Points in Focus Photography

Picking the Best Camera Gear for an Alaskan Cruise

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Alaska is a big place, but you don’t need a big bag of gear to make good photos there. This is especially true when you’re on a cruise. In fact, you can do quite a lot with a few choice pieces of kit.

As for this article, it’s aimed at the serious photographer going on a typical Alaska cruise. What I mean by serious photographer is that you care about your images, not that you have a lot of gear. Further, by a typical cruise, I mean that you’ll be on a normal cruise ship, not a photography oriented tour, such as those offered by National Geographic or Lindblad expeditions.

More importantly, I firmly believe that there’s no right or wrong platform, brand, or type of camera for this kind of thing. While I personally use Canon full frame cameras, all of the concepts that I’ll cover can be applied to any brand or format.

Subject Matter and Shooting Scenarios

Arguably, the two biggest draws to an Alaskan cruise are the scenery and the wildlife. However, there are a lot of opportunities for other shots if you’re willing to explore a bit.

That said, a there are a couple of things to keep in mind in the ports. To start with, all of the cruise ports are heavily commercialized around the tourist traffic. In some places, for example Skagway, it does make the “rustic historical mining town” feel more like a Disney theme park.

Secondly, there are going to be tons of people in town when the ships are in port. In 2017 Ketchikan, a town of just over 8,000 people, saw more than 1 million tourists over the 5 month cruise season. From a photographic perspective, if you’re trying to shoot the architecture of some of the more rustic towns, expect the streets to be filled with tourists.

Stacked pebbles on a moss covered piling, a detail found at Icy Strait Point.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
47mm, 1/100, f/8, ISO 100

This article doesn’t cover port or subject matter specific details. However, I have written more in depth guides for those topics that can be found through the following links:

Landscapes

Landscapes can be shot from both the cruise ship as on shore.

Shooting from the ship poses some non-standard gear choices for landscape photography. In order to maintain safe navigation for the ship, you’ll never be that close to shore.

Because of this, I found that if I tried to shoot a landscape with a wide angle lens like I normally might, I ended up throwing away a lot of resolution on uninteresting sky and sea. For example, I might get 3-4 MP of usable image from a 30 MP camera.

Instead, I found I got much better images by shooting with longer focal lengths and either isolating details in a single frame, or stitching panos together from multiple frames.

For single images, I frequently shot in the 200–400 mm range to pick out details like cabins and waterfalls.

For wider vistas, I would shoot a sequence of frames and stitch them together as a pano. For these I usually was shooting in the 70–200 mm range to limit the resolution wasted on the sky and sea.

Johns Hopkins Glacier (Glacier Bay National Park) from the deck of the Norwegian Jewel. Stitched Pano shot with a 100-400mm.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
14 frames stitched @ 148mm, 1/800, f/8, ISO 100

On shore, there are more opportunities to use a wide angle lens. Most of southeast Alaska is a temperate rainforest and that offers a more intimate environment where the wide angle of view can be used to good effect.

With that said, there are some general considerations you’ll want to keep in mind while you’re there.

First, due to the distances involved in some cases images may take on a strong blue cast. I found this most noticeable in Glacier Bay National Park where there was also a lot of snow and ice to reflect blue light.

I didn’t find any effective way to combat this. While it might be partially driven by UV light, I was shooting with lenses with UV filters and still had the problem. In some cases, you can correct of this in post processing. In other cases, the only viable answer may be to convert the images to black and whites.

Mount Crillon from the deck of the Norwegian Jewel in the Icy Strait.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM + 1.4x III TC
368 mm, 1/640, f/7.1, ISO 125

The second consideration I found was shooting at dusk. Due to the high latitude, during the summer southeast Alaska never actually sees night; it’s perpetually locked in twilight. This means that sunsets and twilight last longer than at more equatorial latitudes.

These long twilight can produce interesting color issues, as all the light will be indirect and will pick up a color cast from sky, sea, and mountains that it’s bouncing off of before it illuminates your scene. You can attempt to correct for this in post processing by eye. However, it’s extremely useful to remember to take a picture of ship’s white hull or a white balance target of some sort to help.

