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Shoot From A Boat With A Simple Camera

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We travel by boat to experience the world in different ways, which is unavailable to “land lubbers.” When you set out on a cruise you have a unique vantage point. Keeping a ship’s log it a good idea and daily journal writing will pass the time and result in a valuable record of the voyage. However, there is an even better way to record and share the journey—photographs.

Almost everyone has a camera. Even your smartphone has a camera. Like some aspects of modern technology, taking digital photos may appear to be more complicated than it really is. Simple point-and-shoot cameras are easy to use and make very good images. I took all but two of the pictures for this article with a small, 6-megapixel, $180 camera. Try to pick them out. They are identified at the end of the article.

We take our dog with us when we cruise and he’s been a catalyst that helped me find better photos. We get into the dinghy and go to shore in the morning and evening when the light is best for photos. He takes his time to look around as we walk. I do as well. An idea for a photo may come to me as we wander about in the dawn’s early light, just after the sun goes down, or even when it is completely dark. When I see a shot, my point-and-shoot camera is right there in my pocket at the ready. A complex digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera is big and heavy and, let’s face it, not very handy. I do not feel safe taking an expensive DSLR out in a dinghy on a routine basis.

KISS (Keep it simple, sailor.)

Even these simple cameras have several settings to allow the photographer to be creative. They have a use when taking close-up or evening fireworks photos. With that being said, if I use the auto setting on a point-and-shoot camera I can get good photos. I think this sometimes applies to complex DSLRs as well. Trying to outthink the camera is not usually worth the effort.

There are a few exceptions to this. For example, I leave the flash off most of the time. In good light, I don’t need a flash. In low light, if I can steady the camera on a rock or a tripod, the camera will record subtle images. If I don’t get what I want, I turn the flash on and shoot again. Speaking of shooting again, what I really mean is again and again and again. The way to learn how to take good photos is to take a lot of them. After all, the film is free.


I shoot at the highest resolution available. This is sometimes referred to as the highest quality picture setting, and it inevitably uses more space on the memory card. I have made good 11x14 prints from my point-and-shoot camera, but only by using the highest resolution. Digital memory cards are very affordable. Carrying extra memory cards and downloading often make it practical to use higher resolution settings. Speaking of downloading, do not try to edit images in the camera’s tiny LCD screen; use the big monitor on a laptop. There is software for computers and mobile devices to help organize, adjust, and share the images you make. If you have a great photo, make it easy to locate and share.


Light, and where it is coming from is very important for good photography no matter where you are shooting. A demonstration with a ball and flashlight will demonstrate this idea well. When the light is from above (the sun at noon for example) the colors are flat and uninteresting even on overcast days. Before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m., the sun is at a lower angle and shows the subject with good color, definition, and detail. No amount of post-production manipulation will make up for flat, uninteresting light.

The weather also has considerable influence on scenes from a boat. In the summer time, in sheltered anchorages and cruising areas, the mornings are often calm. As the sun comes up, the water is like a mirror. Fortunately, our dog won’t let me sleep in, so I don’t miss the patches of fog that may form in the early mornings. Although mist and haze are dramatic, it makes it hard to capture scenic vistas seen along the way. As the sun goes up, the wind picks up. In the afternoon, when the light is good again, the mountains in the distance are more visible, and the surface of the water can take on many different and pleasing textures.

Is dramatic lighting available only when the sun is out? No, not at all. Assuming our boat is under firm control (or better yet, safely anchored), I reach for a camera before, during, and after a storm. There are wonderful changes in lighting and water conditions in and around thunderstorms and rain squalls. When it is wet outside, it is not cheating to stay in the pilothouse and shoot through the window with the camera flash off.

Be brave. Try taking pictures even if you are not sure you have a chance of good results. You will learn what capabilities your camera has. I saw a ferryboat coming in to the bay one evening. I was standing on a floating dock. I leaned my camera against a piling and made the photo below. The ferry was moving slowly, the dock did not move, and there was enough light to get a nice sharp image. One of the recent improvements in point-and-shoot cameras is low-light capability. If you set the camera on a bench or rail in the middle of the night on an anchored vessel, you may come up with striking images.


So if the light is good and the camera is steady, will I get a good image? Only if the subjects are in the right place. There are basic factors in composition such as keeping the scene simple and uncluttered, and “the rule of thirds.” Three flowers or three boats are more pleasing than two or four. The number three also comes into play when framing a scene.

The subject in the bottom third or the left or right third is better than dead center. If the subject is a moving boat, bird, or diving teenager, leave some room in the frame for the subject to ‘move into.' Don’t put it right in the middle. Sometimes, this placement can be accomplished afterward by cropping the image, but is better to get it right when you take the photo the first time.

Composing a photograph of a moving boat while on another moving boat is challenging. Being able to anticipate what the skipper is going to do is important, and is something I have learned by being out on the water. I am always trying to figure out what the other boat is going to do next. If I see a beautiful sailboat in front of a garbage barge, I can change my heading and wait. If I plan it correctly, the sailboat will move away from the barge and in front of the lighthouse. Then I can take a great image. The professional photographers who shoot great photos of wolves are experts on wolf behavior. Using your understanding of boat movements will allow you to capture pleasing images on the water.


After learning how to get the most out of a simple camera, take a look at a DSLR with a telephoto lens. This combination makes composing an image and isolating a subject even more fun and interesting. It is hard to compose a shot involving subjects that move using a small LCD screen and 15-power digital zoom lens. This is where a camera with a viewfinder and stabilized 70-200mm telephoto zoom lens is a great tool. There is much to learn about complex DSLRs. If you make the effort to discover the advanced capabilities they have, it will be worth the effort to cart around a big camera on your voyages.

Experiment with your camera and don’t let any photographic opportunities float past you:

  • TAKE a camera when going ashore, walking the beach, and kayaking.
  • THINK about light and composition.
  • HAVE a camera handy while cruising from place to place and walking on shore.
  • TAKE many pictures.

And if you do get a good shot of another boat while cruising along, try this: call the other other skipper on the radio, get his email address, and send a copy of the picture with your compliments. I have done this quite often and have made great new friends this way.


Did you figure out which photos were taken with a simple point-and-shoot camera, and which ones were taken with a more expensive DSLR? The photos of the kayaks and the sailboat/lighthouse were snapped with a Canon DSLR. The six other photographs in this story were shot with my point-and-shoot camera.