An op-ed discussion on the merits and pitfalls of shipboard photo services.
Over the last several years, the photo industry has seen drastic changes. Film has all but gone extinct, at least in the consumer market, and nearly every traveler now has their own digital camera. What's more, many of these digital cameras are "prosumer" models such as lower priced SLRs (single lens reflex), once a category more prevalent among professional photographers. As a professional photographer myself, I often ponder the merits of onboard photo services offered by the cruise lines in the face of the digital age.
I'm sure we all know that just because a consumer can now purchase an impressively high-quality digital camera, SLR or otherwise, that it doesn't automatically make that consumer a contemporary of Ansel Adams. A consumer still needs to know how to use that marvelously engineered camera in order to create compelling images. And as someone who understands the art of photography, it makes me cringe, for example, to see someone take an evening shot of a subject far away with their auto-flash deployed. It won't turn out. Even with an external, high-output flash, that light will never reach a cruise ship sitting half a mile out on the horizon. Next time ditch the flash and use a tripod or other sturdy support with a slow shutter speed, or a handheld camera, again sans flash, with a low-noise and high-ISO capability.
All ranting aside, the point is this. High quality photographic technology could not be any more readily available. So it's reasonable to question why onboard photo services are still necessary on cruise ships when there is plenty of equipment now in our own hands. Actually, I really do think there is still a place for these services. Yes, there are a few cameras out there that have a forward facing screen that allow you to take a picture of yourself and your travel companions in one frame, but those images will always have that too-close-and-up-the-nose quality to them. It truly is more convenient to have someone else take a photo of yourself, and the ships's photographers are there to do just that as you visit new ports, stroll along the ship's rail, or strike a pose on formal night. These ship's photographers are professional and pleasant crew members there to serve you just like the bar staff and wait staff. They are just doing their job and doing it well. I just sometimes question the assignments that they are given.
There's a Time and a Place
Problems start to arise when these photographers start to feel like cruise paparazzi. My dad brings up a good point. You would never go to a five-star restaurant ashore and have a photographer ask to take your photo table-side. It just seems out of place to me. I've never understood the appeal of an individual head shot with a chateaubriand squarely in the foreground. I really don't want to be asked to smile for a photo when I'm eating a meal, especially if my teeth happen to be garnished with a chive. Even if I choose not to have a photo taken, I'm still annoyed by those incessant flashes in the corners of my eyes. And after all of that, have you ever noticed that these table-side shots are often the ones that gather the most dust displayed during the length of the cruise seldom to be purchased? There's more on that in a minute.
I recall a Mediterranean cruise I took years back that included a stop at Civitavecchia, Italy (the cruise port for Rome). Here the ships dock along a narrow pier that is flanked by a very tall concrete wall that acts as a water break. On this trip, groups of passengers were being lined up along the wall to wait for their tour busses to pick them up for the day. For some very odd reason, one of the ship's photographers was going along and taking photos of these passengers with this massive concrete wall behind them. Now I know concrete has proved pivotal in Roman history, but that is the last photo I would purchase of myself as a souvenir of my time in Rome. Someone else taking your photo is great, but only when there's something worthwhile in the background.
Still, I think the hardest thing for me to swallow in considering the photo services onboard cruise ships is the environmental impact they have. Just think of all of those photos taken during a cruise and realize that every last one of them is printed regardless if they are actually purchased or not. That leaves every photo not purchased to be disregarded. Certainly less chemicals are used in the shipboard photo process today with no film having to be developed, and all of those photos that are not purchased are recycled. However, in my eyes, that is still such a waste of energy and material week in and week out for the sake of images that never really needed to be printed to begin with.
Cruise ships have new systems, used periodically, that tag digital photos taken during the cruise to your cruise card. I've seen them. This allows passengers to electronically view their images for review prior to printing. Should they wish to purchase the image, it is printed on demand, otherwise it is not. Unfortunately, even with this advancement, I've also seen it where those images that could have been saved for electronic review are printed just the same as if that system was not in place. I understand that there is an economic side to this argument and that a passenger is perhaps more likely to purchase an image if it is already printed than if they have to request that it be printed later on. But this is just plain unnecessary. I really hope this changes and that cruise lines begin to invest more in said systems and digital monitors to display these images on demand in lieu of wasteful printing.
Economic times are tough and surely onboard photographic services along with the rest of the cruise industry have had to evolve to attract customers. Video cruise reviews and professional portrait sittings are some of the newer additions to the arsenal of services. These are viable ideas, in my opinion, that I wish would displace some of the old cruise paradigms such as photos at dinner and, surely even more so, wasteful printing of photos before they are even spoken for. I welcome your opinions as well and encourage you to join the discussion by commenting on the message board here.