Wildlife

Alaska’s other big draw is the wildlife. Quite a lot of wildlife, especially whales and porpoises, can also been seen and photographed from the cruise ship. However, the best images are going to be had by getting closer on a shore excursion.

Wildlife photography is the realm of long lenses. The question isn’t if you’ll need a long lens, but how long of a lens do you need. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, I would strongly recommend a 600 mm lens or even more if you can swing it.

Fortunately, I found Alaska, at least when on a cruise, to be much more reasonable. Wildlife either fell comfortably in the range of a 400 mm lens (potentially with a 1.4x TC), or it was so far away that it wouldn’t make a good image regardless of your lens.

A brown bear on the shore shot from the cruise ship.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
400 mm + a lot of cropping, 1/50, f/5.6, ISO 1250

For example, the above image of a bear has a field of view after cropping equivalent to a 1400 mm lens. Even with that, the bear in so small and indistinct enough that it doesn’t make a great image. To get a tighter image would have required a lens around 6000 mm, and even then the image wouldn’t be great due to the distance and atmospheric effects.

Whales and porpoises play out a lot better from the cruise ship. To start with, they can get much closer to the ship.

The following image was shot with a 560 mm lens from the deck of my cruise ship. While it’s not the closest I saw a whale to the ship, it’s far more interesting due to the breaching.

Breaching Humpback whale from the deck of the Norwegian Jewel in the Chatham Strait.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM + 1.4x II TC
560 mm, 1/640, f/8, ISO 400

While this might seem disheartening, it does show that you can shoot from the cruise ship and get some images. While the whale in this image isn’t much bigger than the bear in the previous image, the image is un-cropped at 560 mm. A focal length that’s well within reach for most people, especially if you’re shooting on a crop platform.

However, shore excursions provide much better opportunities to get close and get good images.

On shore, I generally found the focal length situation was basically the same. If I couldn’t shoot something with at worst a 400 mm lens and a 1.4x TC, I wasn’t going to be able to shoot it without something much longer.

That said, one thing that surprised me was how often I was shooting at moderately high ISOs to keep my shutter speeds high. To start with, anytime it’s rainy and cast light will be limited, and this can be quite frequent in southeast Alaska. Additionally, on shore bear watching excursions tend to be in and around the cover of the Alaskan rainforest canopy which limits light even more.

Consider you Gear’s Weight

I’ve been traveling with camera gear for more than 4 years now, and weight has consistently been the factor that makes or breaks my enjoyment of the trip. Simply put, less weight has always translated to a much better experience for me.

Be selective of the gear you’re bringing, but don’t fail to bring something you’ll need.

Fortunately, or unfortunately as it might be, weight becomes more of a problem the higher up the gear ladder that you go.

On the cruise, the issue is partially moderated by being able leave stuff in your cabin. You can bring a bunch of gear, then only carry what you need for each excursion on that excursion. In fact, I use this approach on my first trip, since I didn’t know what I would need, and it worked well enough.

That said, excursions, especially those that involve flying, will have the tightest weight constraints. Many flight seeing tours will only permit you to carry a camera and lens, not a bag full of gear. In many cases, even small camera bags or belt pouches are prohibited.

My best suggesting when it comes to weight is to do your research and try to think about how you’ll use everything you’re packing. If you can’t think of a good use, leave it home.

The Right Camera

Margery Glacier calving in Glacier Bay National Park.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
241mm, 1/500, f/8 ISO 100

Put simply, in my experience, the right camera is the one you already have and know how to use.

This isn’t to say that there might not be a better camera out there, at least on paper. However, experience taught me that you shouldn’t underestimate the value familiarity when it comes to getting something done with your gear.

I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve been able to get a shot because I knew intuitively how to adjust settings in a pinch. Moreover, by knowing my gear, I know when I can expect to get a usable shot and when to put the camera down and enjoy the scene.

