By Christine Smith
Alaska is an amazing place for photography and shooting in Alaska from a small boat is the way to really capture the essence of the place. The boats that offer this kind of multiple-day tours and workshops, typically have a capacity of twelve or fewer passengers. Because of their size they give you the opportunity to get into truly out-of-the-way areas, and a boat based workshop will give you more time behind your camera, and also more time with your instructors, guides, and crew.
I’ve worked on small tour boats for twelve years, and I love taking photographs. Here are some pro tips to get the most out of your small-boat-based photography trip.
1. Talk with your crew. This is the most important tip of all. If the crew knows ahead of time what you’d like to see, they can keep that in mind. On a small boat with a limited number of guests, there is often more flexibility, and structuring the trip around what you want to photograph is possible, but only if you tell them.
2. Don’t leave your camera in your cabin. You never know when you’ll see something amazing. On a small boat you can often leave your gear out and ready for whatever might come your way.
3. Keep your eyes open. Most professional boat crews are very good at finding wildlife. They’ve watched and observed animals in the places they operate for many years and have an idea of where and when you’re likely to find wildlife, but sometimes they might miss a bear on the beach or a whale might surface behind the boat. Don’t leave it all up to them. If you see something, let them know. Often, the captain will turn the boat around. The best trips are the ones where the crew and the guests are actively searching for wildlife.
4. Don’t stop looking for wildlife and photo opportunities just because the boat stops. Just because the boat is at anchor, it doesn’t mean there won’t be something stunning to shoot. Even at dinner, keep watching the surroundings. I’ve seen bears from my galley door, close enough that we talked in hushed voices so not to scare them away. At anchor, it’s a time for landscapes, reflections, birds, seals, bears, and very occasionally whales and wolves.
5. Get up early. Put your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to good use. The light is beautiful, and the scenery is breathtaking. I’m often surprised at how few people take advantage of this magical time. Because of Alaska’s high latitude the “golden hour” extends for several hours, but if you sleep in, you might miss something special, like watching a bear swim across the inlet you're anchored in, or a humpback whale foraging in your anchorage.
6. Bring your camera on the skiff rides and all shore excursions. Sometimes people are reluctant to take their expensive gear in the skiff or on a hike. Don’t worry about getting your camera a little wet. Most cameras are “weather-proof” enough to be fine for a short while in a light drizzle. A lens hood will help keep rain off the front element. Your gear might be heavy, but how often do you have the chance to capture images in a mossy-carpeted old growth forest. You never know when killer whales might surprise you and surface unannounced near the skiff.
7. You need stabilization. Boats can be a challenging environment to shoot from. When photographing from the boat a tripod is of no help, but some sort of built-in stabilization is. The boat is always moving, and even at anchor the boat might rotate with the tides or the breeze.
8. Take your tripod ashore with you. The light can be extremely low in the forest and things like jumping salmon in a stream are moving pretty fast. When working on a tripod, you’ll find that an “L” bracket is extremely useful to quickly and efficiently switch from horizontal to vertical. You’ll want a remote shutter release too.
9. Remember to turn stabilization off when you’re using your tripod. This is because your camera stabilization system might get confused and detect its own motion thus causing blurring.
10. Bring extras and spares with you. These trips are in remote locations and you can’t go ashore and buy more memory, or batteries, so be sure to bring more than you think you’ll need. When going on a shore excursion or skiff ride, be sure to remember to take an extra battery, SD card, and even a couple extra cloths for cleaning your lens. Even though the crew might have a spare camera body, lens, or even extra memory on board, you will want to be prepared.
Alaska is an amazing place for photography. The days are long, the wildlife is charismatic, and the scenery is breathtaking. Seeing Alaska on a small boat is a wonderful way to go, and with a little pre-planning you’ll get great photographs and have the perfect experience.