I know that it seems that I must like orange - and I guess I do! It was late morning and thankfully the sun was still low enough that the east side of this rock face received glancing light that illuminated the weathering while bringing out the rich color of the rock. The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada is one of my favorite places to shoot as the weathered rock is strewn across the valley floor, making it ideal to capture textures in all sorts of shots. While I have a number of great, expansive shots of the desert rock formations throughout the park, I have a particular fondness for the abstract nature of the rocks when viewed up close. I am pleased that the striations here run diagonally across the frame which almost implies a water-like motion to the rocks. My advice: leave Vegas early in the morning so you can catch some of the early sunlight on these magnificent rocks.
This very early morning shot was taken as our cruise ship slipped into the old passenger/cargo port in St. Petersburg. The land to the left is Ostrov Kanonerskiy Island that, while littered with derelict lots and ruins of Soviet era buildings, has a number of apartment blocks as well. The air was still and cool and the water had hardly a ripple.
I feel that the early morning photos I have of St. Petersburg hide most of the industrial detritus and let the view concentrate more on the mood of the day. Passenger ships now dock at a modern cruise port that we have yet to visit, but I will miss the hustle of being in the heart of this commercial port.
Back Street in Gamla Stan
Many first time cruisers are as afraid of the shore excursions as they are of getting seasick. They believe that they will be trapped on a bus full of octogenarians slowly moving from tourist trap to tourist trap, pausing only for the occasional photo stop or pee break. You can avoid this scenario with just a little preplanning that will let you chart your own course and go your own way. Here we have outlined some alternatives that you might want to consider to keep you from seeing everything through the window of a tour bus:
1. Wait until you step off the ship to book your tour: this doesn't work in all ports of call, but in some, local tour companies set up kiosks to hawk their services. If you like to be flexible and take things as they come, you can find some good deals on interesting excursions right on the dock. A number of ports also have hop-on-hop-off buses stopping close to the pier. These buses will give you an entire tour of the city and allow you to get off and explore whenever you want.
2. Book ahead of time via the Internet: typing the name of the port followed by "city guide" into any search engine will get you a number of leads to local tours and guides. This doesn't help determine the reliability of a guide halfway around the world though. We use sites like cruisemates.com and cruisecritic.com to look for recommendations from other cruise passengers who have visited in the ports we are interested in. Booking a local guide is best in cities where there is little English spoken or where the tourist infrastructure doesn't cater to foreigners. We have booked our own car and driver in St. Petersburg on a couple of occasions and were able to visit a number of places where only the locals go.
3. Cruise ship walking tours: while you will still be with a group of fellow passengers, walking tours will usually take you to the center of town or to places where tour buses simply can't go. You will still probably hit regular tourist attractions, but you will be able to experience the port at street level and at a more relaxed pace.
4. Your own walking tour: if you arm yourself with a little bit of local information, you can often go exploring on your own and then find your way back to the ship the same way you left. Cruise ships will provide maps that will help you navigate most ports of call. Using the Internet to research a port ahead of time is a good strategy as is asking your crew about the interesting things to do in port. There are a number of iPhone apps that will help you explore as well. Take a look at Real Southeast Alaska app that will provide information about major ports and as well as less visited ones. Cruising Alaska: A Guide to the Ports of Call is an entire book (and costs as much) that you can carry around on your iPhone. City Listen provides MP3 sound files that let you take your own walking tour of some cities including New York and Paris. Continuing in the vein of "there's an app for that", the iPhone apps store has guidebooks and maps for most major ports of call, giving you the ability to carry a great deal of information around in your pocket.
5. VIP Cruise Tours: more expensive than regular shore excursions, these tours have fewer guests and go to more exotic places. These are great for passengers who want a little more excitement but don't want to make independent plans. As an example, in Juneau, a VIP gold mine tour takes guests into an abandoned gold mine.
6.Tours with local photographers: it used to be you had to book these kind of tours on your own, often at considerable expense. Now, passengers can find cruise tours lead by local photographers who will know the places to go at the proper time to catch the best light. There is a great photo expedition you can book on some cruises that takes you whale watching and hiking with a local photographer in Juneau. Princess also has several photo expeditions you can book on the Canada/New England run.
If you are interested in finding the path less travelled, there are a number of options available to the resourceful cruise ship passenger. If you have your own ideas about getting off the tourist trail, please share them with us here.
When it comes to carrying photo gear on an Alaskan cruise I do a pretty good imitation of a Sherpa with the amount of stuff I pack. I try to balance what I want to bring with what I am willing to carry but sometimes that balance is difficult to achieve. For many cruise passengers an Alaskan cruise is a once in a lifetime thing and they don't want to miss any photo opportunities by not having the right gear.