It doesn’t matter how good a camera specs are, if you miss the shot you’re trying to take. A picture is always better than no picture at all.

The Demands on the Camera

Shooting bears under a rainforest canopy, on an overcast day digs into the high ISO range.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
400 mm, 1/320, f/8, ISO 2500

After reading through the Subject Matter and Shooting Scenarios section, you might be able to guess at some of the demands that your camera will likely need to meet.

The good news here is that unlike a lot of places, the kind of photography you’ll be doing on a cruise doesn’t require a specialist camera.

What this means in terms of specs, is that you don’t need a particularly high resolution, frame rate, AF system, or beyond stellar high ISO capabilities. Instead, you’ll want a good balance of all of those features. As I said though, that really just describes most DSLRs, mirrorless, and even bridge cameras that have been made in the last, well, probably 8 years.

In my opinion, the key areas to consider are:

  • A good balance between FPS and resolution.
  • A reasonably good AF system with a reasonably dense pattern of AF points.
  • Decent ISO performance in the 1600-6400; this is especially important if you’re shooting with an f/5.6 or slower lens.

Frame Rate

Personally, I’ve never run into a situation in Alaska where I wished I had a 10+ FPS capable camera. However, when photographing whales, eagles, and bears, I definitely recommend more than 3 or 4 FPS too.

Meeting these frame rates ins’t much of a problem for most modern cameras. However, there are exceptions, mostly in the entry level DSLR and mirrorless space. At the mid and higher tiers, almost universally this isn’t a problem.

Some bridge and compact cameras may suffer a bit in this area, but many bridge cameras are more than up to the task. However, even cameras like Nikon’s $300 Coolpix B600, Canon’s $230 PowerShot SX530 HS, or Panasonic’s $400 Lumix FZ80 can shoot at up to 7, 10, and 10 FPS respectively.

A black bear grabs hold of a pink salmon.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
321 mm, 1/320, f/5.6 ISO 1000

AF Performance

Much like the frame rate, similar reasoning applies to the AF system. You absolute don’t need a pro level 50+ point AF system with 3D color tracking, face detect, and all the bells and whistles. You can certainly get along with something much less sophisticated. However, you do need something that can keep up with the situations at hand.

To start with I found that I used a lot of continuous AF when I was shooting in Alaska. Even when shooting landscapes from the ship, you have to remember that while the land isn’t moving, the ship is. Moreover, many cruise ships ply the waters at a decent speed, often close to 20 knots (23 MPH or 37 km/h) — speeds in glacier bay and especially narrow fjords will be slower.

As for wildlife, aside from birds in flight, I never ran into situations where there was a lot of rapid movement towards or away from me such that you absolutely needed a pro AF system to track them.

That said a AF system that can quickly achieve focus is important. On one whale watching trip, we had a humpback surface to feed right next to the boat while it was tied up at the dock. If your camera’s AF system takes a few moments to lock on to something, you would have missed that opportunity completely. Even with a pro level AF system, by the time I had reacted half of lunge had already happened.

Either way, when using continuous AF, higher AF point counts are useful in being able to control the composition while still being able to continuously track a subject. Mirrorless and bridge cameras have a small advantage here in that most of them can position the AF area almost anywhere in the frame. However, modern DSLRs even many entry level ones, have enough AF points to make composing images with off centered subjects easy enough.

ISO Performance

Waterfalls along the Lynn Canal taken in the long twilight of spring in Alaska.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
400 mm, 1/40, f/5.6, ISO 1250

The final aspect of the camera I want to talk about is noise performance at moderate to high ISOs.

Broadly, there are three factors that I found played into this.

First, is rain. It doesn’t rain every day in southeast Alaska, but does rain a lot. Rain means overcast skies and that means a lot less light to work with. For shooting landscapes, where you can let the shutter speeds dip, this isn’t so much of a problem. However, for wildlife, you’ll need to keep your shutter speeds up (typically 11000s or faster) and that will also mean shooting at higher ISOs.

