Expect to get wet and chilly on an Alaskan cruise and then be thankful if you don't. Expect to be lonely out on deck if you want to shoot in rain and fog. Expect to be treated like a nutter if you are drawn towards being outside during inclement weather. That's OK though - as the water drips off the end of your nose, just tell people who stare that you're a photographer and that you like it like this!
Heavy overcast, low clouds, fog, mist and light rain - all can add interesting elements to a landscape photo. The accompanying photo of Ketchikan, shot from the upper deck of Celebrity Constellation, would not convey the same feeling if it was shot of a sunny morning. With light fog obscuring some of the houses and trees in the background, the photo suggests that this may be a town where it rains on occasion. In fact, Ketchikan receives 152 inches of annual rainfall!
Bad weather means little or no sun. This means no harsh bright spots or inky deep shadows. Your photos will have a pleasing range of tones from black all the way to white. Bad weather does not always lend itself to capturing vast landscapes as a gray sky often comes out looking perfectly white. In cases where there just isn't a chance to take that interesting landscape photo, go for the detail shot. Rather than the mountain range, look for alpine plants or interesting rock formations that don't show the sky.
Don't be afraid of bad weather - embrace it and welcome the opportunity to include some interesting elements in your pictures.
Want to know some of the best places to eat in the next port you are visiting? Need to know where the closest Internet Cafe is? Ask a crew member - they can tell you many of the things you want to know about your next port. While crew like to play tourist just like the rest of us, they often don't have the time or inclination to tour at each and every port. From my conversations with crew over the years, if they haven't joined a tour of some sort, they tend to do several things in port:
Look for a phone or Internet Cafe to call home
Take the crew shuttle to a local Walmart or other superstore
Walk to local shops or attractions
Find a restaurant/pub to relax in
And there is the key - crew have been to these ports and know their way around. I have had great Chinese restaurants recommended to me in several Alaskan ports and now know the best Filipino eatery in Acapulco. They can also tell you where to buy supplies to take back on ship and what attractions are within easy walking distance.
Obviously each port is different, but if you want to be strategic with your time on shore, ask your stateroom attendant or bartender for their advice about your next port - they may just be able to point you in an interesting direction.
Everyone who cruises has their favourite ports of call and Jan and I are no different. While every place we visit is interesting and has its own charms, there are some places we really look for ways to return to. Sitka, Alaska is one of those places. Located on the west side of Baranof Island, this community of 9,000 is located in an area where the Tlingit people have lived for tens of thousands of years. Russians settled in Sitka (then known as New Archangel) in 1799 to pursue the lucrative sea otter fur trade and Sitka became the capital of Russian America in 1808. When Alaska was purchased in 1867, Sitka was the capital of the new American territory and remained so until the capital was moved to Juneau in 1906.
Sitka displays its Russian heritage in many ways, the most predominant of which is Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the intersection of Lincoln and Matsoutoff Streets; and by intersection, I don't mean on one of the corners, but right in the middle of the street. As you drive by, remember to make that right-hand turn at the proper time or you will in inside the church! The church was built in 1848 and rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1966.
For those who would prefer to explore for marine wildlife, Allen Marine operates cruise and independent excursions that go out into the Sitka archipelago to look for seals, sea lions, whales and huge rafts of sea otters just floating about in the water. Of all the ports in Alaska, if you want to see sea otters in any numbers, this is one of the best places to do that.
This is a port that is quite easy to explore on your own and the relatively compact size of Sitka makes most of the things you want to see within walking distance of the pier. If you would rather not walk the entire way, consider taking a bus tour to the raptor center and then walking back to downtown via the National Historic Park.
As a side note, Sitka does not have berthing facilities for cruise ships so all passengers are tendered in to shore. The harbor is well protected so there is little chance of heavy seas preventing or interfering with the tendering process but those passengers with mobility issues should be aware of this.
So - let’s have a little fun, shall we? I’m going to tell you a story and then you can tell me one.
At the risk of identifying myself as an old coot, I am going to tell you about the first real camera I ever used. Film camera. Rangefinder camera. Collapsible camera. How is that for old school?
While I really began taking pictures with a plastic, toy twin lens reflex that took 127 film, it essentially fell apart in my hands after only a few uses. The first “real” camera I owned was given to me by an uncle who had upgraded his own equipment and I became the proud owner of a 1955 Kodak Retina IIc. I immediately fell in love with it – not only was it the same age as me, but it had that highly polished, precision German feel as they were built in the Kodak owned, old Nagel-Werke factory in Stuttgart.
It had several quirks that I had to get used to, including a film advance lever on the bottom of the camera. The 50mm f/2.8 Schneider-Kreuznach lens collapsed into the body, making it a fairly compact camera to carry. I loved the quality of the images that came out of that camera and I ran a great deal of film through it while it was my primary camera.
Something I remember almost as much as the camera itself was the flash attachment that took flashbulbs. You really aren’t old school until you have licked the base of a flash bulb, shoved it into the flash socket and had it immediately go off in your fingers – the heat of the flash sticking the bulb to your skin…… Talk about the faith you need to repeat that performance and hope for different results. I still have that camera (and flash), and while I haven’t used either in years, they have a special place in a list of wonderful cameras I have used.
