Cruise Ship Photography Guide Part 1: Booking.
More than a paparazzi fly.
Cruise ship photography isn’t just buzzing around like a paparazzi fly with a camera. Well, it can be if you want it to be. But if you’re good enough, and if the cruise line wants it, you’ll also be able to do premium photography as well. Depending on the cruise line, this usually includes having your own private studio or taking people around the open decks at sunset.
Premium photography can be very lucrative if you know what you’re doing. It’s a fantastic opportunity to make a lot more money depending on the pay scale and how well you do. Ship photographers usually work on 100% commission, and at the end of each cruise, the photography team will take a percentage of the total amount of sales from the cruise photographs such as embarkation, gangway, dining room etc…
As a premium photographer, you will also receive an extra commission on everything you personally sell. On my last ship, my sales target per weekly cruise was just over £3,000. If I hit the target I took 9% of this. If I failed I took 7%. On a good week with all targets met I could make between £600 - £700.
The caveat is that you have to be more than just a good photographer, you need to be good in every area of the process: booking, shooting and selling. In this article, I’m going to share my own personal approach and advice to these 3 areas in detail. It’s an approach I worked on, tweaked and honed every single day over many months on cruise ships. I'll also include real-life stories from the ships that help elaborate on the point I'm making, as well as share the things I tried that didn’t work and the approach others had; again both what worked and what didn’t.
Passengers on cruise ships won’t just come up to you and ask for a photo shoot (sometimes they do but it’s very rare!), you have to proactively speak to people and book them for your services.
The best time to speak to people is when they’re in the Photo Gallery browsing their cruise photographs, as people are obviously much more receptive to you here than they would be in other areas of the ship. One cruise line I worked for wanted the premium photographers to go and ‘mingle’ in bars as a method of booking. I rejected it without even trying. Imagine you’re on a cruise, having a drink in a bar when a photographer interrupts you to try and get you to come for a photo shoot. How would you feel? Yeah, I thought so too.
So, you’re in the Gallery. Let’s go into the booking process. First, I’ll unpack what, in my experience, doesn’t work.
I’m here for the money.
On the ships, 99% of photographers will tell you the same thing: “I’m here for the money”. It’s common for most cruise ship photographers to know very little about photography or even like it as a hobby. They really are just doing it ‘for the money’. And that’s fine, you need to make a living. But when money and money alone guides behaviour it often leads to an unhealthy, obsessive ‘book, shoot and sell at all costs’ approach. I’ve seen premium photographers who’re ‘here for the money’, do and say literally anything to get a booking or a sale, including actually begging guests, purposely deceiving them, lying to them, and even sabotaging their own colleagues in various ways. I’ve also had 2 different managers on 2 different ships show blatant favouritism to their own nationality while trying to sabotage others in the team. The funny thing is, they thought they were far too intellectually superior for anyone to work this out. But there are no secrets on the ship. The best, highest earning teams I’ve been in are the ones who worked together, helped and supported each other. Members of these teams gave me some great advice which that helped me earn a lot more money, which in turn helped them make more money as we all share a percentage of the total. Remember, a high tide raises all boats. The worst teams were selfish, manipulative and deceitful. They thought they would make more by being selfish and keeping others down. It wasn't the case. Moral was low and earnings were some of the lowest ever. This may seem off-topic and the reason I'm saying it is so you know the type of behaviour that doesn't work, and results in an unsuccessful and unhappy contract.
The wrong way.
The booking method I would advise against the most I’ll call the Ogre Approach. It’s simply going up to people like an uneducated ogre, shoving some example photos under their noses and asking, “You want to try this?”. As you can imagine, people don’t respond well to this approach. Using examples can be very effective but not in this way. The photographer I saw using the Ogre approach received many complaints from guests about being rude and pushy and was eventually sent home. He was rude to one of my bookings and almost cost me a £500 sale. When I confronted him, he said he didn’t care. I spoke to the guests he upset, managed to sort things out and advised them to log a complaint about him. They did.
Another method I avoid at all costs is the Mass Appointment Card Approach. Let’s call it MACA. With MACA, you simply hand out pre-written appointment cards to people as you encounter them with very little context if any. I’ve seen premium photographers employing MACA say as little as, “Come at this time”, as they hand people the card.