Secondly, is shooting under the cover of the forest canopies. As an example of this, the black bear images in this post were shot under the dense canopy at the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary outside of Ketchikan. The vast majority of these images were shot at ISO 3200–6400 just to keep shutter speeds fast enough to not blur the bears.

Finally, is the long twilight period. Granted, not everyone is going to want to shoot in this corner of the day. I shot a number of waterfall images that I’m quite happy with during the long twilight while the ship was sailing through the Lynn Canal.

Unlike frame rate and AF performance, I can’t make a hard recommendation on a minimum here. Most modern cameras, even bridge cameras, support ISO settings as high as ISO 6400, DLSRs and mirrorless cameras will go much higher. However, just being able to shoot at that ISO, doesn’t mean that the images will be acceptable to you at that setting. Ultimately, you’ll need to make a judgement call on what you consider acceptable levels of noise in your images and whether your camera is up to that task.

What I’ve Used

On my trips, I’ve used Canon’s EOS 5D series; a 5D mark III, and later a 5D mark IV. These cameras gave me a good balance between resolution, at 22 and 30 MP respectively, and frame rates, at 6.5 and 7 FPS respectively. They both had solid pro-level AF systems, that could track things like eagles, whales, and bears. Finally, they could produce images that are acceptable to me at higher ISOs (for the 5D mark IV, as high as 12,800).

Do you need gear that “pro”?

Absolutely not. Many of today’s lower tier DSLRs and mirrorless cameras (in the $700-800 price range) can provide the necessary performance. Even most modern bridge cameras in the $300-500 range will even get close enough to be usable.

The biggest difference between the interchangeable lens cameras and the bridge cameras is going to be the image quality at higher ISOs. Bridge cameras with smaller sensors will preform worse than large sensor ILCs. However, while you trade the high ISO performance, bridge cameras have big advantages in weight, and potentially much greater zoom range compared to the ILCs.

One or More Bodies?

Wrecks of boats can be found scattered around the Alaskan coast lines.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, EF 1.4x III
309 mm, 1/320, f/7.1, ISO 1600

For me there are two ways to think about having a second camera:

  • As a backup body that is used only if the primary fails.
  • As a second body that is used in conjunction with the primary or to expand your capabilities alongside your primary

Given the limitations imposed by the nature of a cruise, I don’t feel that having two bodies is necessary. If you already have the gear, then taking a backup or secondary body won’t hurt. However, if you don’t already have the gear, I would not go out and buy or rent something.

That said, under some conditions you might find that you want another body to expand your capabilities in some way.

Backup Body

My intent with a backup camera is to have something that I can fall back to if my main camera is damaged, fails, or is lost or stolen. While I’m going to be upset about having my main camera go down, I’ll at least be able to shoot something; as opposed to being miserable and without a camera at all.

Since the backup camera isn’t something I’m planning on using, it also doesn’t need to be as capable. An older, or lower tier, body is a good candidate. For instance the older camera you just replaced for your trip.

I took a 10 MP EOS-1D mark III as a backup on my first cruise. At less than half the resolution of my main camera, I really didn’t want to end up having to use it, but I was glad I had something just in case.

Additionally since I don’t plan on using the camera, I’ll do everything I can to cut down on the weight. For me that means taking off the battery grip and quick-release tripod plate. Also since I use BlackRapid straps I won’t keep a strap on the backup body unless I’m actually going to use it.

Take from a Small (30′) whale watching boat, handheld with a 100-400mm lens.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
400 mm, 1/1600, f/5.6, ISO 200

While I’ve taken backup bodies on every one of my Alaska trips, it’s been more out of force of habit than any real need. Moreover, in every case, I’ve never ended up using the backup body either.

A Second Body

The other option is a second body that you’ll regularly use. The intent here is to expand your capabilities or make changing between lenses faster.

For example, you might want to take a high FPS crop camera (like a Canon 7D mark II or a Nikon D500) to keep with a long lens for whales and wildlife, while you have a wider angle lens on a lower slower full frame camera (like a 6D mark II or a D610), for landscapes.

