homework, Reid says. "Know your equipment before you get to the ship. When the heat is on and the whales are breaching, it's not the time to experiment with your shutter."
  • Don't dismiss the iPhone (or other smartphone with camera capabilities). "The best camera you have is the one you have with you," Hopkins says. "The iPhone is a very effective camera and I'd love it if everyone carried one. It's leveled the playing field. Not everything needs a zoom lens. Certain situations, like polar bears approaching a ship, lend themselves to the spontaneity of the iPhone."
  • In fact, all of the photographers we talked to waxed fairly rhapsodically about the iPhone's camera capabilities. "The iPhone has been a major paradigm shift," Reid says. "Generally, my live iPhone demonstration is our most popular presentation... I teach passengers to have fun."
photographic expeditions

Why Photography Expeditions Matter

To improve your craft, keep an eye out for specially designated photographic expeditions. These, offered in cruise regions like Alaska, the Peruvian Amazon, the Galapagos, Baja California and the Pacific Northwest, offer more enhanced guidance and critique onboard. What really inspired me, as well, was traveling with like-minded folks who shared the same passion.

Additionally, Hopkins, who organizes these photo expeditions, tells us there's a lot more that goes into the planning. There are special photographic explorations on land in addition to more traditional sightseeing. And the cruise itself is designed to help folks capture iconographic shots, with every staffer -- from the captain on down -- involved. The captain's been known to maneuver the ship to take advantage of the best light when the unexpected occurs. "Even something as simple as coming up on whales," Hopkins notes, "you can orient the ship for optimal light. You're making conscious choices."

And In The End...

Try and relax. "Photography enhances the travel experience," Hopkins says. "Everyone can be a photographer and make beautiful images of trips even without technical knowledge."

In her travels, Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic's chief content strategist, has embarked on cruise expeditions to the Peruvian Amazon, French Polynesia, around-Indonesia and in Northern Europe. Antarctica is currently on the top spot of her ever-expanding travel bucket list.

Updated January 31, 2019

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