The MACA approach does make for a very impressive appointments booking list, and photographers who employed it would be jam-packed every day. They would even double-book themselves. On my previous ship, the manager would check the schedule and be very impressed, as he also had a ‘book, shoot and sell at any cost’ mentality. Let’s shorten that to AAC for At Any Cost. But, lo and behold, hardly any of the ‘bookings’ would turn up. And when they did show up, they had no idea what they were showing up for! It would often go like this. Me: “Hi there!”. Passenger: “Hi, I have an appointment at 6:00pm”. “Ok, great. Do you know who with?”. “No”. “Ok, which type of photo shoot is it?”. “I don’t know”. “When you booked, which type of photography did you choose?”. “I didn’t book. I was just told to come at this time. What is it exactly?”. And so it would repeat. The vastly intelligent manager would ask me why I wasn’t doing MACA, and I told him it doesn’t work. He told me I had to ‘push harder’. Push harder? Thanks. I’m still not sure what that means but that was the advice every week: “Big push this week, big push. We have to push hard”. A good push would've resulted in him going overboard.
My approach is the opposite. I’m very calm, relaxed and natural. Almost passive. To onlookers, it looks like I’m not even trying to book people. And that’s because I’m not. I’m actually trying to help them. I have the same view of my ship photography that I do with my photography on land: it’s there to help solve a problem. This mantra is so important and I believe it so strongly that dictates how I behave throughout the entire process of booking, shooting and selling. It guides what I say and how I say it. It guides the types of pictures I take and even who I speak to. I’m not trying to book them, take their picture then sell to them; I’m literally trying to help people, and the way I help them is with my photography. The hardest part of it is trying to make people realise I’m not ‘just trying to sell’ to them. I do it like this…
I stand in a prominent position in the Photo Gallery where I can see everything and everyone who enters or walks past. I greet everyone who even comes close to the Gallery with a smile and a friendly, “Hi there!” or “Hello!”, I don’t even mention photography or offer to help them unless they look completely lost. This isn’t because I’m rude, it’s because when an employee offers to help a customer, in the customer’s mind it’s because the member of staff is ‘just trying to sell something’, so I literally just say “Hello”. When the Gallery is quiet I also often venture into other areas just to see how someone’s day went or if anyone needs anything. I speak extremely openly and candidly to people, and try to break down the barrier between ‘passenger and crew’. Afterwards, they will usually check to see which position I’m in, and are often pleasantly surprised to see ‘Photographer’ on my name badge. “Wow, I’m not being sold to”, “He didn’t even mention photography”, “He genuinely cares” are the reactions I'm aiming for here. When I take the time to do this, most will seek me out when they decide they want photographs taken. I know this because they ask my colleagues, “Where is the young man from England with the fair hair?”.
I once approached 2 elderly ladies who we sat in the atrium area and spent around 45 minutes speaking with them about their families, myself, life on the ship, what they did back home etc… They were sitting in chairs while I took a knee on the floor. It looked odd but I didn't care. Later on in the cruise, the 2 ladies won a special trip up to the bridge while sailing away from Havana, Cuba. When they got up there they requested I joined them, so the General Manager came and found me and off I went to the bridge with my camera. I took a few candid photographs of them on the bridge and they bought them off me the next day. Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time, but I would often receive nice feedback/comments from guests and built up a reputation. This behaviour and reputation led me to be in excellent standing with General Managers, Captains and Staff Captains (the 3 highest positions on the ship). I was allowed to bring my family up to the bridge twice on 2 different ships. I was also allowed to propose to my girlfriend Roxy on the bridge in the presence of the Captain. When the General Manager learned I was going to propose he insisted on being present as well and also arranged for champagne, and for us to have dinner in one of the restaurants as well.
Listen, ask and qualify.
