Shoelaces. Room deodorizers. 19th century percolators. Pick any topic you like and, if there are at least two interested parties amongst the world’s 7 billion inhabitants, there’s an internet forum dedicated to discussing it. Within each forum is an assortment of hotheads and trolls, teachers and students, givers, takers, scholars and dabblers. Skim any one of them and you’ll find the dialog as predictable as their cast of characters. You’ll read numerous threads in which belligerent brand-loyalists argue amongst themselves; threads in which the terminally lazy ask basic questions that are answered in Chapter 1 of the owner’s manual; and countless threads started by Googlephobics who post questions identical to ones posted 48 hours earlier.
Nestled amongst these threads are the inevitable solicitations for equipment recommendations. That shoelace forum will be chock full of posts asking which laces are best for a Himalayan hike, or what length shoelaces to buy for a pair of vintage 1978 high-top Converse All-Stars™. Glance in that room deodorizer forum and discover questions like, “I just broiled some salmon. Should I use a pine or floral scent to mask the odor now emanating from my sofa?”
In photography forums, these solicitations usually manifest as “which lens” questions. “Which lens should I use for my cousin’s wedding?” or “Which lens should I take on my Alaskan cruise?” Having, myself, received merciful help in a few web programming forums, I felt obligated to return the favor. But, as a programming doofus, I have nothing of value to offer that community. I can only give back by contributing to a subject I know — photography. So I decided to tackle that Alaskan lens question head-on. Making the supreme sacrifice, I booked an Alaskan cruise. It was, after all, the only way I could offer a truly informed opinion.
Most Alaskan cruises depart from Vancouver, my home. Unencumbered by the restrictions of air travel, I’d be able to board with as much photographic equipment as I could drag along the 10 block walk between my condo and the cruise ship terminal. So I loaded myself down like a rented pack mule, and hauled about a hundred pounds of photo gear onto the Volendam. The purpose? To answer, once and for all, the persistent questions surrounding Alaskan cruises and photo gear selection.
On this 1-week cruise, I shot in excess of 1500 photos. Upon returning, I immediately trashed over 200 for the usual reasons — poor exposure, poor composition, poor focus, and so on. That left exactly 1300 photos in my Alaskan cruise photo pool — a fairly significant sample size from which to build a statistical model.
Let’s begin with cameras. I packed three of them: a Leica M8 rangefinder, a Canon 5DmkII SLR, and a Panasonic DMC-G1 micro four-thirds. My pre-cruise plan was simple: I would use the Leica for on-board street-type shots, the 5DmkII for landscapes and wildlife, and the G1 for typical “tourist” shots while walking around towns. Examining the EXIF data for those 1300 shots reveals the following per-camera shot totals:
- Canon EOS 5DmkII: 590 shots (45%)
- Panasonic DMC-G1: 513 shots (40%)
- Leica M8: 197 shots (15%)
The usage breakdown between the three cameras mirrors my expectations. Because of its bulk, I knew I’d carry the 5D less than the other cameras, but actually take the most shots with it. The reason for this paradox is simple: it was my wildlife camera. Photographing wildlife means firing off a flurry of motor-driven shots whenever something critter-like comes into view. This eats frames in a hurry. In marked contrast to the 5D, I knew I’d carry the lightweight G1 everywhere — whether I planned on using it or not. Even when it wasn’t my primary camera, I’d still sling the G1 over my shoulder in case I needed rapid access to an alternate focal length. Because of the nature of rangefinders, I knew photos taken with the Leica would be more deliberate and, consequently, less plentiful in number (though widely varying in subject).
Once I set sail, my usage assumptions proved rather accurate. For example, I would have expected to use the Leica for such shots as women dressing and lovers staring into sunsets. And, indeed, I did.
Similarly, I would expect to (and did) use the 5D to take such photos as the whale triptych that begins this article, and the following two bear photos:
Since my in-town wanderings were accompanied by the G1, I expected it to record a hodgepodge of subjects, and it dutifully obliged with the following shot of the Flume Trail…
… and Creek Street (shown below).
- Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS: 320 shots (25%)
- Panasonic 14-45: 298 shots (23%)
- Panasonic 45-200: 215 shots (17%)
- Leica 28mm f/2 Summicron: 128 shots (10%)
- Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L: 127 shots (10%)
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS: 115 shots (9%)
- Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton: 69 shot (5%)
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II: 28 shots (2%)
As is usually the case with statistics, these numbers aren’t as cut and dry as they might appear. Take, for example, the 300mm lens. It was my most frequently used lens, yet it essentially captured only two subjects: bears and whales. If your Alaskan cruise doesn’t involve excursions into the wild, you’ll rarely use a lens of this length.
There are times, onboard the ship, when you’ll see whales, bears, otters, mountain goats, and other creatures in the distance. On such occasions, I popped a 1.4x teleconverter on my 300mm (giving me a 420mm f/5.6 lens), but the combination still wasn’t long enough to adequately capture wildlife seen from the ship. If your goal is to get quality wildlife shots from the deck of your cruise ship, you better plan on hauling a 600mm lens and a 2x teleconverter with you. Personally, there’s no way I’d bring something that monstrous on a cruise — it would limit my mobility. If you really want to shoot wildlife, book an excursion and bring along a manageable telephoto. Let the guy who didn’t bother to read this article struggle with taking 600mm ‘armchair’ nature shots from the Lido deck. He’ll be miserable.
