5 Essential Keys to Awesome Photographs of Ships


They can be beautiful, ugly, utilitarian, colourful or dull, ships can make highly interesting subjects for photographers. Throw in the added elements of water and costal light and there is scope for getting some amazing images. Anywhere there is sea you are likely to see ships or boats, from derelict fishing vessels to mighty container ships and gleaming white cruise ships, today we are going to take a look at getting the best out of shooting maritime traffic.

Equipment: Lets start by looking at what equipment you might need. If you are taking shots of large ships from the shore or from another ship you will need a decent telephoto lens. Something in the range of 200-300mm will be ideal. For closer to shore or within the confines of a ship, a moderate wide angle would also be very handy. If you are shooting in fair weather then almost any decent DSLR, compact or mirrorless will be suitable, however if you intend to shoot in more hostile environments then a camera with decent weather proofing would be a better option.

In hostile environments, weather proofing is important. By Jason Row Photography
In hostile environments, weather proofing is important. By Jason Row Photography

Scale: Modern ships can be immense. Conveying that scale in a single image can be a challenge but if you do achieve it, it can make the image look much more impressive. For a ship at sea, one of the best options is to get another smaller vessel into the scene. A yacht , for example by the side of a container ship will help us understand the sheer scale of the larger ship. Alternatively showing a lighthouse of costal feature will help our eyes accustom to the size.

Try to convey a sense of scale
Try to convey a sense of scale. By Jason Row Photography

Location: At sea or in port, onboard, from the dock or above, there are many locations that we can use to shoot ships. If you are lucky enough to be onboard, there are a huge range of interesting locations to shoot. Looking down on the bow or stern from a high location and using a wide angle lens can make for interesting shots. Details from the bridge wings or if you are lucky enough the bridge itself with the officers at work all add to an interesting storyline of images.

On ship the dramatic sweep of the bow makes a great leading line.
On ship the dramatic sweep of the bow makes a great leading line. By Jason Row Photography

Off the ship you also have a number of different options. If you have access to the dockside, you can get in close and use a wide angle lens to exaggerate the size and lines of the vessel. From the shore line you can use a longer lens to compress the perspective and give a sense of scale.

From the dock you can get dramatic wide angle shots
From the dock you can get dramatic wide angle shots. By Jason Row Photography

Those with access to drones can get shots from above the ship, there are even some location worldwide where you can shoot down onto a vessel from a bridge.

Light/Weather: Like all photography, weather and light are hugely important. At sea or on the coast we often get dramatic light and weather that can add an extra dimension to our images. The serene glass like sea of a high pressure system can look incredibly beautiful. These are more often seen at dawn but can, on very calm day, also look great at dusk. These weather systems often produce interesting cloud formations for extra interest in your shot.

Light and location, photographic principles
Light and location, photographic principles. By Jason Row Photography

Bright daylight can give us deep blue seas and skies, perfect for a gleaming white liner. One filter that will be vital in these conditions will be a polariser. It will help reduce reflections from the sea and from the often vast banks of windows onboard the ship. Exposure can also be tricky in this kind of light. Learn and understand your histogram and keep the exposure within it’s limits.

An Ice Bow around the bow of a ship in Greenland
An Ice Bow around the bow of a ship in Greenland. By Jason Row Photography

Harsh weather will often give the most dramatic shots, however you will be battling the elements with your camera so make sure that you are well prepared and also that you are not putting yourself in danger.

Details: As well as shooting a ship overall, there are many little details both inside and out that can make interesting subjects. The uniform lines and contrasting colours of containers on a cargo vessel, the interesting artistic logos on some cruise liners, radar and satellite domes, ropes, crew members painting the hull, maritime photography is full of intricate details wherever you look.

Dont forget the details
Dont forget the details. By Jason Row Photography

Shooting ships is an endlessly interesting and diverse subject. If you live near the sea or are planning a trip to the coast, then factor in some ideas for shooting these marvels of modern engineering.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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