How to: Capture great whale photos
I have been photographing whales for the last 20 or so years, but even now, each and every time I head out on a boat there is still a sense of anticipation and excitement, as you never know what your subject (or subjects) will be doing at any given moment. Photographing whales can be a challenge, but with some guidance, you can achieve great shots.
Apart from photographing whales along the east coast of Australia, I have also had the privilege of photographing Humpback, Blue Whales, Minke and Orca whales in Antarctica and Belugas in the Russian Arctic, whilst presenting my various photography tours.
At this time of the year, Humpback whales are migrating up the east and west coast of Australia. The females give birth in the warmer northern waters and then head back with their calf (or calves) back to Antarctica.
Here are some tips for mixing up your images and taking memorable whale shots from a boat.
Choose the Right Gear
Before you head out, it is important that you have the right gear to use. An SLR or Mirrorless camera is recommended (although point and shoot cameras can suffice) and preferably one with a decent frames-per-second rate (drive speed). As far as lenses go, I suggest bringing along a couple of lenses.
A wide-angle lens is perfect for when the whales are right next to your boat or zodiac, and a longer focal length for when the whales are further out at sea. You can also use one lens with a varied focal length such as an 18-300mm at a pinch. Always use a lens hood, to stop unsightly glare and to reduce salt or sea spray.
Observe Whale Behaviour
After they breach, whales will often then do so again repeatedly. By watching where the whale has breached, I suggest then pointing your camera in front in preparation for the next breach. By doing this you will have a much higher chance of being ready when there are further breaches.
It takes a little bit of practise, but its definitely worth pursuing this technique.
Also, if you're shooting a Humpback and it does a very deep dive, get ready! Chances are much higher that the whale will breach shortly.
Choosing the Correct Settings
You have a much greater chance of freezing any whale behaviour and movement, such as tail or fin slapping, breaching and other activities if you keep your camera’s shutter speed to at least 1/1500th or even 1/2000th of a second. Setting your camera to shutter priority (Tv or S) will allow you to choose a set shutter speed.
In Manual mode or Aperture Priority (Av or A) If the sky is dark and brooding, you will need to increase your ISO considerably in order to achieve a decent shutter speed. To totally freeze the mass of water that often occurs during whale behaviour, you can set your shutter speed even higher if you wish.
My preferred aperture is around f5.6. When the whale is closer to your boat however you shouldn't have any issues with choosing a smaller aperture of around f8, as this will give you greater depth of field.
Head Out Regularly
Because each and every encounter is different and you never know what the numbers or activity will be like, if at all possible, head out on a boat or organised whale watching trip as often as you can.
This will allow you to practise, learn from your mistakes and then perfect your techniques. I would also check the long-term weather forecast, as It’s not just the wind you have to keep an eye out for but the size of the swell. However if the conditions aren’t right, whale boat operators usually won’t head out due to obvious safety risks.
If possible, especially on the larger whale boats, try getting as close to water level as possible, as this will allow you a much better angle to photograph these amazing creatures. There are usually different levels onboard you can choose to photograph from. But regardless if you are in a small boat or zodiac, the same rule applies – get down low.
Use A Fast Memory Card
By using a memory card with faster download speed, your camera’s buffer won’t suddenly stop ‘mid- action”. The speed I am referring to is usually written on the cards. A download speed of 90MB per second or higher, is the minimum I would recommend.
By using a faster card, there is a much better chance of capturing more behavioural shots in one sequence. You never know which the best shot will be. Owning a camera with a decent frame per second rate will also allow you to capture more shots with each burst.
Using a polarising filter can be especially useful when photographing whales. A polariser helps reduce glare directly off the Humpback’s body or when they are in the water.
Also, weather conditions will vary during your boat trip, and this can affect your camera settings. If it is sunny, you may end up with a bit of over-exposure, especially on the white, or shiny parts of the whale. When shooting manually, you can do this by increasing your shutter speed a tad. If you're shooting in Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, keep an eye for clipping on your histogram and reduce your exposure compensation slightly to remove blown highlights.
I hope you have picked up some tips and techniques, which will help you achieve better whale photography images. Get on out there, practise like crazy and most of all, enjoy being surrounded by nature’s gentle giants.
Michael Snedic has been presenting whale photography workshops for many years. He is currently presenting workshops from Redcliffe, Queensland, where the whale season has been unbelievable so far! For more details, please visit wildnaturephotoexpeditions.com