You’ll notice, in the previous lens list, that I had one other long lens with me — the Panasonic 45-200. With the G1’s crop factor, this lens acts like a 90-400mm zoom on a full frame 35mm camera. 17% of my shots were taken with this lens but, as always, statistics aren’t telling the whole story. To avoid changing lenses in the field, I always had the G1 with me — equipped with a focal length that would compliment the one on my primary camera’s body. If I carried the Leica, for which I brought all wide lenses, I’d outfit the G1 with the 45-200 to cover the long range. Similarly, if I was packing the 5D with its 17-40 attached then, for the same reason, the G1 was also fit with the 45-200. What these statistics don’t show is that 90 of the 215 shots taken with the 45-200 were taken at the widest setting — 45mm. What this implies is that, although I took 215 shots with the 45-200, it was probably too long for 90 of those shots. In an ideal world, I would likely have chosen a different lens.
The best way to analyze my lens usage is not to categorize it by lens, but by focal length:
- Wide Angle: anything shot at less than a 50mm (equivalent) focal length = 516 shots (40%)
- Mid Range: anything shot between 50mm and 90mm (inclusive) = 274 shots (21%)
- Telephotos: anything shot over 90mm (equivalent) = 510 shots (39%)
Again, the telephoto shot total is skewed by the rapid-fire shooting tactics I used while photographing two subjects: bears and whales. Without those two subjects, the vast majority of my shots were taken wider than 50mm.
Before this trip, I could find no consensus regarding the question of whether tripods or monopods are useful onboard the ship. So, in order to provide a definitive answer, I packed three support options: my Gitzo carbon-fibre tripod; a carbon-fibre monopod; and a 1 lb sack of lentils.
I used the tripod for only one shot. I wouldn’t have used it at all but, since I went to a lot of trouble to bring the darn thing, I thought I should at least give it a try. It was a colossal pain in the butt. It hampered my mobility and gave me nothing in return.
The monopod went on one excursion with me. I used it for five shots. Three of the shots I could have captured without it. Only a pair of waterfall photographs benefited from its use. 2 shots out of 1300 — and neither are exactly gallery quality, as you can see here. In contrast, I took about 20-30 shots with the homemade beanbag, and found it quite useful for evening shots like the one below:
The beanbag cost me $1 to make, and occupied almost no room in the suitcase. Another advantage of beanbags is you don’t even have to fill them before traveling. Take an empty 1-quart Ziploc™ bag and a small mesh travel sack of equal size. You can buy some lentils when you get to your destination, saving weight during travel. Fill the Ziploc with the lentils, zip it, then put that bag into the mesh travel sack. I have a carabiner attached to the sack, which I hook on the camera strap. This prevents the bag from accidentally slipping off the railing and falling into the ocean.
As always, I packed a backup battery for every camera — a practice that saved me on two occasions. The Kata raincovers that I brought, which would also save me in the event of a rainstorm, were not needed on this trip.
What I Should Have Packed
On several instances, I actually wish I’d brought a flash. I had planned to bring one, but space-constraints forced me to choose between the Kata rain covers and a speedlite. It rains a lot in Alaska and, although it flies in the face of the whole internet strobist craze, I usually try to avoid flash. So I chose to bring the rain covers, meaning I’d need to handle any low-light shots with fast lenses, high ISO speeds, or both. Of the 69 shots taken with the 35mm Voigtlander, the majority were shot, wide open, at f/1.4 and ISO 640. When that combination failed to let in enough light, I used the 50mm f/1.8 on the 5DmkII, which I could shoot at a much higher ISO than the Leica. When that combination failed, I had to resort to the G1’s hideous little on-camera flash. I ended up trashing every one of those flash shots during my first RAW file purge.
Leave the tripods and monopods at home. If you’re worried about stabilizing your camera, take a 1-quart Ziploc bag and, when you get to the port city, buy a pound of lentils and fill the bag.
Unless you’re shooting wildlife, your shots will probably skew toward standard and wider focal lengths. Wildlife excursions will, of course, require the addition of a long lens.
If you have a fast lens, bring it — it’s dark in the ship’s interior and beautiful on the bow at twilight. If you don’t have a fast lens or a camera with stellar high-ISO performance, you’ll probably want an external flash. If you’re the type who thinks the camera’s built-in flash will work just fine, it’s highly unlikely you’re even reading this article.
Always take a backup battery, charger, and three times as many flash memory cards as you anticipate needing. If possible, take along some kind of device to which you can offload and backup images. I had my laptop and two small external hard drives. I’ve experienced numerous hard drive failures in my life, so I never trust valuable images to only one drive.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which camera you choose to take — it’s how you use it. Normally, I would have chosen to shoot the following with my Leica, but it wasn’t with me on deck, so I used the 5DmkII.
Conversely, I would normally choose to take the next photo with the 5D, but the Leica was on my shoulder. Did it really much matter, in either case? No. I got a shot, even if it wasn’t the shot I wanted.
What about the following two photos? Normally, I would have grabbed the 5DmkII for both of them — but for the top photo, I had only the Leica at hand. And for the bottom photo, I had only the G1:
Neither is it overly important which lenses you bring. I don’t always reach for the 300mm lens when heading out to take landscapes, but that’s the only lens I had on the bow when these shot opportunities presented themselves:
This entire article has been a long-winded answer to the popular “what lenses should I take on an Alaskan cruise?” query. If you’ve chosen to “cut to the chase,” and skip reading the bulk of this article, here’s the short answer: Unless you’re shooting for a client with specific needs, it doesn’t matter. There are no bad photo opportunities on an Alaskan cruise. Luck, skill, and planning will all contribute more to your final image than any one piece of photo gear. Your eye will gravitate toward capturing shots that match your gear. Shoot with the camera you know best. Shoot the subjects that interest you most. And enjoy the trip — it’s a vacation, after all.