The trouble is, if you try to bring everything you think you need, you are going to wind up carrying too much gear and regret having to move it around. I started going to Alaska with lenses ranging from 16mm to 800mm, some of which I used a great deal and some of which I didn't use at all. I have limited myself now to three lenses - a wide angle to normal zoom lens, a short to long telephoto zoom and one fast prime. I supplement the long telephoto with a 2X extender and have been able to capture everything I need to with this range of lenses.
The choices I make for gear may not be the right ones for you, but I would pay attention to the "Dougall Tour Size Theorem" which states that the larger the tour group, the shorter the lens you should bring along. As an example, 60 people in a tour bus means that you really are not going to be stalking wildlife to any degree and swinging an 800mm lens in close quarters is going to be a dangerous exercise. On the other hand, six of you in a Land Rover where you can get out and perhaps encounter wildlife may call for unleashing that behemoth lens in the open.
Everything I take to Alaska goes into a Think Tank "Airport Antidote" backpack. The two advantages to this backpack are that it holds all the gear I want to use (or carry) and it will fit under the seat of the small flying culverts that pass for airplanes flying in and out of Saskatoon.
My cameras are full frame and 1.3 crop, so I use lenses that work with these bodies. If you are using a 1.6 crop camera, you will want to convert these lens choices into equivalent ranges suitable for your camera.
So, into the Think Tank backpack I place the following:
Canon 5D Mk II with battery pack and 24 - 105 f/4 lens: as a landscape and street photographer, this camera and lens combination is the one I use 80% of the time. It works great for most landscape images, in town situations, and even wildlife if it is close enough.
Canon 1D Mk III w/o lens: my wildlife/high speed camera. A 1.3 crop camera but a speed demon that almost instantaneously locks focus on just about anything you point it at.
Canon 70- 200 f/2.8 IS lens: a very sharp and versatile lens that, in combination with the 2X extender (yes, there is a small drop in image quality when you use the extender) makes it more useful to me than my previous 100-400 lens. I simply love the f/2.8 aperture of this lens as it can be quite dark at times in Alaska
Canon 2X extender: for the 70-200 lens
Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens: really, any fast prime lens will do for those times when it is too dark/cloudy to shoot with any other lens. Any other fast prime lens could be substituted here and I have taken a 35 f/1.4 on occasion instead.
Canon Speedlite 270EX: the smallest flash that Canon currently makes and useful only for close-up fill flash. Hey, I shoot outdoors 99% of the time and have to think about how to use a flash every time I take it out :-) A huge Speedlite would be a waste for me to carry. If you are a big user of flash, throw that Speedlite 580 in!
Canon 10X30 IS binoculars: more reach, less shake. I am in love with these binoculars and an Alaska cruise cries out for a set to be brought along. With Canon's image stabilization technology, these are easy to hold and look through.
SONY Vaio 10" Netbook: this is where I backup my images to and store the GPS data I collect as I shoot. If you don't shoot a great deal you can just bring memory cards along and burn the images to CD's on the ship or at Internet Cafes you find along the way.
500G external hard drive: my netbook only has a 250G hard drive so it won't hold two week's worth of images.
JOBO GPS: Canon does not have a GPS solution at the moment so I use this device to mark each image with GPS data. As the JOBO does not hold very many data points, I need to download the data (and photos) to my netbook, erase the data from the JOBO GPS and start again.
Various chargers, filters, brushes and cleaners: I wish I didn't have to use all the space for this stuff, but it is important to have along.
I often also carry a small "digital derringer" such as a Canon S90 for times when I don't want to schlep the heavy gear around.
The way to manage all this once I am on the ship is to bring along a DOMKE F-4AF for daily use. As the DOMKE is essentially a canvas bag, it folds flat into my suitcase and can be reconstituted upon arrival on our ship. This serves as my day bag, holding one of my cameras with a short lens as well as the 70-200 in another compartment. The outside pockets can hold accessories or bottles of water.
I have both a Lowe-Pro neoprene neck strap and E-1 hand strap on both cameras. While I like the neck strap as it stretches and gives a bit when I have the camera around my neck, I usually carry my camera by the hand strap. It is much easier for me to carry a heavy camera and lens off the end of my hand as opposed to around my neck. It also makes the DOMKE weigh a lot less as I carry it over my shoulder.
Think about what you really need on a cruise and try to leave the rest behind; your back and neck will thank you for it! During our seminars we will help you with any of the equipment you bring along. Whether it is a small digital camera or a full SLR with extra lenses, we are there to help you in any way we can.
