In looking back, when I went on an Alaska cruise in 2015, I didn’t write anything about the gear I took, why, and how things worked out. I did cover the topic in 2016 when I went on my road trip through the Southwest, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish. That said, in 3 years now of traveling for photography, the only constant has been finding out I was doing something less than optimally.
This article is aimed at the serious, as in you care about your images, photographer going to Alaska on a regular cruise ship; not something like a Linblad or National Geographic Expedition. I’ll be outlining my thought process behind my recommendations, so you can better understand my thinking and whether you want to apply it to your own situation or try something different.
Secondly,I won’t be covering compact, or point and shoot, style cameras, or smartphones. This isn’t to say that you can’t use those to make good pictures, even on a cruise in Alaska, just that they’re outside the scope of this article. Though in the case of compact cameras, some of what I’ll be talking about can be applicable.
Finally, if there’s one point that needs to be made, its that there’s no right or wrong platform, brand, or type of camera for this kind of thing. While I’m talking about my experiences, and I shoot full frame Canon gear, you can easily translate the focal lengths I give for what provides the same coverage on your platform of choice.
To go along with this article, I’ve also written some more detailed articles on specific excursions and areas. More detailed articles can be found starting with my Misty Fjords National Monument and Ketchikan article, as well as Black Bears of Revillagigedo Island, and my Alaska Humpback whale photography guide.
There’s a truism in design that if you want to design something light, you have to focus on every ounce, not every pound. The same reasoning applies to packing camera gear, or really packing in general. It’s very easy to say, “eh this just weights a couple of ounces it won’t make difference.” But do that for 10 things, and now you’ve added a couple extra pounds.
Be selective of the gear you’re bringing, but don’t fail to bring something you’ll need.
My point here is that you need to stay on top of weight when you’re packing. I would almost go so far as to say that you need to be absolutely brutal about it.
That said, this is a balancing act. How much fat you need to cut is going to be different if you’re trekking in the Himalayas versus going on a cruise.
Broadly speaking this comes down to a simple point, be selective of the gear you’re bringing, but don’t fail to bring something you’ll need. Ultimately you should have a good reason for everything you’re taking, and there should be few if any things that fall in the I’ll take this just in case category.
Of course, foresight isn’t prefect, and we can’t always know what we will or won’t use (which is part of why I’m writing these articles too). It’s inevitable that there will be extra stuff; being 100% efficient isn’t the goal, being good enough not to get bogged down with extra weight is.
Think as hard about the small things, as you do about the big heavy things.
In my opinion, the best camera to take is the one you already have and already know. Familiarity is a huge boon that shouldn’t be underestimated. If you know your camera, you know where the settings are when you need to change them, and can do it quickly when you need to.
Perhaps more importantly, your experience with the camera should inform you of your camera’s limits. Specifically how far you can push it, and in what scenarios you just won’t be able to get anything good enough out of it.
Familiarity also extends to borrowing or renting as well. Unless you have a good reason not to, stick to the same brand, even if you can adapt your glass to something else. That said, if you’re renting something unfamiliar, remember to built time in to your rental period to familiarize yourself with the camera before you leave.
As far as format goes, I think people get way to caught up in the wrong aspects of it. While bigger is almost always better from an image quality stand point; image quality is only as good as you’re ability to put the camera in the situation where you can exploit it. Even then, in many cases you’ll be operating far from the peak performance point for the camera anyway. Far more frequently other factors, like weight or AF performance, will be a much bigger factor than dynamic range or overall image quality.
You have to be able to get the image, then get it in focus and properly exposed, before you can even start to worry about whether your camera has enough dynamic range.
On both Alaska cruses I’ve done, I’ve shot with full frame Canon bodies (a 5D mark III and mark IV). That said, I could have easily made the same images with a good quality APS-C camera like an 80D or D7500, or even a Micro Four Thirds camera like a GH1 or Olympus OM.
What I found matters far more than format is having something that’s a solid general purpose camera. My 5Des, for example, have a good balance between resolution and frame rate (22 MP @ 6.5 FPS and 30 MP at 7 FPS), and solid AF systems for tracking wildlife.
Fortunately modern technology means that most cameras will now fit the bill. Even the Nikon D850 at 46 MP can shoot at 7-9 FPS. This too is a perfectly adequate balance.
One other point on cameras, is whether you should have a second or backup body with you. And I draw a distinction between the two cases.
Every major trip I’ve done in the last 3 years, I’ve taken a backup body with me. I consider a backup camera to be one that I don’t intend to use unless I absolutely have to.
My reasoning was that a major part of the trip for me was to take pictures. If I couldn’t take pictures because my camera died, I’m going to be pretty miserable — well, I’d probably be pretty miserable that my camera died anyway — but I’d still be able to shot something as a consolation.
The other case is a secondary body. Unlike a backup body, this would be a second camera you will be actively using. For example, if you’re doing wildlife photography with a big prime (say a 600mm f/4), you’ll probably want to have a shorter lens (100-400, or 70-200 or something like that) on a second body ready to go for changes in composition. In fact, pretty much any situation where you might need to rapidly change lenses during fast paced action could call for a second body setup.
With a backup body, because I don’t intend to use it, probably at all, I don’t really care if its accessorized the same way my primary body is. For example, I have a battery grip and a Really Right Stuff L-plate on my primary body. On the backup, I’d leave that stuff at home to save the weight.
In the secondary body scenario, I don’t try to shave weight at the expense of a more featured setup. In this case, I’d keep my battery grip and L-plate so I have the full capabilities of the camera even though that means packing a bit more weight.
