Along the Spree: Photographing Berlin from the River
September 9, 2015
After walking all over East Berlin in one day, and all over West Berlin the following day, my husband Nathanael and I were grateful to rest our weary feet on a ship tour of the city. We absolutely enjoyed exploring the city by foot, especially because we were with our friend Sigrid who showed us the highlights as well as many sights we would have otherwise missed. However, we covered lots of ground quickly, so taking time later in the week to relax on an open-air boat was a pleasant change of pace. Being on the water when the temperature was well above 30C was also a welcome reprieve.
If you're planning a trip to Berlin, consider taking a ship tour - you can book ahead, or just walk up to one of the docks along the canal and ask the crew for departure times. If you take a boat trip at the beginning of your stay, you'll have time for a repeat in case of bad weather, a missed photo, or you simply want to experience it again. It will also help orient you to the layout of the city and find places you want to explore later from shore, which is exactly how we discovered Nickolaiviertel. We saw this giant statue of St. George, umbrellas from a biergarten, and twin spires of what we later learned was the Nickolaikirche, and decided to walk in that direction on disembarking.
Faster Than You Think As much as I'm in favour of exploring Berlin from the Spree, you should know that photographing from ships is not without its challenges. Even though the ships appear to be moving slowly along the river, they are actually moving faster than you think. This is most evident when you are trying to compose your photo while literally sailing by your subject. Become familiar with your camera settings well before your trip, because you will need to act quickly to frame and capture your shot.
Bridges Berlin's many bridges are a feature on most ship tours. Actually, Sigrid told us you can even take one excursion that focuses on showing off the city's bridges. The bridges are beautifully decorated and photo-worthy in their own rights. But, they are not terribly wide so it doesn't take long to pass underneath. Again, get comfortable with your camera in advance so that you can quickly adjust your exposure settings as you pass from light to dark to light again. On the plus side, you could use the bridges for framing your image.
Perspective Depending on the ship you take, you may be sitting quite low to the water. Although this is nice in some respects, it means that you are shooting 'up' at many of the sights, which can compromise the perspective, especially of buildings. It also means you need to take extra care so that the side of the canal and any railings do not become the foreground of each image.
When photographing towards the front of your ship, you may well find other passenger's arms, hands and cameras making their way into your frame. After all, everyone wants to take their own photos and point out sights to their friends! But because the chairs are so close together and passengers cannot get up and walk around, the best thing you can do for your own photos is to keep the side of the ship absent or minimally in the frame so that you can crop later. For the same reason, you will have to creatively work with the light wherever it happens to be. Of course if you can go during golden hour, this will be less of a concern than during midday.
I hope you are now aware of the difficulties in photographing the city from the water but I also hope you take a ship tour of Berlin anyways. Consider it a photography challenge, which will provide you with an alternate perspective to the photos you'll take from shore later, a story to accompany your images, and a rest for your weary feet.