Cruising For Photographers: Good Or Bad Idea?

A few weeks ago I took a cruise with my wife to the Caribbean for 8 days and 7 nights. It was an incredible way to relax, leave the world behind, shut off my computer and cell phone and spend some quality time with my wife at some of the most beautiful places on Earth. It's hard to complain about a vacation where you have no plans except for the ships itinerary, no alarm clock, an endless all you can eat buffet, open reservations at gourmet restaurants with 4 course meals, nightly shows from Broadway and a seemingly endless list of etceteras to boot. Our ports of call were: New Orleans –> Sea Day –> Costa Maya, Mexico –> Belize City, Belize –> Roatan, Honduras –> Cozumel, Mexico –> Sea Day –> New Orleans.

I've taken several cruises in the past but not since really becoming serious about photography. While we didn't go on this cruise to take pictures I of course brought my gear a long just in case, you never know what you're going to see. I figured that with all the incredible ports of call I was bound to have endless photo opportunities wherever we went. I was wrong!

The Problems With Cruising

Don't get me wrong; I came back with some good images. It just comes with the territory. But there are several issues that cruising presents for making photographs. Notice that I said ‘making' though. If your just taking snapshots then the possibilities are endless. But if you're looking for quality portfolio images a cruise is not a very ideal choice for destination imagery.

Time of Day

Not one time during this cruise in-particular did I see a sunrise or sunset at a port of call. We arrived at each port around 8:00 a.m. each morning; about an hour and a half past sunrise and well past any good quality morning light. We left each port of call at around 5:00 p.m each evening. By the time the sun started to set we were already well on our way to the next port of call in the middle of the featureless expanse of ocean. As any seasoned photographer knows, the middle of the day is the worst time of day for pictures. The light is extremely harsh if there are no clouds and subjects become flat if it's overcast. There is just no good combination really. It's not to say that great images can't be made but they are considerably harder to come by.

The Cruise Ports

Cruise ports are about as far from scenic as you can get. In fact, if you don't do a shore excursion or hire a guide you can rest assured that your experience at that port will be shopping at Diamond International. Just plan on getting ripped off and conned into believing that you are getting a good deal on rare gems that have nothing to do with said port of call. If you make it past Diamonds International, the next layer of shops seem local but oddly they all sell the same products at each port. The only conclusion is that some behind the scenes suppliers are making deals with the locals to sell goods that were actually made in China. If you make it past the second layer you may actually find some legitimate locally owned business that will actually support the local economy (like the one below).

Costa Maya | Mexico | James Brandon Photography

A local tourism business in Costa Maya, Mexico

Time To Shoot

If you're smart you'll leave the ports behind and either pay for a shore excursion or do research before going to find a guide for each location. Doing either of these options will actually allow you to take in the port of call and experience the surroundings and essence of the location. Shore excursions through the cruise line itself are the safest and I think it's well worth the money to guarantee your timely return to the cruise port. Hiring a local guide or taxi may be cheaper (and a bit more supportive of the local economy) but you never really know what you are getting into. I'd rather pay a bit extra to make sure I don't wind up stuck in a foreign country waving goodbye to cruise ship.

Even if you do book a shore excursion and get the opportunity to see something awesome, you will run into the issue of time. Some destinations take up to 2 hours to travel to and from the port, which means a 4 hour round trip. If the bus doesn't leave until 9 a.m. and gets back an hour before the cruise ship leaves, that could mean you only have 1-3 hours to explore wherever you are visiting. Probably half of that time will be taken up by a spoken tour by a guide, leaving maybe 30 minutes to an hour of free exploration. That's hardly enough time to truly explore photo opportunities and compositions.

Camera + Tripod = Rich Tourist

In hindsight (always 20/20), carrying my 1Ds and 24-70 lens on a tripod was not the best idea when walking through some of these places. I may as well have been wearing a shirt that read, “I have money to spend, just ask!” In a crowd of tourists, the locals would almost always come up to me and try to pull me in their direction. It got incredibly frustrating and at times I wanted to just go back to the ship and relax. It was especially annoying when walking by the taxis, as every cab driver in the country seemed to be fighting for my business to show me some good “es pictures.”

Roatan Honduras | James Brandon Photography

The port of Roatan, Honduras from the top of our cruise ship


Cruising is awesome, but not for REALLY making pictures. I had an absolutely wonderful time and I would do it again in a heartbeat. There is no better way to see multiple locations in a short amount of time for less than the price of most plane tickets. However, don't plan on coming back with a new portfolio full of incredible travel images. The conditions simply make it far too complicated to truly concentrate on photography. If you really want to take a photo trip, plan on spending quality time at your locations and getting off the beaten path.

Agree or Disagree? Let me know in the comments below!

As always, be sure to follow me on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) if you aren't already. I'm always looking for interesting and fun people to follow and talk to!

Post from: Digital Photography School – Photography Tips. Check out our resources on Portrait Photography Tips, Travel Photography Tips and Understanding Digital Cameras.


Cruising For Photographers: Good Or Bad Idea?

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