Anyway, once people are in the Gallery I keep my distance so they don’t feel intruded upon while I listen intently to what they’re saying and how they’re reacting to their cruise photographs. I’m listening for certain things to try and determine whether or not I can help them. In sales, this is called ‘qualifying the sale’. Qualifying the sale is where you ask questions to try and work out whether this person needs what you have. If they don’t, then move on to someone who does. I’m not asking questions yet though, I’m just listening and discreetly watching their facial expressions. One of the things I listen out for is their reaction to the price of the photographs. On my last ship, the cruise photographs cost £14.95 each or 5 for £44.85 (advertised as 5 for the price of 3). The price for my premium photos ranged from £40 each or 10 for £200 for those taken around the deck, and £99 each or 5 for £250 from my private studio.
So if people think £14.95 is expensive then it's highly unlikely I'll approach them regarding my premium photography. Now, yes the premium photography is much higher quality than the regular cruise photography but in my experience, people concerned about price don’t consider that. To them, a picture is a picture regardless. They just think, “£99 for 1 picture”. £99 for something they could take themselves if they had the same camera as me (this is actually something people have told me).
If people spend a few minutes browsing their photographs and begin choosing, it qualifies them for an initial approach as it means they’re interested in photographs and are happy with the price. When a customer is approached by an employee in a store their defences go up, so my goal here is to bring their defences down as much as possible by gaining their trust and making them feel comfortable.
One of the most important things I do when I approach people is to use confident, friendly and open body language at all times. I also employ body language techniques such a mirroring and displaying open palms to invoke trust and build rapport quickly. I also use the space around me. Where possible, I try to place barriers between myself and the guests as they allow me to enter their close personal space without them feeling threatened or uncomfortable. On my last ship, for example, we had waist-high digital photo kiosks I could use as a perfect barrier.
I’ll then ask something like, “What did you do today?”, or something else that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. I’ll respond to their answer in a conversational manner before asking a more qualifying question. “So, do you like your pictures?”. If they say “yes” then I’ll ask, “What are you going to do with the ones you buy? Put them on the wall? In an album?”. I’ll listen to the response and repeat it back to them. This is called ‘validation’. People like to know they're being heard. So by repeating their answer back to them, it shows that you're listening and understand. So if they say, “We’ve been trying to get a nice picture of the two of us together to go on the wall”, I’ll respond with, “A nice one of the two of you together? That can be hard, can’t it? There’s always something in the photo one of you doesn’t like!”. By repeating the answer back to them they feel validated, then the next bit about it being difficult to get a nice picture together is jovial but also empathetic to their situation, and it reinforces that I understand their problem and establishes I care; which is also extremely important in building trust, and reinforces that I'm not just 'trying to sell them something'.
Obviously, my answers are tailored to each response, but always with the goal of 'qualifying' them for a booking. So at this point in our example, I'll then mention my premium photography as a possible solution to their problem of getting a nice picture together.
"If you'd really like some really special photos of the two of you together, I have a nice studio downstairs. It's private so we can take our time to get the perfect picture you'll both love, and you don't have to worry about people watching. Would you like to give it a try?"
Another closing statement could be, "do you have time now?". It's confident but it puts them on the spot, which I want to avoid. By asking if they'd like to 'try', it infers they aren't being locked into anything.
At this point, people will rarely say, "Yeah let's go!". They often want to know more information, so I'll take some examples and talk them through it. "It's a private session that takes around 15 minutes so it won't interfere with your plans for the evening. It's relaxed, it's fun, and we can take a bit more time to get that perfect picture you've been after. I'll then work on the pictures and have them ready for you to see the next day. What do you think?”.
Some more qualifying questions I ask are: “Is it your first cruise?”, “What made you choose this ship?”, “Are you celebrating something?”. If it’s their first cruise I’ll lead to, “If you’d like some truly spectacular/stunning/special photos from your first cruise I can take you out on deck at sunset if you like?”. Even asking where they’re from can qualify people because I’ll then ask, “Oh that’s nice. How long have you lived there?”, and if they say they’ve moved recently then I’ll ask if they’d like some special pictures to put up on the wall in their new house. If they’ve been there a while then I’ll ask if they’d like some updated pictures on the wall. That kind of thing.