Because a secondary body is going to be used regularly, I don’t remove the creature comforts like I would for a backup. Of course, this means increased weight but that’s generally offset by the better usability.

Alternatively, depending on what you’re going to be doing, another approach to a secondary body would be one that’s much more compact. This can be extremely useful for some excursions with moderate activity but you still want to get good images.

As an example of this, on my first cruise, we did a glacier flight and hike. I took my main camera for this, a EOS 5D mark III and a pretty bulky 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. However, a lot of what I shot on the glacier was shot at wider angles, and the camera was something I ended up worrying about when I was getting down by the glacier melt pools. Knowing what I know now, a more compact camera like an EOS M3 with a EF-M 22mm f/2 STM pancake lens or a compact EF-M 15-45mm zoom would have been preferable.

The Multi-Camera Sweet Spot

Leaves frozen in the surface of the Mendenhall Glacier.
Canon EOS 5D mark III, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM
98 mm, 1/640, f/5.6, ISO 100

With all this talk about features, performance, and multiple bodies, it’s worth talking for a moment about whether there’s a “sweet spot” in the market that makes things easy for the multi-camera traveler. Fortunately, there seems to be, and the best part is that it covers a wide price and feature range, so there are a lot of options.

My primary concern here, when it comes to talking about a multi-camera sweet spot is how well multiple camera options mesh together. On one hand, this covers the range of features and capabilities that you can get form different cameras. However, an additional concern is how their ancillary accessories, like batteries and chargers, mesh.

Right now, the sweet spot seems to be the upper-middle range cameras from pretty much all of the camera makers. Whether they’re APS-C or full frame, the middle of the road bodies seem to offer the best balance of performance, cost, and ancillary device support.

For example, all of Canon’s cameras from the 60D to the 5DS r, 5D mark IV, and EOS R, all use the same LP-E6 series batteries. This gives you camera options from 20 MP at 10 FPS, all the way to 50 MP at 5 FPS in the camera space, while still being able to use one set of batteries, chargers, and accessories.

The same is true for Nikon’s mid-range. Every camera from the D7000 to the D850 and Z7 use the same EN-EL15 series batteries.

Commonality of battery and charging infrastructure, is something I’ve written about at length in the past. Again, this comes from personal experience. On my first cruise I took my EOS-1D mark III as a backup to my 5D mark III. These two cameras use completely different batteries and chargers with no commonality between them at all. As a result, I ended up packing the extra bulk of the two different chargers and ultimately never needing the bulkier of the two.

On subsequent trips, I’ve had cameras with compatible power systems, and have shaved a both weight and bulk out of my bags and even gained a bit more redundancy by having more batteries of the same type at hand.

Mirrorless or Not

Mirrorless cameras are certainly the new hotness. Some would insist they’re they only way forward.

Personally, I take a much more measured approach to my photography tools. In fact, the value of a DSLR was driven home to me while shooting wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. Where I could can spend a lot of time observing animals ready to shoot without draining your batteries.

Fortunately for mirrorless owners, Alaska isn’t a special case that really demands that one aspect of a DLSR.

To start with, I didn’t find that the shooting played heavily to the strengths of a DSLR in the way, for example, Yellowstone does. For whales, you can’t observe through the lens. You need the wide field of view of your unaided eyes to spot them as the surface, and then quickly bring the camera up.

For other things, like bears, the excursions inherently impose limits on how long you can sit and observe. This will be either because you only have a limited amount of time there (a few hours of most), or because the excursion will move along since it’s not designed to cater to the photographer who is willing to sit for hours for the best shot.

Put simply, while I shoot DLSRs, I don’t see any reason I’d feel constrained shooting a good mirrorless camera on an Alaskan cruise.

Buying or Renting New Gear

I know many people will buy a new camera in preparation for a trip like this. My dad this before his first trip to Alaska. If you do this too close to your cruise, you’ll have less practical experience with the camera, which is not good for working quickly and efficiently. However, there are some things you can do to get up to speed more quickly.

