By: Jean-Paul Hewlett
How to Build a Career at Sea as a Photographer?
It was the first month of 2016 and hot air surrounded me like a heavy blanket. I stood there with several suitcases and an overbearing backpack. I always loved being reunited with the Miami weather and I breathed a sigh of relief once again as I took those initial shaky steps off the gangway and onto a ship. This rich relief signified two things for me, one being that I had finally reached my destination after many tiresome hours traveling across the globe, and the second was the fact that this day would be my first day as an Assistant Manager. Something that I did not think I was capable to achieve 22 months ago.
It was the success behind ship-life as well as hard work that saw the near sacrificing of both my knees that lead me to this point. I found myself hesitantly boarding the Royal Caribbean Ship called Navigator of the Seas. My previous contract I spent working towards this promotion and had been a grueling yet satisfying 10-months long. My transition now was to be a leader for the photography team onboard and the unsettling nerves had traveled with me over many miles and many months to this very moment. I did not know this at the time, but this was to be the beginning of an award-winning career at sea that would set me up for life.
Working on a Cruise Ship – A Lifetime Experience
Working on cruise ships is one of the most amazing experiences and unique opportunities you could wish for. It is wonderfully indescribable and for someone like me, it was a true journey of growth and development. A lifestyle I would highly recommend to most but surviving it takes real strength of character.
If you combined the navy with a college dorm vibe then that is what it is like to work and live onboard cruise ships. I recall many regrettable late nights in the crew bar being followed by painfully early morning wake-up calls for us to go practice safety drills. After lunch that day it was back to work until we met up again in the crew bar to do it all again. It was addictive to be at sea with every morning a new port of call waiting outside your window.
I was eager for the challenges that lay ahead and excited for the fun that would be had, this particular contract took me across Europe and my mind was focused on not just the new countries I would visit but also the gallery of photographers I would lead. In the many hours that I spent traveling, I was gifted with a multitude of past moments to reflect upon.
How My Journey Began…
My journey began many years prior as a young lad immigrating from South Africa to London. My backstory though tragic not without faults of my own as I found myself moving to another country to live with my sister. Without any qualifications, I wound up working as a Fleet Maintenance Technician which was just a glorified way to say that I washed cars and did minor repairs. It was a low-paying job that took 5 years of my life, I worked outside through five bitter British weathers and I was beaten down year after year much to the notice of my family. To cheer me up my father bought me a simple camera and in my spare time, I learnt the art of photography. Through luck, I managed to earn some extra money on the side doing random photography gigs here and there. And photography really became something I loved and treasured.
How Did I Apply for a Cruise Ship Photographer Job?
It was fate, that one early cold foggy morning in South West London I stumbled across a job advert for cruise ship photographers. My eyes grew with immediate curiosity and without breath or hesitation, I applied and got granted a Skype interview for later in the week. I obsessively researched everything there was to know about cruise ship photography jobs and ship life. What followed next was a series of unimaginable events that rolled with the momentum of an avalanche.
(Recommended article: Working on Cruise Ships: How to Apply for a Cruise Ship Job?)
A month or so after a successful interview I found myself bewilderedly standing in Heathrow Terminal 5 heavy-hearted and hugging a very tearful mother, my dad stood there with hands in his pockets anxiously not wanting to say goodbye. I had spent the last 5 weeks packing everything that I owned into storage, moving out my flat, I resigned from my job and said goodbye to friends.
The hardest part of it all was organizing my C1D visa through the American Embassy and my medicals. These were both expensive, time-consuming, and added further worries to an already stress-stricken simpleton. I waved goodbye to the parental unit and headed to my boarding gate. The first part of the journey had begun, and I found myself settled into my seat staring out the plane window thinking “Oh god what have I got myself into”. Panic set in and fear had joined me for this 11-hour solo flight to the USA. I remained on edge for the remainder of the flight and pretty much for the first weeks onboard.
Looking back, it was good that I was able to leave my comfort zone despite all the anxiety and second-guessing. Now it was a matter of “Let’s see where this goes? Whatever happens happens”.
The First Contract as a Photographer on a Cruise Ship
The whole process was humbling and maturing. I will never forget the moment I first laid eyes upon the ship I was destined to join, the Serenade of the Seas. From the fogged-up window of a yellow cab, we approached the terminal building and I eagerly handed myself over to the care of the HR team on board. I stood on the dock and gradually looked up at the enormity of this steel structure in front of me, so much so that I tumbled back over and fell on top of my suitcase. Having not realized that the HR coordinator had walked off without me. I scurried along after her and took my first steps onboard bright-eyed and speechless.
