What camera to take on an Alaskan cruise is a question that we are often asked. Another good question is how is a cruise different from other holidays? To answer the second question first, a cruise is about the only place your ten story hotel glides past the landscape and associated wildlife at a majestic 10 miles an hour. As a result, you are towering above the flora and fauna and need both a wide angle lens for the scenery and a good telephoto lens for the wildlife. Over and over again I have noticed that if there is anything that is going to disappoint a photographer, it is how far away the critters in Alaska usually are.
Selecting any camera or lens is always an exercise in compromise among factors such as lens performance, speed, weight, zoom range and price. These are very personal choices and there are going to be folks out there who don't like my choices but here we go anyway.
If you are a casual shooter who doesn't want to carry around a big black Digital SLR, you are still going to want to capture the scenery and do the passing wildlife justice. Your best bet is a class of cameras called "travel zooms" which are relatively compact but still sport a large enough zoom lens to magnify those distant critters.
You may want to consider something like the Panasonic Lumix ZS20, which is a 14.1 MP camera with a 20X optical zoom (with built-in image stabilization) giving a magnification factor that will be useful in Alaska. In addition, the camera has a histogram so you can accurately judge exposure and a GPS that will mark not only the coordinates of the photo location but also tag it with the city, region and country - always handy when you look back at your images and wonder where they were taken!
If you are a photographer who wants to carry a DSLR with you, the trick is to carry enough equipment to get the job done and not an ounce more. I carry a Canon 5D MkII, a 24-105 IS zoom, a 70-200 f/2.8 IS zoom, a 50mm f/1.4, a 1.4 extender for the long telephoto, and a macro extension tube for any close up work with the 50mm. I also carry a Speedlite 270ex as my camera has no built in flash.
If I had to tell the truth, I rarely use the extension tube, the 50mm or the flash, but they aren't that big or heavy to carry so along they come. I do use the 70-200 quite a bit as well as the 1.4 extender. When I am out whale watching on smaller boats I have this combination on the entire time as whales just don't often approach the tour boats and the captains are required to stand off quite a ways from marine wildlife.
If you are using a crop camera like a Canon D60 or Rebel T4i, consider a 15-85 and a 70-300 or similar lenses. The advantage with these lenses is they are still competent performers but a lot lighter and less bulky than what I carry. Having said this, Jan has developed a real liking for our 300 f/4 IS as her telephoto lens of choice.
We are sometimes asked about super zoom lenses that go from wide angle to extreme telephoto (18mm - 270mm as an example). While these lenses do sacrifice some quality performance to achieve this kind of zoom range, if you are not a critical user who needs to make 16 X 20 enlargements, this might be a single lens solution for you.
My issue with these kind of lenses is how slow they can be. They are almost always variable aperture of something in the range of f/3.5 - 6.3, which means they gather a fair bit of light at the wide angle end - in this example f/3.5, but drop off to a very slow f/6.3 at the telephoto end of things. This is bad for two reasons: first, the light in Alaska can be quite dim on a heavily overcast day, making it a struggle to get enough light into the camera. Second, having to select a slower shutter speed because your lens can't gather enough light means you run the very real possibility of winding up with a blurry photo because the lens moved during exposure. If you can, try to find a lens (or camera) with image stabilization to help out with longer telephotos on overcast days.
Regardless of the camera or lens you buy, look for something that gives you at least a moderate wide angle to a long telephoto (28mm to 200mm in a 35mm equivalent) either in a single lens or as a combination.
Finally, we are sometimes asked about rain and ocean spray and its effect on cameras. From experience I can say don't be too concerned about this as we have taken any number of non-weatherproof cameras to Alaska with no ill effects. If you are really concerned, your local camera store can probably sell you a disposable rain sleeve for a few dollars to put your camera in during very wet weather. Again, I have carried these to Alaska but have not used them.Interested in improving your photo techniques while exploring some of the most beautiful scenery in North America? Consider joining us on our September 16, 2013 Alaskan Cruise and Photo Seminar. We are sailing on Island Princess for 7 days out of Vancouver where you will have many opportunities to photograph the stunning Alaska scenery and wildlife. Check here for additional information as we plan to have a great time learning from one another and making some wonderful images.