To start with, I always recommend going through some kind of formalized acclimation testing. My article Testing and Acclimating to a new Camera covers the process I use for every new camera I get. This helps me get a baseline feel for the camera’s performance range under controlled conditions.

I also recommend making sure you have time to get out and shoot with the camera and lenses some before you go on the trip. Field conditions expose different limitations than just the basic image testing does.

For example, as resolutions increase, you may find that you’re no longer able to get pixel sharp images handheld at the same shutter speeds you were able to on your older gear. This also applies to the handling of super telephoto lenses, even 100-400 class zooms, if you’ve never used a lens that long before.

Finally, don’t just practice with easy stuff. Make sure you throw some low light and challenging subject matter in (especially moving subjects to test the AF system) to make sure you have some practice with those cases since you might run into them.

Finally, if you’re making a major change in platforms or systems, such as moving from one brand to another, or from a compact camera to an ILC, make sure you build some extra time to practice with the camera into your purchase schedule.

Lenses

Lens selection is largely dictated by your own vision and style. That makes it impossible to simply say, take this or that. However, there are some broader points that can be addressed and you can use them to inform your specific choices.

When it comes to an Alaskan cruise, I’ve settled on only needing 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). I took a lot more gear on my first cruise, and I ended up not using most of it. On subsequent trips, I saved the weight and left all that stuff at home.

In practice, you can get away with even less than that. An 18-200 to 18-400 super zoom on an APS-C camera, would cover all of the bases in one lens.

Trying to go one lens with a full frame camera is a bit more problematic. While they make lenses with a 28-300 mm range, the 300 mm telephoto end is not really long enough in my experience.

Bridge cameras are also entirely reasonable to use, and in some ways can have their own advantages. Many modern bridge cameras have some incredible zoom ranges, with full frame equivalent focal lengths out 3200 mm on a full frame camera.

However, keep in mind that a lot of zoom isn’t just better. Lenses with longer zoom ranges are more complicated to design, and have more compromises made for image quality. Moreover, at a minimum, longer lenses used to cover longer distances make images more susceptible to atmosphere distortion such as heat waves. Under the right conditions this can be a problem even at much more modest focal lengths.

What I haven’t found especially useful is the ultra-wide angle range (<24 mm on full frame). I took one on my first trip, and never actually used it. While there may be exceptions on some shore excursions, I never ran into anything in Alaska that really demanded an ultra-wide angle lens.

As I touched on the Subject Matter section on landscapes, the landscapes from the ship tend to be wide but not overly tall due to the distances to shore. Going for a single shot image that fits everything in tends to frequently result in a lot of pixels being used in the sky and sea, and the mountains and glaciers being quite small in the frame.

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.

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 what your camera’s format is.

Again, as I noted earlier, going back 400mm has diminishing returns in utility. That said, if you have a compact lens that’s reasonably light weight, like Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR, or any of the myriad of 150-600 mm zooms that would be fine. However, for a cruise a big super telephoto prime, like a 600mm f/4, isn’t going to help a lot.

A Brown Bear sow and her two cubs forage for salmon and play in the Chillkoot river.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, EF 1.4x III
560 mm, 1/1000, f/8, ISO 6400

Take a Teleconverter or Not?

I almost always carry a 1.4x teleconverter (often called an extender too) with me when I’m carrying a telephoto lens. Using one ins’t free, as the teleconverter degrades image quality and increases the aperture (1 stop for a 1.4x and 2 stops for a 2x).

The up side is that, at least in my testing, the image quality loss of using the extender, and a stop higher ISO, is less than the image quality loss in cropping after the fact.

That said, the caveat with teleconverters is that you can’t really skimp on them. Cheap teleconverters will destroy the image quality of even really good lenses. Consequently, stick with the best ones you can get. In my experience, that means first part ones from the brand of your camera or lens.

Prime or Zoom?