Glacier Bay, Alaska
Alaska is a land of beauty and wonder. Every place you turn there is something to take your breath away - whether it is a snow capped mountain or the price of a latte on your cruise ship. Friends and family who are about to cruise to Alaska for the first time often ask what are the things they shouldn't miss on their trip. Trouble is, with literally a thousand experiences to be had, it's difficult to choose, but choose we have done. Don't expect the usual tours and trips that you are likely to encounter, instead this is a very personal top ten list of things to see and photography between Ketchikan in the south and Hubbard Glacier in the north.
You will notice that this is a list of land and sea photo opportunities. It's not that flightseeing isn't spectacular, but I have never taken one and have no experiences to report on. As someone who has lived in the north, I don't fly in small planes with pilots I haven't known for years - it's just a thing I have.
1. Totem Bight State Park, Ketchikan: beginning in 1938, a collection of totem poles has grown on this beautiful spit of land overlooking the Tongass Narrows. Today there are 14 totem poles stand here along with a traditional Tlingit clanhouse. Given the beautiful setting and wonderful native artifacts, it's a place to happily spend a few hours. As a bonus, the Potlatch Totem Park is within easy walking distance and displays modern totem poles and other Tlingit buildings carved by local artisans working on the site.
2. Creek Street Historic District, Ketchikan: what was once the red light district of town is now home to shops, restaurants, apartments and bed and breakfast establishments. The boardwalk, running along Ketchikan Street, offers numerous photo opportunities as both meander from Dock to Stedman Streets. A funicular runs from about the middle of Creek Street up to Cape Fox Lodge where the views are worth the few dollar cost of the ride. Consider walking down "Married Men's Trail" back to Creek Street once you have had a look around.
3. Whale Watching, Juneau: while there are several ports where you can go whale watching, the tours leaving out of Auke Bay in Juneau usually spot whales somewhere in their travels. In addition, there will always be sea lions hauled out on a navigation buoy that the tour ship passes by. Most tour boats also stop in front of Point Retreat Lighthouse which has been recently restored by the Alaska Lighthouse Association.
4. Mendenhall Glacier Hiking Trail, Juneau: for those who want to strike out on their own, taking the Blue MGT shuttle bus from the cruise dock to the Mendenhall Glacer means you have time to explore on your own. Eschew the paved tourist trails and head off on the East Glacier Trail Loop (2 - 3hrs) which winds through old growth forest and past waterfalls and streams. The West Glacier Trail Loop (2 - 5hrs) will take you right up to the face of the glacier. Return to port on the same MGT shuttle you came out on.
5. Ship Registry, Skagway: on the eastern side of the Railway Dock in Skagway there are paintings of ship crests and names commemorating the first arrival of ships to Skagway as far back as 1917. Once you have ridden the railway to the Yukon or explored downtown Skagway, take a few minutes to check out this impressive artwork on the cliff face.
6. Sea Otter Rafts, Sitka: for a small port, there is a great deal to do in Sitka. This is the place to take a marine tour if you want to see large numbers of sea otters floating together in rafts. Chances are you will also see sea lions, seals and perhaps some whales as well.
7. Totem Poles in Sitka National Historic Park, Sitka: fifteen totem poles are displayed in old growth forest around the park visitors' centre. The paths are level and clear making this park easy to explore. There is a visitor center where various artists practice wood carving that tourists can watch. As walk through the park will also take you to the Alaska Raptor Center to see a diverse collection of captive and recovering raptors from around North America.
8. Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve: it takes most of the day to make the stately run in from the mouth of Glacier Bay to the Grand Pacific Glacier at the north end of the park. With the Margerie Glacier right next to the Grand Pacific, ships stop and slowly rotate for an hour or so for passengers to view the two large cliffs of ice. On the way out, many ships make a side trip to view Lamplugh Glacier for a few minutes. Marine mammals can often to seen along the way with harbor seals near the glaciers and whales near the entrance to the bay.
9. Hubbard Glacier, Yakutat Bay: Yakutat Bay is home to the Hubbard Glacier which is about 30 miles past the entrance to the bay. Hubbard is three miles wide, so you better start taking pictures early if you want to get all of this glacier in! Hubbard is so large that it creates its own weather with a cold wind blowing off the ice until you are almost in front of the glacier. Cruise captains, while always erring on the side of caution, like to boast to other captains about how close they were able to get their ship to the glacier. Hope for clear water with very little floating ice if you expect to get in close!
10. Tidal walks, Icy Strait Point: Icy Strait Point promises you the "Real Alaskan Experience" and as you arrive on shore via your ship's tender, you will see that you are not in a city port. Heading out behind the Cannery Museum the clearly marked hiking trails will lead you into the rain forest and along the shore where the clear ocean water reveals an abundance of sea life just off shore.
This post is open for comments so feel free to add other "must sees" or challenge my choices.