Glacier Bay, Alaska
We are off again to Alaska offering our cruise-based photo workshop to photographers interested in exploring some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. We are sailing on Princess Cruise's Island Princess
, sister ship to Coral Princess
and a Panamax ship. That means she is long and lean at 294 meters by 32 meters so she will fit into the Panama Canal locks. Built in 2003, she can accommodate 1970 passengers, giving her a more intimate feel than the mega ships currently being built. This doesn't mean you miss out on any amenities, there is a traditional dining room
, a second one for "anytime dining", two specialty restaurants, a buffet and several other place to find food and refreshments. The ship is well laid out and easy to get to know. The centre atrium is beautiful with lots of seating and several places for live bands and other entertainment to take place. Princess provides a page on their web site that has a number of virtual tours of the ship, so if you would like to explore further, click here
.The itinerary will be taking us to Juneau, the capital of Alaska; Skagway, the gateway to the Klondike; and Ketchikan
, the Alaskan community with more rain and totem poles than anywhere else in Alaska. In addition, we will have a full day of cruising in the very scenic and protected waters of Glacier Bay. There will be several glaciers the ship will pull up in front of and then turn 360 degrees so everyone on board will have a front row seat to view these magnificent wonders of nature.Our workshops will occur on the first day of our cruise, before arriving in Ketchikan and on the last morning of our cruise. This will give everyone the opportunity to work on their photo and camera skills before reaching port and then sharing their Alaskan experiences at the end of the cruise.We look forward to working with you during our upcoming photo seminar. Whether you are new to photography or an old hand, we can help you bring home photos to remember from this Alaskan cruise. Feel free to contact us at 306.241.8894 or email@example.com if we can answer any questions about this cruise or our workshop.
Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire
Our first real stop this summer was Aberdeen, Scotland, a city of 217,000 located about half-way up the eastern coast of the country. As the staging point to the North Sea oil industry it's a prosperous and busy city that is quietly beautiful and appealing. Often called the Granite City because of the use of local stone to build everything, it projects a sense of stability and honesty. Jan and I loved the city from the start. The downtown core is easy to walk around with the Mither Kirk, the fine Aberdeen Art Gallery, the Union Terrace Gardens and the Old Town Market easily reached from the central train station. A little further afield are the Duthie Gardens, and the University of Aberdeen in what is known as "Old Aberdeen", an area that used to stand apart from Aberdeen itself.The city is located in Aberdeenshire, an area of picturesque, rolling farmlands that reminds me a great deal of Saskatchewan. Many folks come here to travel the Whisky Trail which includes the
Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Strathisla distilleries. There is also the Castle Trail which takes visitors to see many beautiful castles - some ruined, some restored and some still lived in. Dunnottar Castle, pictured above, is one such castle ruin located to the south of Aberdeen.We were immensely l
ucky to spend a day with David Langan, a local fine art photographer (whose work can be seen at www.thenorthlight.co.uk
). David picked us up at our hotel and took us first to Old Aberdeen to walk the quiet streets and gather some morning images of this beautiful district. The University of Aberdeen is located here and everywhere you turn old and modern architecture and sculptures share the landscape.
Next we headed to Stonehaven to visit Dunnottar Castle, a ruin set on a spectacular seaside rock outcrop with impressive vertical cliffs protecting its position. William Wallace is said to have defeated the English near the castle at the end of the thirteenth century.From here we travelled south to the small village of Inverbervie to grab lunch from the Bervie Chipper,
a fish and chips shop that has won national awards in Scotland and the UK. We took our lunch to the Gourdon harbour and sat on the jetty of this small and picturesque fishing harbour to take in the views and eat some remarkable, fresh fish. We explored the harbour for a while before driving to Fyvie Castle, a huge, beautiful pink castle. Not only is the colour remarkable, but it is said that it is one of the most haunted castles in the UK. The only white apparition we saw while there was the bride's dress in a bridal party using the ground for photos.Our final stop of the day was a private castle that has been lovingly restored by Marc and Karen Ellington. What a pleasure to walk through the beautiful gardens
in front of the castle and then to have an opportunity to see it from the inside. Marc and Karen were wonderful hosts and the residence was simply stunning.David was a brilliant guide, driver and tutor. He has a tremendous sense of light and made certain that each stop took full advantage of the sun's position on the unusually beautiful and warm summer day. Without David we wouldn't have seen so much of this beautiful country, learned so much about Scotland past and present or had so many doors open for us to explore behind.I highly recommend that you stop in at David's web site "The Northern Light" to get a sense of the beautiful
work that he does and the beauty of the Aberdeenshire countryside. David usually runs photography workshops throughout the year so you may want to contact him
if you are going to be in or near Aberdeen. This was one of the best photo days that Jan and I have had in some time - thanks again David!
