Labor Day weekend not only marks a time to celebrate workers in the U.S. and Canada, it also unofficially signals the end of summer. While summer isn't really over for a few more weeks, for many, the Memorial Day to Labor Day time period bookends summer and, perhaps more importantly, the additional time off work we have to enjoy it.
Part of summer is being on or around the water. That might mean you're at the beach (here's a shameless plug for my previous article) or your local lake, swimming pool, or backyard Slip and Slide. It might also mean being on a boat in these, or larger waters. It might be a small craft that you or your uncle own for weekend fishing. Or it might be a large tour boat with two hundred of your fellow tourists. Let's leave cruise ships out of this discussion–that's a topic for another day.
Photographing from a tour boat or pleasure boat presents the challenges of a point of view in motion, and the hazards of being around water. It's also serves up unique, action-filled images that help capture the joy of summer.
I've been both a boat owner and a former boat owner. At this point in my life, I prefer the latter. Have you ever heard the old saying,”The two best days in a boat owner's life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells his boat”? There's some truth to this. Cars are different. We drive them to work, to get groceries, to go to the bank. We need cars. But very few of us need boats or make our living from watercraft. They cost money to buy, transport, and maintain.
Of course, boats can also be loads of fun. Especially when you have others to enjoy the water with you. Photography on tour boats, speed boats, and other pleasure craft can capture action and landscapes that we don't see from land, which makes them a unique summer (or warm-weather) photo adventure.
By following a few simple principles, you'll get even better images and keep both you and your camera safe in the process.
1. Don't stand up in the boat.
Forgive me if this sounds obvious, but I still meet people (especially kids or novice boaters) who have no concept of this. You may have heard this tip from your grandfather, your mom, your uncle, or just about anyone who has ever owned or used a boat. Obviously, there will be times you'll need to stand up, like when you get on or off, or to help a skier back on to the boat. But as a general rule of boating–not to mention physics–your chances of being injured, damaging your camera, or going overboard decrease significantly when you're sitting down.
The bigger a boat is, the less that your mass will impact the motion of the boat. So in a ski boat, you can stand up when you need to, but keep a hand on the boat in case you need to steady yourself in a hurry to prevent your 70-200mm lens–or your skull–from crashing into fiberglass. This is doubly true in small watercraft. So if your DSLR has taken a suicide pact and you feel duty bound to honor it, then by all means, stand up in a canoe or kayak.
Definitely don't stand up when the boat has a skier under tow. Not only can the boat rock into waves that can send you crashing into–or out of–the watercraft, but you'll likely block the operator's view.
2. Consider a dry bag for your photo gear.
Most modern DSLRs aren't going to completely wither away like the Wicked Witch of the West with a few drops of spray from the side of the boat. But if you're gong to be around a great deal of spray, either because of the speed or size of the boat, or the choppy water, consider using a dry bag. A dry bag isn't a substitute for a well-cushioned camera bag, but it definitely will keep photo gear dry. It's particularly useful if you're going to participate in other activities during the day, and you don't want to worry about a wet towel being flung on top of your camera.
3. Use a good circular polarizing filter.
On most days where it's nice enough to capture images out on the water, a circular polarizer is a good tool to cut down on glare from the water or in the air. This helps control highlights in post-processing and can make colors in your photos more vibrant.
4. Keep a fast shutter speed.
When photographing from a boat, you're always moving. Even if you photograph a subject that's not in much motion relative to the camera–like a subject on the back of the same boat you're on–your camera and lens are still in motion. While we all like to keep a low ISO when shooting in broad daylight, it's worth a slightly higher ISO to be able to boost your shutter speed.
5. Use a hand or neck strap.
Many photographers don't prefer to use the neck straps that come with kit lenses. They can get caught on tripods or other equipment. And they're just one more thing to carry and risk leaving behind. But consider photographing from a boat to be a useful an exception. A hand or neck strap is most useful when your attention is suddenly diverted. And that can happen quickly on a boat. A sharp bank to challenge a skier or the bucking of the boat against a large waive will concentrate your attentions away from your photo gear in a hurry. If you need both hands to steady yourself, you'll be glad that you went through the trouble of a neck strap.
6. Watch out for kids.
This might be good advice in any photography situation. Or life generally. But once they are boat passengers, kids have wet, slippery and unsteady hands. Or they stand up on the boat when they are told not to. And in the midst of their hyper, excited, boating adventure, they always want to see that fancy DSLR of yours. Wait until you're on shore to let them hold it this time.
7. On tour boats, don't be camera-entitled.
Boat tours are a great way for landscape photographers to see a city. But space on deck can be limited. If the ideal shooting locations are limited, be mindful that your camera doesn't entitle you to push others out of the way. If you see the boat passing a great composition of the City, it's tempting to have a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) moment. and worry that you're not going to get the right spot in time, or that other passengers are going to be blocking your frame when you get there.
But even the passengers taking bad selfies paid to take the tour.
8. Use continuous shooting.
Shooting in continuous mode during fast-action makes sense. Particularly if your distance from the subject–or the subject's speed–mean that your auto-focus may be working overtime. You may end up with a 5-shot burst with two shots in focus. Call it a tactically useful, and limited application of “spray and pray.”
9. Bring plenty of battery power and memory card space.
All that shooting in continuous mode will eat up your storage space quickly. And nobody's turning the boat around so you can go back to your car and get your spare battery.
10. Keep an eye out for food.
Unless the Staten Island Ferry is part of your regular commute, or you're a cast member on World's Deadliest Catch, then you're on a boat for pleasure, not for business. That means your fellow passengers will likely be eating and drinking and making merry on the water. It's like a picnic on a tilt-a-whirl. That means there will be food and drinks that occasionally take off in random directions. Photo gear carriers beware.
11. Respect the work of the pros (and encourage others to do the same).
Some photographers earn a living as photographers on tour boats. When I was in Maui in 2017, I went on a fantastic whale watching and snorkeling tour. The on-board professional photographer took photos of passengers, both in and out of the water, to offer as souvenirs. This was particularly useful since underwater housings for DSLRs tend to be expensive and bulky. So with every tour, he would don full scuba gear so that he could dive and get unique views of the snorkelers without constantly coming back up for air.
He was very professional, not at all pushy or aggressive about the images he offered for sale. By the time the boat was headed back to shore, he had all the digital images available to be burned to a CD for a flat fee. He displayed these images on iPads to the group as the boat was headed back to shore, so they could see what images they were purchasing. Sadly, he had to have a sign on the iPads asking passengers not to use their cell phones to take pictures of his work. I asked him if that has ever actually happened.
“All the time,” he replied. Rather than buy his CD full of nice images, people were bold enough to steal his images right off the iPads. As photographers–amateur and professional alike–we should set an example to others by respecting each other's work.
Don't be afraid to take a good camera on a tour boat or speed boat. There are some great photo opportunities on the water. But do take some precautions with your equipment and your surroundings, and fellow passengers. That way, your trip will be memorable for your images and not for the day your DSLR and lens ended up being a man-made mini-reef for some future snorkeling tourist to find.