You’ll also notice that in the vast majority of this discussion about lenses I’ve been talking about zooms. There’s a number of considerations that have to be taken into account here.

Part of the question is personal preference. I vastly prefer zooms over primes (single focal length lenses) because of the flexibility they offer in adjusting a composition and adapting to the situation in front of me. However, in order to get that I do have to give up some potential image quality.

Being on a cruise doesn’t help the case for primes either. One piece of advice that’s often given by prime users, is that if you want a different composition, you can zoom with your feet, moving closer or further away from the subject. This doesn’t really work when you’re shooting from a moving boat.

Additionally, one of the biggest advantages of prime lenses, having a very fast maximum aperture, isn’t really that much of an advantage here.

Combining those factors, I don’t really recommend relying on primes for an Alaska cruise. Though like most things, you can certainly use them if that’s what you have or you really prefer them to zooms. I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy a zoom or bunch of zooms just for a cruise if all my lenses were primes.

As for going with primes, I’m not sure what I’d recommend specifically. However, there’s also a good chance that if that’s what you shoot with, you’ll be able to make up your own mind based on my descriptions of the shooting situations and the camera settings listed with the images in this post.

A humpback whale dives in Sitka Sound.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
400 mm, 1/1250, f/5.6, ISO 1000

Full Frame Lens Recommendations

If you’re shooting full frame, like I do, I think you can get away pretty easily with a a 24-70 mm or 24-105 mm zoom for your general purpose task and a 100-400 mm zoom for wildlife and to reach out from the ship while you’re cursing.

As far as f/2.8 versus f/4 goes, I don’t see a lot to favor either option. For landscapes you’re generally going to stop down anyway. Even for something like shooting portraits of your family you’re not going to want to have ultra shallow depth of field, as you’ll want to preserve the context of being in Alaska. Moreover, I found very little need for the fast aperture for purely light gathering reasons.

As for the telephoto, I would recommend a 100-400 class zoom, or a 150-600 class zoom. A 70-300 can be effective for some things, like whales, but in many cases it’s going to be too short for bears.

Crop Camera Lens Recommendations

Crop users, both APS-C and 4/3rds, have I think some real advantages in some ways due to the smaller frame size.

For a general purpose lens you’ll still want something roughly equivalent to a 24-70 or 24-105 on full frame. So for APS-C users, it would be something like an 18-55, 16-85, 18-135 or something like that.

The general purpose zoom can be paired with a 70-300 for wildlife. This works on APS-C and 4/3rds because the crop factor gives the same field of view as a 450 or 600 mm lens on a full frame camera.

Alternatively, crop camera users can also opt for a single lens solution using one of the myriad of 18-250, 18-300, and even 18-400 super zooms. The compromise here is that these lenses have poorer image quality than shorter range zooms.

Bridge Cameras and Compacts

Bridge and compact cameras are a space that’s outside my familiarity zone. However, I’ve known some seriously interested novice photographers that used them because it was way cheaper than a DSLR.

The good news is, and I pointed this in previous sections, that most modern bridge cameras provide enough focal range that you can certainly use one as your cruise camera.

What really amazed me when I started writing this section is that you can do pretty well with a slim compact camera as well. Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Panasonic all have compact cameras with 30-40x zooms topping out at around 1000 mm in full frame terms. While these cameras make even more compromises in terms of image quality due to their very small sensors, if you can work within their constraints they certainly are an option.

Camera Support: Tripods and Monopods

The vast majority of shooting I’ve done, both on the ship and on shore in Alaska, has been handheld

When it comes to choosing between a tripod, monopod, or nothing, my opinions have bounced around 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 didn’t seem as effective it was on my old 10 MP class gear.

Drops on a Feather
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
340 mm, 1/400, f/8, ISO 250

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.