Sod Houses, Iceland
We have finally posted some of our images from our last cruise through the North Atlantic. This gallery
is a bit different though as all images were shot on an iPhone 3GS and processed using iPhone apps while in the field. While we have far more images using the big cameras, we thought these turned out well and are fun to look at.
For those interested in what iPhone apps we used here is our short list:ProcameraPro HDRDynamic LightfinarXImagePhotoForge2Pic GrungerPaper Camera
I treat iPhone photography much like using a toy or LOMO camera. I have come to embrace the grain, the saturated colors and the ghosting in HDR photos. The quality of the images will never rival a DSLR, but these pictures sure and fun to take and process!
Yep, 27 days at sea from Southampton, UK to Quebec City via New York! This was really two cruises in one - a seventeen day crossing to New York and then a ten day cruise along the eastern seaboard to Quebec City - all on Crown Princess and all in the same cabin. It wasn't as claustrophobic as you might expect - we had a cabin with balcony so that on the days when it was warm enough we had extra room to use.
The weather? Well, temperatures ranged from around 20C in England and Canada to 3C in Greenland. We thought we had brought a range of clothes to wear but we still wound up buying extra along the way just to stay warm!
Was the sea ever rough? In a word - yes. Ever wonder where the hurricanes that rip up the east coast of North America go when they finally say goodbye to Newfoundland? Yep, right into the North Atlantic. We missed one stop in Greenland because it was too windy, foggy and icy to make harbour. We missed another stop later in Newfoundland because of hurricane strength winds between Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia. Don't even talk to me about the weather as we left Akureyri, Iceland bound for Reykjavik via the Denmark Strait!
Was it the best cruise we have taken? It rates right up there as one of the best. While you are on a great white cruise ship with all the comforts, it is still adventure sailing on a route like this. Ports were missed, other ports we arrived at late and the weather made sailors out of all who were on board, but the stops we did make in Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland were beautifully fascinating and worth the effort to get to.
Watch this space as we share more about the trip and some of our experiences along the way!
If you use a compact camera, chances are you don't agonize over choosing the best neck strap for your camera. You install the one that came with the kit and you are good to go. The same choice is not always so simple with big, black SLRs. Not only are the cameras large, but with battery grip and telephoto lens, quite heavy indeed.
Most camera makers do give you a neck strap as part of the entry price into your new camera, but they spend more time designing the placement of their logo rather than ensuring you have a comfortable fit. These straps usually consist of a black nylon or canvas strap with hard edges and little "give" or flex to the material.
Back in the day, the straps were even worse as they were made of very thin nylon webbing with a movable (always in the wrong place) rubber shoulder pad. Thankfully, there a better choices today!
Canon F1n with leather strap
Camera straps are a lot like camera bags - some photographers are always on the search for the perfect one. In my ongoing search for the perfect camera strap I look for certain characteristics: softness, flexibility, "give" in the strap that allows it to stretch under load, a quick release mechanism to remove the strap, and metal hardware for long wear (I keep my straps for years and move them from camera to camera).
Years ago I gave up on manufacturers' straps and vowed that I would not provide free advertising of my cameras to potential thieves. I began replacing my uncomfortable corporate neck straps with wide, soft leather "field straps" made by Globus Inc, a company that doesn't seem to be around any more. These straps came in brown or black, had a wide, soft neck pad, gave a little when slung around the neck and had metal hardware. I purchased a number of these in the late 70's and still use them today on some of my cameras. The only downside is that they are made of such soft leather they don't stay on my shoulder. I have developed a habit of holding the strap part way up and pressing it against my body to hold it in place. I have done this for so long that I don't even notice anymore and the camera never moves as I walk.