In any event, I would suggest if you’re going to take a second camera, is that you try to stick to things with as much commonality as possible. Batteries are a big point here; dissimilar batteries require separate chargers and that adds up in terms of weight and things you have to keep track of.
For both Canon and Nikon, the middle range seems to be the best bet for this kind of commonality. For Canon, everything from the 80D up to the 5Ds R all use the same batteries. A similar situation exists for Nikon, with everything from the D7000/D7500 to the D850 use the same batteries.
- Take something you know and are familiar with.
- Format (APS-C/DX, Full frame) doesn’t really matter that much
- If you take a second body, take something with as much commonality as you can.
The lenses you want to use are in part always going to be dictated by your own personal vision and style; at least to a point. Because of that, I can offer some general tips and guidance, but I can’t say you for sure want to use lens X, Y, or Z.
After two Alaska cruises, I’ve settled on taking 2 lenses; a good sized telephoto zoom (I use a 100-400) and a normal or general purpose range zoom (I use a 24-70). In practice, you can get away with even less than that. An 18-250 to 18-400 super zoom on an APS-C camera would even work to cover all of one’s bases.
What I haven’t found especially useful is something in the ultra-wide angle range. I took one on my first trip, and never actually used it.
While there may be exceptions, I’ve never run into anything in Alaska that really demanded an ultra-wide angle lens. For shooting landscapes, like those in Glacier Bay, I’ve found the results from a stitched pano with a moderate telephoto focal length (like 70-100mm on full frame) produce much better images.
I find the landscapes in Alaska, at least the ones you can see from the boat, tend to very wide and either not very tall or valley shaped. Shooting with a wide enough angle of view to fit everything in the frame, results in having a lot of dead space in the sky and water and as a consequence not much resolution where the actual landscape is.
Ultimately, on the wide angle end of things, I’ve found that going wider than a 24mm full frame equivalent angle of view lens isn’t really useful.
On the other end of the spectrum, how much of a telephoto lens you’ll want or need is going to be dictated by how interested you are in taking pictures of wildlife, what kinds of wildlife you want to shoot, and where you’ll be shooting from.
Shooting from the cruise ship you’ll want the longest lens you can get. But there’s a catch to that too, the ship moves quite quickly and vibrates. A long lens, especially on a high resolution body, will magnify the motion and vibration dictating even higher shutter speeds to keep things sharp.
For excursions, the situation is a lot more variable. If you’re doing a whale watching excursion, you may want to check out my guide on photographing whales in southeast Alaska. I’m currently working on a similar guide for bears, but generally you have some more flexibility with that since you’re not usually on a boat.
- Ultra wide angle lenses aren’t that useful.
- A general purpose walk around zoom and a good telephoto are the most useful options.
- A teleconverter is handy.
Camera Support: Tripods and Monpods
When it comes to choosing between a tripod, monopod, or nothing, my opinions have changed over time.
For a long time, I found that image stabilization was enough on its own and I didn’t really need a camera support to get sharp images. As I moved to higher resolution cameras, and heavier lenses, I found that while IS helped, it wasn’t nearly as effective it was on my old 10 MP class gear.
When I replaced my 100-400 with Canon’s mark II version, and gained the added weight that came with that, I stated using a monopod a lot more. In no small part, this was just to support the weight of the lens to keep me on target without killing my arms.
That said, one of the biggest short comings of monopods is that they don’t stand on their own; at least mine don’t. As a result, its difficult to do things that require both hands away from the camera without finding a place to put the camera down.
On my first Alaska cruise, I left the tripod at home and only took a monopod. My reasoning was that the boat would probably move and vibrate and the tripod would conduct that vibration to the camera. Having a forward cabin, this proved not to be a problem. On the other hand, having to constantly hold the monopod or lay everything down where nobody would trip over it became quite an annoyance.
On my second trip, I took the tripod, and was vastly happier as a result. In fact, I almost never used the monopod. Shooting from our room’s balcony, I mostly kept the camera on the tripod if I was going to be shooting for any length of time. On excursions, I shot almost entirely handheld, as a monopod (and especially tripod) would get in the way on a small boat or just be something extra to lug around.
- The necessity of a camera support depends on the weight of your gear and your comfort holding it.
- Monopods aren’t that useful on most excursions.
- A tripod can be handy for shooting from your stateroom’s balcony.
Southeast Alaska is known for its rain and generally poor weather. Because of the weather, I’d strongly recommend bringing rain gear for your camera.
For rain gear, I took both my ThinkTank Hydrpohobia 70-200 and some disposable OpTech USA camera covers. Though ultimately I ended up relying a lot on the weather resistance of my camera and lenses, as sometimes it was simply impossible to put a rain cover on fast enough to stop the camera from getting soaked.
In a similar vein, I’ve never found a compelling need for a flash on an Alaskan cruise. I took one on the first trip, and never used it. This time I left it home, and never ran into a situation where I wished I had it.
As with most things, there’s a whole lot more to consider than what I’ve covered here. Details will obviously vary from photographer to photographer depending on your specific kit and vision. Though I hope I’ve laid out some broad strokes that can be useful for starting to plan around if you’re a serious photographer going on a regular Alaskan cruise.
- Be sure you know and understand what you’re getting into with adapting lenses to another platform. For example, while most lenses can be adapted to Sony’s mirrorless cameras, you won’t get the highest advertised frame rates; that requires native lenses. So while an A9 may be able to do 20 FPS with AF with an E-mount lens, when you put your Canon or Nikon lens on it with an adapter, you’ll be limited to much less. ↩︎