Now it’s your turn. I have opened up the comments for this part of the blog. Please feel free to share your “first camera” stories with us!
Just click on the COMMENTS link at the top right and start typing. I can usually approve posting very quickly.
I didn't realize that Aruba was only thirty miles from the sun. It's hot there. Shake you by the collar there. Get my shorts and t-shirt there. Let's have margaritas for breakfast there. Can I take my air conditioning with me there.
We sailed in on Coral Princess and docked next to downtown Oranjestad (Orange Town) just before dawn on Christmas day. This was our first port of call and we were still thawing out after leaving the deeply frozen north for this warmer climate. Stepping out on deck and into 100F and 100% humidity, my camera lens immediately fogged up - even my eyes developed a light haze. While I waited for the fog to lift we decided to make a run to shore before the sun came up and it became any hotter.
While there are wonderful opportunities to go diving, fishing and exploring the natural beauty of Aruba, we chose to take the more relaxing option of walking around Oranjestad instead. The downtown streets facing the harbor are lined with pastel coloured buildings housing every kind of tourist shop where you can spend from a few dollars on ice cream to thousands of dollars on a Rolex. Christmas was blissfully quiet as no stores were open and few of our fellow passengers ventured to shore so early. The accompanying photo is of the main street near the harbour - L.G. Smith Boulevard on probably the one day of the year when there is little traffic and fewer tourists about.
The motto on car license plates in Aruba is "One Happy Island" and the few locals we did meet were relaxed and friendly. The downtown is easy to walk through and there is quite a bit within a few block of the pier to keep the interest of photographers. Like many of the ports in Alaska, there are hawkers at the pier entrance who will drive you to a beach or take you on tours of the island.
Aruba is a beautiful island and Oranjestad is a fascinating town just to walk around and enjoy. Next time I am going to prepare myself better from the change in temperature though by sleeping in my oven for a week or two ahead of time.
My suitcase weighs a ton. Empty. Before I put the clothes in. Before I put the camera gear in. Before I take clothes out so that I can put more camera gear in. Jan claims that if I pack one more piece of camera gear and leave out any more clothing, I will look like a hobo on our next cruise.
As I try not to look like a hobo, I have to consider each piece of gear carefully - and the one I struggle with on each cruise is whether to take my tripod. If I take it, it is a smaller, carbon fiber Gitzo GT2541 with a PhotoClam ballhead. That adds 4 pounds to my suitcase, but the combination will hold 26 pounds of camera and lens.
The question today is whether I need a tripod at all. New digital cameras have become so incredibly sensitive to light that photos can be taken in all but utter darkness. A few alternatives to a tripod these days include:
Cranking up the ISO setting on my camera - time was that the highest setting was 800 and the results were terrible. Now cameras are pushing 12800 with results at 1600 and 3200 that are very clean! With settings like this it is possible to take pictures in near darkness.
Use a fast lens. On an SLR that means something like a 50mm f/1.4 or a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom. On a compact camera, where you are limited to the lens that is bolted on to the front, not zooming to full magnification will often give you more light to work with. This is because many lenses reduce the amount of light they gather the more you zoom in on something.
Brace yourself. Cruise ships are ideal for this as there are railings everywhere! Brace your camera on a railing, point it in the general direction you want, select a high ISO and wide angle, shoot and check the results - repeat until you are happy with your image.
Try a monopod like a carbon fiber Benro MC-66n6 which, when braced against an immovable object, can be a reasonable facsimile of a tripod without taking as much space in your suitcase or weighing as much.
I am working on these alternatives as much as possible (the photo in this article was taken braced against a hotel window early in the early morning in Anchorage). Still, I find it hard to leave my tripod at home. So, come to one of our seminars - if I look like a hobo, it means I brought my tripod!
Big black cameras are like cute dogs. When you take either of them out for excercise, someone will come over and want to pat them. Both are great ice breakers and a wonderful way to meet people. I was once at the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka taking photos of the rescued eagles that now call the Center home. I had, at the time, a Canon D30 with a large, white 100-400 lens. As I raised that combination to my eye a fellow guest stopped beside me and asked if I had a license for "that thing" and what caliber it was. That opening lead to a great discussion of all things camera and bird related.
That was just one of many wonderful conversations I have had with fellow travellers based on the color and size of a lens. When folks spot my camera, now a Canon 5D MkII, I am often asked if my camera takes good pictures. I usually say something like, "yes, the camera takes great photos, I'm just trying to figure how to find them in there!"
I was once standing by the railing on a cruise ship with the usual black camera and white lens when a petite, elderly lady slid up beside me. After looking at my photo gear for a few moments she pulled a very small digital camera out of her pocket and said to me, "you know dear, you should get rid of that old, heavy camera - new cameras are much smaller these days you know!" She then proceeded to show me how quick and easy it was to use her camera and how it fit into her pocket with room to spare. I thanked her for the advice and assured her I would look into more modern equipment just as soon as I got back home.