E-1 hand strap and Lowe-Pro neck strap
More recently I have been using Lowe-pro neoprene straps (model
2070910) that have many of the same characteristics as my beloved leather ones. Again, these
are soft straps with the natural give in them to allows for flexing and stretching when under a heavy load. They have metal hardware and a separate piece of strapping that attaches between the camera and the neck strap. The strap itself is then connected by quick release rings making it easy to detach the strap for storage or when it's not needed. The neoprene neck pad has small "nubbies" on the underside that keep the strap in place on my shoulder.When wouldn't I need a neck strap? When using a hand strap of course! I attach a Canon E-1 hand strap to all my cameras and then hook the neck strap to the E-1. When I am carrying a long telephoto for an extended period of time it is far easier to hang the camera and lens off of my hand rather than my neck. When I am doing this, I remove the neck strap (via the quick release) so it doesn't drag on the ground.As the Lowe-pro strap has now been replaced with newer versions that are not as flexible for my liking, the new Custom SLR Split Camera Strap
from B&H Photo may be a good replacement as it appears to be flexible, non-slip and complete with a removable neck pad. If you're finding that your neck strap won't accommodate the weight of your camera and lens or it just isn't flexible enough, begin your hunt for the world's best camera neck strap (or hand strap) - it may just make it easier to carry your camera more comfortably for longer periods of time.
Catedral Metropolitan, Panama City, Panama
In spite of the fact that they are a integral part of many cruise excursions, I hate tour buses. They are often cramped, crowded and hot - and there is grubby glass between the locale and me and my camera. The lack of space means that it's difficult just to extract my camera from its case
let alone swing it around to take a photo through the bus window. Often the bus blows by interesting landmarks with only a brief acknowledgement of what we are seeing let alone treat us an actual stop.
To improve you chances of getting a good photo from a tour bus, try one or more of the following techniques:
- Use a digital derringer: with very little room to move, a compact camera is easy to remove from a case and hold up to the window to use.
- Use a small lens on your digital SLR: if you only have your big black camera, try to use a short lens so that you don't bang your gear against the window glass. A small, inexpensive prime lens like a 50mm f/1.8 will serve you well in these situations.
- Use a flexible rubber lens hood: this will reduce or remove any reflections that you usually get when shooting through glass by placing the hood directly on the bus window. The above photo of Catedral Metropolitan in Panama City, Panama was taken through a bus window. I had no lens hood but was lucky enough to get this shot with only some reflection - can you see it? With a flexible hood, you can shoot from an angle and still have the hood completely touching the glass and preventing a reflection
- Use a rigid circular lens hood: while losing the flexibility, even a rigid lens hood is better than none at all. On my Leica X1 I use a black metal lens hood from a 90mm f/2.5 M lens that sticks out beyond the front of the lens. I can then press the hood directly again the glass window and eliminate any reflection.
- Use a high shuttle speed: with scenery flying by the bus, you are going to want to freeze those moving trees, so pick a speed above 1/500 if possible or, if your prefer something more automatic, select an action or sport setting.
- Turn off your flash: "blow back" off of your flash onto a close piece of glass is not a good thing. You will get a huge amount of glare and will washout the image you were trying to photograph.
- Turn up your ISO: some tour bus glass can be tinted - really tinted. You may find that there isn't enough light to get a decent photo using the recommended high shutter speed. If you camera isn't set to auto ISO, you may need to run up your ISO to 400 or more.
- Focus manually: the auto focus on some cameras don't like having glass too close to them. You may need to use manual focus (often set to infinity) so that your camera doesn't "hunt" for focus.
- Sit a little further back on the bus: you can often see the "best bits" approaching the window if you are a bit further back. That way you won't be surprised as the scenery flies by! Pay attention to the side pillars of the bus that separate the windows - some seats will place you right beside these making it difficult to shoot around.
- Eschew to bus all together: the simplest solution is not to get on the bus! Look for walking tours that are often more photographer friendly due to their slower pace. You can also look for tours where the bus is only a means of transportation to the real sightseeing rather than being the tour itself.