The first month onboard as a new hire is quite bizarre, and you are faced with a real mix of emotions. Firstly, you are definitely homesick, you’re nervous because you’re new, you’re shy because you haven’t quite made friends, you’re overwhelmed by the workload and the number of guests you interact with and lastly, you’re lost because it takes a while to learn the ship’s layout. You are inundated with new hire trainings for safety at sea, HR compliance, and newly acquired job duties.
If you want to visit any port of call in this first month just go ahead and forget about it. You are locked in. The saying “Being thrown in the deep end” is best placed here.
(Recommended article: New Hire? This is How Your First Day on a Cruise Ship Looks Like)
Aside from learning all the safety protocols, finding the cafeteria, and adapting to ship life you also have an actual job to do. The one thing you must know about ships is that they never rest, the schedule never ends, and the hours stack up on top of each other. No weekends, no days off.
You will most likely join a ship on embarkation day which in short is the moment when the ship kicks off a recent lot of guests and prepares to board the next set of guests all in one day. The turnaround is efficient and well-practiced. There is a magnificence of managers from a variety of departments coordinating and delegating tasks to ensure the ship is replenished, that it is safe and ready to go out to sea again by 4 pm.
To witness this first time is incredible. Everyone is involved, all 900 crew from housekeeping to the engineers and even the photographers. It is on this first day that we capture the very first photo of every guest boarding who has carefully chosen our particular cruise ship for their desired holiday.
Being a Cruise Ship Photographer – Skills, Duties & Job Description
I still consider myself lucky to have joined the Photography department. Focusing on high-volume social photography, portrait studios, and events. The name of the game was to entice folks as much as possible into having their photo taken and then trying to get them to buy them from you in bulk packages. It was all about the guest experience. It is with immense gratitude that I hold for the wide variety of skill sets that I learnt from this job.
I learnt all about customer service and engagement, how to sell, working effectively in a team, leadership, to organize and orchestrate events and the list goes on. Most importantly I learnt how to live a meaningful life. Ships gave me structure and discipline and allowed me to excel under these conditions and concentrate my talents towards something greater. It was tough and there were days I cried but I always knew where I stood, where I had to be, when to sleep and when to wake up. My duties were laid out, and my goals were communicated clearly by management.
More importantly, I knew how to have fun. We partied on that ship on the lower levels out of the sites of the paying guests. We celebrated every international holiday in our own way. I explored every port of call with friends and did some amazing excursions that to this day I still cannot believe I did. After 8 months of hard work, I was exhausted and ready to be disembarked and sent home. I had crossed the Atlantic Ocean twice, explored all the Caribbean and large parts of the Mediterranean, captured a million photos, and made unbreakable friendships. I had spent the last 8 months building and breaking down countless studios, selling an infinite number of photos, and sleeping very little. I felt fulfilled, I was a much stronger photographer and more importantly, I was better overall.
Once I got home, I hugged my mother and then proceeded to sleep for an entire month. But before I knew it, I was on a plane again heading to Australia for my second contract, this time onboard the Voyager of the Seas.
Promotion to the Assistant Manager
It was in this contract that two more life-altering things happened, the first being that I met my wife and the latter being the culture shock I experience. We toured the entirety of New Zealand and circum-navigated the whole of Australia with every major city insight and collected on a variety of postcards. We were blessed with several overnight stays in Thailand, we visited countless ports throughout Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan. It was magical and eye-opening to see how people were living in and behaving like in other parts of the world.
Onboard I continued to work endless hours and days setting up studios, shooting in restaurants, learning the lab operation, and acting as ‘photog lead’ for the team. I learnt from the multitude of managers onboard, each offering a unique yet similar understanding of leadership. We powered through Australia season and into Asia season where many of our guests did not speak English. Photoshoot after photoshoot, formal night after formal night, and late-night drinks with the team to end it all with. These 10 months pushed me to the very brink of tears and back again on more than one occasion. It was relentless yet rewarding. And it was great to be challenged in so many ways.
In conclusion, if you are reading this you either have worked on ships and you can relate to everything I have talked about or have this desire or interest to get on board and live your own adventures.
My recommendation is to 100% do it!
I managed to see over 60 countries, I learnt valuable transferable skills for the workplace, and I lived a full life in the 6 years I was contracted to ships.