Sometimes, but not always, they'll then ask about price. I'm always open about the price. When I first started on the ships my manager would tell the team to “trick the people” and be as deceptive as possible in order get the booking and sale at any cost; even if it meant trouble or a complaint in the future. He literally said, “trick the people”, and instructed us to avoid mentioning the price at all costs before and during the shoot, then during the viewing process create a high-pressure sales environment even if it led to a complaint later. AAC, right?
We had complaints from passengers every week about being pressured into buying that would often lead to refunds, but the offenders didn’t care because by that point they’d already taken the commission.
So far, I haven’t received any complaints about myself because I took the opposite approach and spoke openly and honestly about everything. I would answer the question about pricing like this: “Prices are between £99 and £799, but based on what you’ve told me you want, I expect the price to be around £250. Is that something that sounds good to you?”. Mentioning multiple prices like this is called ‘price bracketing’. £250 would seem expensive by itself, but it looks reasonable bracketed between £99 and £799.
If they say it’s too much then I won’t try to justify it by telling them how nice the photos are and how there’s no buying obligation. I’m really not trying to book or sell. Instead, I would say, “Ah okay, I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe I’m offering you something you don’t need”. And that’s it. Move on. Don’t dwell on it because, believe me, passengers talk, so you may be out of their budget but there’s a chance they’ll mention you to another couple if you aren’t pushy.
If they respond positively to the price and would like to book then everything is yours to lose. You’d have to really mess up during the shoot for them to not buy any pictures. More on that in a moment.
Whether you discuss price or not, once they confirm they’d like a shoot then if they’re in their evening clothes I’ll ask them if they have time now. If they’re in shorts and flip flops then I’ll ask them if they have time this evening and go from there. I make a note of their names, both first and last, their cabin number, the time and date of the shoot, and the reason they booked (anniversary, birthday, other). Also, I give them an appointment card with the booking details and my name on it then say, “Great! I’ll see you at X time on X date. I’m looking forward to it!”. I like to include names as it’s much more personal than ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am’ over and over again.
I’ve already explained the importance of helping and supporting each other, but as a premium photographer if your colleagues won’t support you or they don’t know how then it can nigh-impossible to achieve your target.
They’re so important because they can be in the places you aren’t and book for you while you’re doing other things like shooting, editing or showing guests their pictures. It’s a good idea to spend time with them and instruct them on who to look out for and what to say. I’d get frustrated when they would use AAC and MACA tactics as the passengers were coming to me without any idea whatsoever of what I did. “We were just told to come down here”, they would say. When I would explain to them what it was, most would understandably leave.
Your colleagues are even more important on the busy formal evenings when guests are buzzing around the entire ship dressed in formal attire. As they’re dressed up, the formal evening is when most people want their picture taken so on a good night in a good team I aimed for at least 20 shoots.
The way I like my colleagues to approach people on a formal night is like this.
The qualifying process is simply, ‘are they in a good mood, well dressed?’. If so, I requested my colleagues simply ask: “My colleague David is doing something really special downstairs if you have 5 minutes?”. AND THAT’S IT. Nothing more, nothing less. Easy. I then asked them to physically take the guest to the studio in person instead of just pointing them in the right direction. With colleagues who followed this formula, I would be busy almost non-stop and my shooting time would have to drop from 15 minutes per shoot to 5 minutes as I would have people waiting outside the studio.
I touched before on having colleagues who won’t support you for immoral reasons and the only thing you can do about that is 1) put counter-measures in place 2) confront them about it 3) wait until they leave the ship. For example, when some guests would be waiting outside my studio on formal nights, another premium photographer would come and take them, claiming he was the photographer they were waiting for. The photographer who brought them down to me asked me how the shoot went and I was like, “What shoot?”. When I discovered this I left the door to the studio open at all times so I was aware of what was happening outside.
Some mistakes I made in the beginning was discriminating based on what people looked like, how they were dressed and which cabin they were in. Initially, I only targeted the younger, good-looking couples (20s/30s/40s) who were well dressed and in expensive cabins. I didn’t qualify them at all so when it came to showing them the pictures
And that’s my approach to booking on cruise ships. Check back for Part 2 where I build on the themes and ideas discussed here and dive deep into the art of a cruise ship premium photo shoot.