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A VR Tour of the World's Largest Cruise Ship
Capturing the Freedom of the Seas in a Full 360 Degrees


Sean Deren


Sean Deren


Sean Deren



Remember that line in Jaws where Chief Brody says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”? Well, no one would utter those words aboard the Royal Caribbean’s new 1,112-foot-long Freedom of the Seas, which made its maiden voyage from New York to Miami in May. Built to carry up to 3,634 passengers, Freedom of the Seas has the distinction of being the largest cruise ship in the world.

In 2003, Royal Caribbean International overhauled their website as part of a new advertising campaign. The company wanted website visitors to see each ship featured online exactly as they would when they boarded the vessels, with detailed photographs revealing each class of stateroom available on every ship, and all dining, entertainment, activity, and amenity areas.

This project required photographing the entire fleet of 18 ships from top to bottom. Richard Riley, president of RileyArnold Productions, got the job. I was the first assistant.

We knew it would be a lot of work. We also looked forward to getting a first-hand view of the entire Royal Caribbean fleet and their destinations. While each shoot has a story all its own, shooting the Freedom of the Seas—the 20th ship we’d shot—was the most challenging. This time, I was the lead photographer.

Minimal Crew & Gear

For this project, we had a crew of three. Vince Mann, senior producer, was in charge of preparing each location, controlling pedestrian traffic, working with the ship’s crew to procure supplies, and maintaining our gear. Brian Satchfield, our computer technician and videographer, was in charge of image quality control and file management. He also shot production video. My job was to get the shots.

Our equipment included a TrueWide Digital Sliding Back camera (the first one made), a Phase One LightPhase digital back, two Nikkor lenses, two Bogen tripods, a Bogen VR panoramic head, an Apple 17-inch PowerBook G4 with Phase One Capture One PRO software, and a Granite Digital FireWire cable. Add lens tissues, gaffer’s tape, and lots of ingenuity and elbow grease—that’s all we used.

Getting cases of lighting gear and lots of cables and computer equipment through customs is an exercise in futility. You make do with as little as possible.

3,000 Images on the Sea

Averaging more than 60 snaps of the shutter per location—seven different exposures per still photo, and three different exposures per 18-shot VR image—and with 50-plus locations to shoot, we had to move fast, at all hours of the day, to capture our 3,000 images.

Working from a well-thought-out shooting schedule with flexibility to accommodate unforeseen circumstances, we followed a routine at each location. Like other architectural shoots, the objective was to present the room, facility, or venue in its most flattering and inviting manner.

After identifying the best camera location and shooting angles, we “dressed” the location, straightening more than 250 chairs, lining up tables, and adjusting any artwork, plants, or props in the room, as well as clearing the room of stray passengers or staff.

Since our only light sources were the existing practical and effects lights and the sunlight pouring in through the windows, properly exposing each shot was a challenge. We decided that by taking multiple shots from every camera location and exposing for a certain section of the room (or for the multitude of lighting conditions present), we could layer the shots in post-production to create dramatic final images that were properly exposed throughout the frame.

Shooting 360-degree panoramas often created logistic challenges. We found ourselves standing in knee-deep water in the kids’ water park, carefully scooting our tripod into position on top of an ice-skating rink, or shooting from right in the middle of a boxing ring.

Since we were shooting into our Apple PowerBook, which was tethered to the camera via FireWire, we had to be sure to stay out of the shot. Brian, our technician, had to either hide behind an object or hold the computer with one hand while operating the track pad with the other, following me behind the lens. Vince would work ahead of us, pulling off production miracles to ensure that the next location was ready to photograph.

This was, after all, a new ship with a few minor bugs to be worked out. On one occasion, he found a prominent neon sign at the entrance of a sports bar we were to shoot, which remained unwired when the ship left the construction yards. He quickly found one of the ship’s electricians and rigged a 220-volt A.C. box to temporarily power the sign so we wouldn’t have to fix the sign in post-production.

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