What you'll NEED as a cruise ship photographer + my personal setup

Who am I to tell you what you NEED as a photographer on a ship?

I’m David Addison and I’m a professional photographer from Manchester, England who spent 2 contracts on 2 different cruise ships between October 2016 and July 2018.

I did the usual cruise ship photography stuff like embarkation, deck parties, gangway and formal night; but I was also trusted to provide a more premium style of photography like the photographs on deck you see below, which I enjoyed the most.

Trust me yet? In this article I’ll go into what you NEED as a cruise ship photographer, what isn’t a requirement but I would recommend, and what my own personal setup was. So, let’s do it.

Me with my Nikon D800 and 50mm lens ready for action!


What you NEED.

Camera body.

There are certain pieces of photography equipment that you simply won’t be allowed to work on a ship without. Most of these are extremely obvious like a camera and lens (duh!). But it’s a little deeper than that, because not just any old snapper and chunk of glass will do. Most companies require you to have a DSLR of a certain standard; like a Nikon D7000 or Canon 70D and above. And even if you are permitted to use a mirrorless camera I would advise against it due to battery life. I worked with a photographer who used a SONY a6000 or a7, and he never made it through a 5 hour shift without changing the battery. I personally used a Canon EOS 6D and I also had to be conscious of battery life and remember to charge it each night. When I switched to a Nikon I was amazed how I could go for at least 2-3 shifts without even checking the battery indicator. Because of this I would definitely recommend using a Nikon on a ship.

Me in action with my Canon EOS 6D and 24-105mm f/4L. Climbing up here for a photo was my idea and management trusted me to do so.

Me in action with my Canon EOS 6D and 24-105mm f/4L. Climbing up here for a photo was my idea and management trusted me to do so.

Lens.

They aren’t so strict on the standard of lens you use (most photographers use the 18-55mm kit lens), but it does have to be a zoom. Personally, I’m not a fan of zoom lenses but they are extremely useful on a ship where you need to get a variety of different shots from the same position. You can go from shooting a close up of a single person, to suddenly being faced with a large group who want full length. The 18-55mm kit lens is cheap but it works well on the ship.

Speedlite.

If you’re an entry-level photographer then most of your time will be spent stationed in front of a backdrop with fixed studio lights. But you’ll also shoot in the dining room, on the gangway and deck parties, and for these you need a speedlite. Some companies also offer premium photography like taking guests out on deck and coverage of a renewal of wedding vows ceremony; which again require a speedlite because it may be going dark when you do this.


Not required but I highly recommend.

Now let’s move on to the things that aren’t a requirement but having them will make your life on the ship a hell of a lot easier.

Spare batteries and cards.

Running out of battery mid-shift can be a disaster, especially on a busy formal night when you have a queue. Nikon battery life is so good and you often have so much to do you can sometimes forget to charge it; so I recommend keeping a spare, fully charged one with you at all times; especially on a formal night when you can sometimes take at least 1,700 pictures in a few hours (really!).

Another vital accessory is spare memory cards. At the end of your shift you have to give your card to the lab technician to transfer the images to the computer. It’s easy to then forget to take it back before you’re next on duty, so it’s always good to carry a spare or 2. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to take your card from the lab ‘accidentally’. People may also ask you for a spare card when they forget theirs. I became very guarded after a few of my things went missing or weren’t returned to me after lending, and I would insist the lab technician transfer the photos and return my card to me immediately.

50mm lens.

I love a good 50mm lens on the ship; especially for premium photography like the examples here. You won’t be allowed to use a 50mm when shooting the regular cruise photography like embarkation, gangway, formal evening for the reasons I mentioned earlier. But if you get promoted to premium photography then you’re afforded more freedom, and I highly recommend employing a 50mm for this. People just look good through a 50, and you can get the nice bokeh like you see in my examples.

Speedlite modifier.

Shooting with direct speedlite flash can often cause harsh shadows, hot spots, glare in glasses, exposure issues and the ‘deer in headlights’ look. For all these reasons I would look into using some sort of small modifier like a softbox or Gary Fong diffuser on your speedlite when shooting the dining room, gangway and deck parties. They might not be allowed but if they are then definitely use one. Your images will look so much better!


My personal cruise ship setup.

Taken on deck at night with Nikon D800, 50mm, SB-700 shot through an umbrella off camera.

Taken on deck at night with Nikon D800, 50mm, SB-700 shot through an umbrella off camera.

I was in a great position on the ship because I earned the reputation over time of producing high quality images. I became trusted and was afforded huge amounts of freedom to choose my equipment and how I shot. On the ship it’s not necessary to shoot to such a high level. It’s more, ‘quantity over quality’, and as long as your exposure is good and you’re in focus they’re happy. Even so, I don’t like to compromise on quality at all, and always try to take the best photos I possibly can and improve.

As I mentioned before, the camera I used was a Canon EOS 6D. This is a full frame beauty, and I used it for the majority of my time on the ship before switching to a Nikon D800 for a few months. My lens of choice was a 50mm f/1.8 STM. It lived on my camera as much as possible at f/2.8 for that glorious bokeh. Since I did mostly premium photography I could get away without having a zoom. My premium setup would also consist of a Canon EX580 II speedlite firing through a softbox off-camera triggered by a Yongnuo YN622-C set. I chose that set because of their High Speed Sync capability, which allowed me to underexpose the background while maintaining a nice exposure on my subject with the flash. Again, wildly over-kill for the ship but that was my setup and I loved the results. When I did need a wider field of view I switched to my Canon 24-105mm f/4L, which was a really nice zoom in fairness. I also used it when I did video during the renewal of wedding vows because of its brilliant image stabilisation. I tried shooting one ceremony with the 50mm but it was too shaky!

Deck party at night. D800, 50mm @ f/2.8 with pop up flash.

Deck party at night. D800, 50mm @ f/2.8 with pop up flash.

When it came to shooting things like the dining room, gangway and deck parties where you had to use a speedlite on the camera I actually just used the D800’s pop up flash at f/2.8, 1/100, ISO 100. I preferred how the pictures looked compared with the on-camera speedlite; I found it so much easier to use and it always nailed the exposure. Nobody said anything to me because of how the pictures looked.

I’ll be embarking another ship on 27 February 2019 and I’ll be blogging/vlogging my experience. You can subscribe to my blog and my YouTube channgel to keep up to date with me. I want to try and get away with having a GoPro on my camera to document the real experience of working on a ship and how I do it.

Thanks for reading and stay curious!