Lens Hood or No Lenshood?
While not all lenses work well with generic rubber lens hoods. The 50mm lens in the bottom right is perfect to pair with a hood. Zoom lenses, like the ones in the back row, can be fitted with hoods, but make sure you don't get any vignetting at their widest settings. Other lenses like the fish eye in the lower left don't accept any kind of lens hood - and have a front element that sticks out - so avoid placing it up against any glass!
Air Snipe. Ketchikan, Alaska
Tongass Narrows is the channel that runs from Mud Bay in the northwest to Dairy in the south east and is the approach your cruise ship will use to arrive in Ketchikan. There are great photo opportunities along the way as lumber yards, picturesque cabins and derelict boats dot the narrow waterway.
We were approaching from the north and as we neared town we passed by this very handsome motor vessel named "Air Snipe". It looked for all the world like it could once have been a military vessel of some sort so once we arrived back home I did a little digging. This vessel had her keel laid down in December 1942 as submarine chaser SC-1068. In 1946 she was transferred to the US Coast Guard as USCGC Air Snipe and in 1948 was sold to Boyer Towing in Ketchikan, Alaska as a towing vessel.
This is just one example of the interesting sights that can be seen during the run in to Ketchikan along the Tongass Narrows.
Think Tank Urban Disguise 40
Photographers spend a great deal of time looking for the perfect camera bag hoping it's available on the next trip to the store. Every bag is a compromise unless you have found one that folds the space-time continuum in such a way that a small bag holds a lot of gear and all of it doesn't weigh very much. Sadly, I haven't seen that bag available at my local camera store, so I have had to make some sacrifices and select a bag that obeys the laws of physics.One of my first camera bags for my digital camera equipment was the Bob Krist Travel Bag sold by L.L. Bean. It had the distinct advantage of being taller than wide, thus allowing for a full size camera with a mounted long telephoto to be dropped into it.
At 14" X 12" X 5" and with a vertical configuration, it always felt a little awkward to carry. While it had some endearing features including the ability to transform into a backpack, after a couple of years I was back to looking for a different bag. The other bag I have used is the oddly named Crumpler Geekstar that had a unique lower horizontal compartment for storing lenses. It also looked for all the world like a large, royal blue diaper bag but ultimately, like the Bob Krist bag, proved to be too large and cumbersome to easily carry around.Today
my over the shoulder travel camera bag is a ThinkTank Urban Disguise 40
. Into this 13" X 10" X 4" black ballistic nylon bag goes as much gear as I would normally want to carry. Typically I put a Canon 5D Mk II body with grip and separate 70-200 f/2.8, 24-105 f/4, 2X extender and a digital derringer
of some sort. Without the grip on my 5D, I usually store the camera with a mounted 16-35 in the middle compartment, a 70-200 f/2.8 on one side and a 300 f/4 on the other. Again, this still leaves room for a digital derringer to be stored in the central compartment giving me more than enough equipment for almost any circumstance.
As with most other camera bags, the inside can be configured in many different ways by attaching various partitions and platforms using hook and loop attachments. The folks at Think Tank provide a huge selection of these partitions with the bag so there is no shortage of ways to configure the inside.
The rear zippered compartment holds my netbook and power cable. The two expandable front pockets can hold portable hard drives, small prime lenses or an external flash. This still leaves another zippered compartment between the main one and the front pockets. Here there are pockets for pens, paper, lens cleaner and cloth as well as a "Pocket Rocket" - a folding wallet that will hold CF and SD cards and clips to an lanyard mounted in the bag for security. Soft, stretchable outside pockets on each
end of the bag allow for water bottles or the like to be stored where they can be easily accessed.It's really the little extras that set this bag apart and shows that photographers were involved in the design and testing of this product.