You will be pleased to know that when I joined the Navigator of the Seas as Assistant Manager, I had a very successful contract learning to be a leader, I attended intense business meetings and studied a huge variety of courses on board for free. In addition, I also had my girlfriend, who had been with me on my previous contract, join the same ship and it was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean under all those stars that I proposed to her. One year to the day we were married in the UK and looking to get back to ships, this time however we decided to join retail on Carnival Cruises. That is another story for another article.
Cruise Photography Jobs – FAQ
1. Which are the Cruise Ship Photography Jobs?
- Business Manager (BM)
- Assistant Manager of Sales (AMS)
- Assistant Manager of Production (AMP) – lab Technician
- Lead Photographer P3
- Photographer P2
- Photographer P1 (new hire)
Each ship is different in terms of number. Smaller ships like the ones I worked on had teams of 12 max.
2. What are the Cruise Ship Photographers’ Job Duties?
- BM – Responsible for all aspects of the operation. Motivates and encourages the team to hit the target, BM will organize the schedule and studios choices for shooting.
- AMS – In charge of admin and gallery where all sales take place for photos and merchandise. Customer service. Ensures quality is maintained and also plays a role in painting the team to ensure they are looking after equipment, on time for work. AMS is a BM in training.
- AMP – Lab person. Responsible for all levels of production both print and digital. Looks after machines and stock levels.
- P3 – Lead photographer. Acts as a team leader and helps to look after the team to encourage, motivate and assist where needed. P3 helps in the lab.
- P2 – The majority of other photographers. They are the frontline. Responsible to shoot studios, bars and lounges, restaurants, gangway, embarkations, and other events. They are pushed to hit targets for snaps as well as selling packages and merchandise when scheduled to be in the gallery.
- P1 – Usually new hires and will only remain P1 for the first month while they learn the ropes. After completing online competencies and a test a P1 will upgrade to P2 with a pay rise.
3. What is the Average Cruise Photographer Salary?
Each company and ship is different. Basically, everyone gets a flat salary, for the photographers, this is usually between $20-$25 per day plus commission rate if you hit the target amount for that cruise. Also great to earn tips from guests when they visit your studio and you provide an amazing experience and fantastic photos. For managers, this went up to $35-45 per day plus commissions.
The trick was to get good enough to shoot weddings and special events on board as this paid out anywhere from $150-$300. I did loads of weddings onboard and got great commissions and tips.
4. How to Apply for Photography Job on Cruise Ships?
Apply online either through the cruise company as some do their own in-house photography service whilst other cruise lines opt to outsource to other companies to handle all aspects of recruitment and placement. If you know someone already working on board, then it’s very good to ask for a referral by this person.
(Recommended article: Working on Cruise Ships: How to Apply for a Cruise Ship Job?)
5. How Much Money to Invest Before Joining the Cruise Ship?
It varies from company to company. You are responsible to cover your own medicals which can be $120 in the USA but £350 in London. For a new hire, the company will pay for flights to and from the ship plus hotels if needed. Your own taxi fares can sometimes be reimbursed. Your C1D visa is paid initially by you but claimed back once you are onboard your first ship. Uniform is provided but deducted from your first salary. The other item to consider is the camera equipment as the company will want to use a specific brand camera, batteries, and flash, if you already own all this then that is perfect. The alternative is they deduct this from your first salary and you buy new equipment from them. We used Nikon D90s.
(Recommended article: Life on Board a Cruise Ship: 18 Crew Cabins Must-Haves)
6. What is the Cruise Photographer’s Contract Lenght?
Contracts are usually 8 months long but you may request to extend or shorten as needed and with approval from the office. I believe you cannot do more than 11 months as this goes against maritime law. Vacation is great and is usually 2 months long.
7. What Training is Required for Ship Photographers?
The ship provides all the training when it comes to camera settings, poses, composure, studio setup, and all theoretical info. You learn a great deal from each other in the team. The Business Manager is always there to help you learn new things every day.
About the Author:
Jean-Paul Hewlett is an award-winning leader and manager who now works as Guest Service Manager in Europes largest shopping mall, Westfield London. He worked 6 years onboard cruise ships for two separate companies both working up to management roles. In 2019 he was awarded the Leadership of Tomorrow Award in Cannes, France.
You May Also Like:
- New Hire? How Does the First Day on a Cruise Ship Look Like?
- Working on Cruise Ships: How to Apply for a Cruise Ship Job?
- Life Onboard a Cruise Ship: 18 Crew Cabins’ Must-Haves
- 10 Things To Know Before Applying For Cruise Ship Jobs
- Life of a Shore Excursions Staff onboard Cruise Ships: Job Description and Daily Duties