I love having the opportunity to meet and talk with fellow cruise passengers as I travel. I wonder if I picked up a Canon 1200mm lens if I would be able to have even more chats - although I am certain the lady with that tiny camera would be very disappointed in my choice :-)
One of the best whale tails I have seen recently was from the upper deck of a cruise ship bound for Ketchikan. The whale surfaced and then dove just off the starboard side of the ship - water falling from the fluke and glistening in the sunshine. And there I was with a wide angle lens trying to do landscape - rather than wildllife - photography! I bring three lenses for my Canon dslr when I travel : a 24-105 (my landscape lens), a 70-200 (my wildlife lens) and a 50 f/1.4 (my available light lens). I tend to carry all three with me to shore but on board the ship I will put one on my camera and leave the rest back in the room.
So there I stood, on the open deck of the ship about as high above the water as I could possibly get when Jan - who can spot whales miles away from the ship - calls out "whale"! I swung into action with the entirely wrong lens but fired off a few shots anyway. What looked like a punctuation mark in the original image turned out to really be a whale tail when heavily cropped. And that's one of the advantages of today's digital cameras - the resolution is so high that images usually stand up quite well to serious cropping. Is this any kind of award winning image? Not a chance, but it does show that even when you aren't prepared to take a proper picture, sometimes you can make do with what you have.
The biggest fear that most first time cruise guests have is that they will get seasick the moment the ship casts off from shore. They have an image of spending an entire voyage shuffling between their sick bed and the medical clinic. The truth is that unless you are very susceptible to motion sickness or you are unlucky enough to experience very rough seas, you will be just fine. Modern cruise ships are large enough to cut through most choppy conditions with little swaying. Stabilizers built into ships also help center them in rough water.
The roughest conditions we have been in have both been while cruising in Alaska. On a recent crossing of the Gulf of Alaska out of Whittier we encountered Gail Force 7 conditions - certainly not as rough as it can get but bad enough for the Captain to close the outer decks to passengers. We were aboard Coral Princess headed to Glacier Bay and while the ship certainly moved around, we did not think we needed to go to our room to lie down.
The first time we ever cruised we were aboard Regal Princess just north of Vancouver Island. Given slow rolling seas, a reduced speed and a depth too shallow to put out the stabilizers, Regal developed a slow, deliberate roll that sent many of us to our cabins. As soon as we reached deeper water where the stabilizers could go out, the ship (not to mention Jan and I) returned to a stable condition.
Some cruise passengers book a cabin that is as close to midship and on as low a deck as possible as this is where the "sweet spot" with the least amount of movement is. Wherever you are on a ship, if you are afraid you are going to be ill, go to an open deck for fresh air - preferably midship - and watch the distant horizon to give your eyes (and brain) something relatively fixed to stare at. Stretching out on your bed, eating light and restricting your alcohol intake will also help suppress seasickness.
A number of seasick remedies are available including Dramamine and Bonine pills (get the non-drousy formulas) and transdermal patches worn behind ear like a bandage. Eating ginger and green apples helps some passenger fight seasickness while other swear by acupressure wristbands.
Just remember, whenever you are on a cruise you are bound to find one or two times when you can feel the motion of the ship - which helps you remember you are on an adventure at sea.
Juneau, the capital of Alaska and until the mid twentieth century the largest city in Alaska, is a playground of activities for the million cruise passengers who visit each year. Located at the north end of the Gastineau Channel, this town of 30,000 has been known at various times in its past as Rockwell and Harrisburg.
Within the town limits (which are actually quite large), visitors will find the Mendenhall Glacier about 12 miles from downtown. The glacier has been retreating for over 500 years with Mendenhall Lake forming in front of the glacier in 1958.
Mount Roberts towers above the southern portion of Juneau where the tramway to the top will eliminate the need to slog your way to the summit under your own power. On a clear day the view from the top of the tram is spectacular and the good folks of Juneau has provided quite a nice souvenier shop, restaurant and interpretive center at the top. Providing the trails are not closed due to bear sightings, the walk down from the top, while it takes a little while, is a beautiful way to enjoy the scenery and perhaps a glimpse of wildlife along the way.
Cruise ships dock at the south end of Juneau where you can step off the ship and start shopping or join a tour without walking very far. Ship tours around town are quite popular as are whale tours out of Auke Bay Harbor. Float planes take off and land near the cruise ship dock taking guests out to view (and land) on glaciers. Juneau is also a great place to go out on a fishing trip should you be so inclined.
Many independent tour operators set up booths on the dock to entice passengers to join a huge variety of local tours. Juneau also has several "hidden" attractions if you care to head out on your own or with a taxi tour. The Last Chance Mining Museum, above the town and off of Perseverance Trail will reward you with a look at an historic mine without all the tourist embellishments. If you care to drive a bit further, there is the wonderful Shrine of St. Therese at mile 23 on the Glacier Highway. The grounds of this peaceful retreat are beautiful to walk around (and photograph). There is also a sea side, outdoor labyrinth that can be walked and contemplated.
This is a great port with a great deal to keep you busy regardless of your interests!