While most bag hardware is now made of plastic, all clips, rings and zipper pulls on this bag are of metal to stand up to the most severe wear and tear. The zippers are weather resistant and the bag comes with its own rain jacket that can be installed over the bag on rainy days. There is an open pocket on the back of the bag that can be used to hold paperwork or, with the bottom portion open, it becomes a sleeve that will fit over the upright handle of a rolling suitcase. The adjustable, curved and well padded shoulder strap makes this bag relatively easy to carry even when loaded to the max with gear. The zippers are lockable with any luggage lock you would care to use. Most importantly, this bag is airplane friendly and will fit under the seats or in the overhead bin on the tiny CRJ's that fly in and out of Saskatoon.As the name of the bag implies, it is meant to be non-descript rather than shouting out that it's filled with expensive cameras. Short of carrying around a converted diaper bag to discourage thieves (I've done that, by the way), this bag will limit unwanted attention during your travels.The best indication that a bag works is how long a photographer uses it and this one has been my primary travel bag for four or five years now. The bag still looks great - as the photo above will attest - and is large and flexible enough to carry all manner of camera gear. If you are still looking for that perfect bag, this one - or another in the Think Tank lineup may be in order.
A "digital derringer" is a small camera that is easy to carry in your pocket with the controls and image quality that comes close to a digital SLR. This is the Holy Grail for many photographers (besides the perfect camera bag); a small camera with big camera image quality.
I bring my small camera along when my Canon 5DMkII would just be overkill. On cruises it's what I carry during a day devoted to shopping or an evening out in restaurants where I don't want to be encumbered with a lot of gear. I use it extensively in the confined space of a tour bus or small boat where there isn't the "swinging room" to pull out a larger camera. I also carry it discretely in places where an expensive DSLR might draw unwanted (and criminal) attention.
The Canon S90 (now replaced by the similar S95) has been with me for a number of years, and at 4" X 2" X 1", it goes a long way to addressing the small camera/big quality balance. It is a 10PM camera that is small and light enough to drop into a pocket yet has big camera features. It's 28-105 (35mm equivalent) lens is a fast f/2.0 at the wide end and a respectable f/4.9 at the telephoto end. In addition, the lens is also image stabilized which gives me even more of an edge at reducing camera shake.
The camera has several other features that I always look for - the ability to shoot RAW images and a usable histogram to review exposure information. RAW images tend to give a little more exposure latitude and allow for final processing under my control rather than relying on the camera to do the work. The histogram gives me a better indication of whether an image is properly exposed rather than relying on the inaccurate thumbnail that appears on the camera's LCD screen. For me, without these two features, a camera really is little more than a toy.
There is a full range of manual and semi-automatic controls, allowing for Aperture or Shutter priority, full manual, Program, Auto, and Custom as well as movie mode and eighteen - count them - eighteen special scene modes (including the ever popular aquarium mode). Also, when shooting JPGs, there are 10 white balance setting available to you.
The movie mode is only 640X480 @ 30fps (the current S95 has 780p HD movie mode) but it still turns in very acceptable movies that don't take up much room on the camera's memory card.
Probably the feature that is most useful on the S90 is the control ring around the front lens mount. This ring provides for easily accessed, customized control that just isn't found on many cameras. I can decide if the ring will remain with its default use, (which changes based on exposure mode) or for zoom control, white balance adjustment, exposure compensation or ISO selection. For those of us who grew up with analogue cameras, this is a great way to easily access one more set of controls that might otherwise be buried in a menu somewhere.
Are there any downsides to this camera? Sure, there isn't an optical viewfinder,and I don't believe that the most stable way to take a photograph is to hold your camera at arm's length from your face! The zoom range is also limited if you are doing anything more than general family, or holiday snaps. At 28mm it is wide enough for most needs but at the telephoto end, 105mm (equivalent) is only 2X magnification - hardly enough to bring in that whale if you are encountering wildlife in Alaska. For this, you are going to need something like the Canon SX30 with a telephoto reach of 840mm! While this camera costs not much more than the S95 does today, it is much larger.
The S90 has long been replaced by the S95 with only a few significant changes including the inclusion of 780P video and in-camera HDR capability. It too, is soon to be replaced by the S100 rumoured to have an increased 12MP sensor. With the S95 reaching end of life as of the summer of 2011, you might just find a great deal on a wonderfully small camera capable of delivering excellent results. If you are willing to deal with Fleabay, you ca find very nice S90's around the $200 mark.
Have your own favourite "digital derringer"? Share your camera of choice with us!
Dusk in Downtown Vancouver - Canon S90