On my first Alaska cruise, I left the tripod at home and only took a monopod. My reasoning was that the boat would vibrate too much and the tripod would conduct that vibration to the camera. Having a forward cabin, vibration wasn’t a problem. On the other hand, what was a problem was having to constantly hold the monopod or lay everything down where nobody would trip over it became quite an annoyance.That said, one of the biggest short comings of monopods is that they don’t stand on their own; at least mine, and most, 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.

For this second trip, I took the tripod, and was vastly happier as a result. In fact, I almost never used the monopod, and I wouldn’t take one back again. 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.

That said, the vast majority of shooting I’ve done both on the ship and on shore in Alaska, has been handheld.

If you already have a tripod, especially a light weight travel one, then my suggestion would be to take it. You probably won’t get much use out of it, but I’ve found it handy to have at time. Especially if you want to shoot video from your room’s balcony as you’re sailing.

However, if you don’t already have a tripod, you don’t need to run out and buy one, it’s just not that necessary on a cruise.

Miscellaneous Stuff

Aside from your camera and lenses, there’s usually some amount of miscellaneous gear you’ll normally have to support that. These are some of the tips I’ve found for what else you might want to bring that I haven’t already covered.

Bags and Packs

Camera bags are about as personal as it gets. It’s not just a matter of finding something that fits all your gear, but also what’s comfortable for you to use. Because of this, it’s impossible to make specific recommendations on what kind of bag to use. However, there are some things to keep in mind that are worth pointing out.

To start with, whatever you choose to go with, if you’re expecting to carry it around on shore excursions, rain protection is a good feature to have.

Most reputable bag makers take a multi-faceted approach to rain protection. It starts with a durable water repellent (DRW) coating applied to the outside of the fabric. DWR coatings provide protection by causing water to bead up and run off before it can penetrate into the fabric. However, they can wear off over time with use and handling.

Good bags provide a second layer of protection with a full water proof rain cover (or with a fully waterproof layer in the fabric itself). I consider this an essential layer of protection if you’re going to be in the rain for an extended amount of time.

If you’re using a low price bag, especially one that claims to be waterproof, I would strongly recommend testing in a shower or outside under a hose. I’ve personally seen quite a few low cost “waterproof” bags that leaked like a sieve when they actually got rained on.

Further, if you have an older bag, or want to add an added layer of protection to yours, you can spray it with a waterproofing coating like Nikwax’s Tent and Gear Solarproof(Affiliate Link) .

Personally, my ThinkTank Airport Commuter has been my go to Alaska camera backpack. It provides enough space for the two bodies and two lenses, as well as my GoPro, laptop, and tablet that I travel with. Generally I leave it in my stateroom and only take a body and lens with me when I’m going out on an excursions. However, if I expect to need all my gear, I will take the whole backpack. I’ve also used ThinkTank’s Belt System for carrying gear on excursions to keep my gear load down.

Rain Gear

Southeast Alaska is known for its rain and generally poor weather. Because of the weather, I’d strongly recommend some kind of rain protection for your camera. I would still recommend this, even if you’re using cameras and lenses that are weather sealed.

For rain gear, I’ve took both my ThinkTank Hydrophobia 70-200 and some disposable OpTech USA plastic camera covers (that I wouldn’t recommend). Though ultimately I ended up relying on the weather resistance of my camera and lenses a lot too, as sometimes it was simply impossible to put a rain cover on fast enough to stop the camera from getting soaked.

The coastal range and islands of western Puget Sound from the deck of the Norwegian Jewel.
Canon EOS 5D mark IV, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM + Extender 1.4x III
560 mm, 1/1000, f/8, ISO 250

Flashes

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.

Conclusion

Admittedly there’s a lot of information here. However, I hope its helped to pain a clear picture of just what kind of gear you really need to be effective as a photographer on an Alaskan cruise.

  • Pack as light as possible
  • You don’t need a specialized high end DLSR to get good images
  • Consider taking lens to cover form ~24 mm to ~400 mm on a full frame camera or the crop equivalent.
  • I’ve never needed a flash.
  • A tripod or monopod isn’t necessary unless you’re going to shoot video from it.
  • Be prepared for rain.

 

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