Whale photography can be challenging even for seasoned photographers. After all, you’re juggling light, motion and focus in a rocking boat as you try to track a moving “now you see me, now you don’t” wild animal that spends most of its time out of our sight.

Add to that the adrenalin pumping through your body because of the incredibly awesome spectacle in front of you: holy crow, that’s a whale! Gotta get a photo of THAT!

That’s how our photographers feel each time they go on the water!

A killer whale leaps out of the water as two others swim nearby
Killer whale breach / Selena Rhodes Scofield Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

Guests often ask us for whale photography tips. Here are 10 things to keep in mind about photographing whales before you head out with us on the water…

1. Protect your gear

Water and cameras don’t get along, unless you have a GoPro or some other waterproof camera. Bring your camera bag along, or a plastic bag. Oh and when shooting, always loop your camera strap around your neck. Smart phone and iPad users, keep a firm grip and try not to hold your device over the water. Sounds we do like to hear on a trip: squeals of joy and excitement. Sounds we don’t like to hear: plop, glug, glug, [Insert expletive here].

2. Do you need a fancy camera? Nah

Sure, a fancy schmancy camera and a long telephoto lens can increase your odds of getting a great shot. But we’ve seen some super shots taken with point-and-shoot cameras, and with smart phones and iPads. With those, your biggest irritant will be the shutter delay. Whales do everything quickly, so even milliseconds count. If your camera uses a memory card, get one with a fast processing speed. And be sure to turn your flash off, or it will slow the shutter down even more.

A guest on a whale watching tour takes a photo of a sunset with her cell phone
Cellphone and tablet cameras are popular with guests / Eagle Wing Tours

3. Get ready for action

Being a whale is busy work. They’re always on the move, whether they’re travelling, hunting, socializing or resting. No time for posing for cameras. If you have a point-and-shoot camera, put it on sports or action setting if you have one.

If you have a bigger SLR or mirrorless camera, you have decisions to make. You have to compensate for motion. It’s all a matter of what mode you’re comfortable with. Some people prefer the full control of manual mode. Shutter-priority mode gives you better control of shutter speed, which is a key thing if it’s a cloudy low light day.

For photographing whales, a shutter speed of 1/1000 or more is recommended if light allows, especially if there’s wave motion. But pay attention to depth of field. If you want to get sharp scenery in the background perhaps switch to aperture-priority. Oh and while you’re at it, set your camera for continuous shooting. You’ll want to get multiple frames of the action.

An Eagle Wing Tours photographer aims his large lens at a whale
One of our photographers in action / Eagle Wing Tours

4. Zoom, zoom?

If your point-and-shoot has an optical and digital zoom, don’t use the latter or you’ll end up with blurry shots. Fancy camera users: sure, you can bring your honking big 600-mm lens but pay attention to the tips in #3 or you’ll be joining the blurry shot club. Tripods and monopods don’t work very well on a moving platform with moving subjects, so it’s best to hand-hold. A lens in the 400-500 mm range is ideal if you can hold it steady enough to effectively compensate for boat movement.

5. Keep it simple

Should you bring multiple lenses? That’s entirely up to you. We can tell you, though, that the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling to change lenses when a whale decides to liven things up (see #7). It’s best for your blood pressure (and sanity) to stick with a zoom lens with a versatile range of focal lengths.

Some killer whales swim in backlit light, showing their blows
Backlit blows! / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

6. Trip the light fantastic

Whales like to zig and zag as they go about their business. They may be out in open water where there’s plenty of light, or close to shore where light can be limited. Fancy camera photographers: know your camera controls well enough so that you can quickly adjust for variable light conditions on the fly. Read up beforehand so you’re aware of the pros and cons of each adjustment. And check your shots every now and then to make sure you’re getting the exposure you want.

7. Be prepared

“My battery just died.” How many times have we heard those dreaded words? Or “My card’s full!” The whales can sense this, we’re convinced. It’s as if they say: “Ha, ha, you should have brought spare batteries and cards. Oh hey, I think I’m gonna jump out of the water now.”

A humpback whale leaps out of the water in a full breach
Humpback whale breaching / Karac Lindsay Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

8. Think like a whale

Well try, anyway. A common mistake we see early on a tour is a photographer staring intently, camera poised, at where the whale went down, waiting for it to reappear. That’s not going to happen. Gauge its last heading and speed and guesstimate where it might come up. There’s no guarantee it will continue that line of travel, but it’s much better than staring at where the whale used to be (also known as water).

9. Please don’t ask us to get closer

We’re visiting the whales in their home. So we have to respect their space and give them the room they need to do their thing. There are pages and pages of guidelines and regulations about how vessels should behave around the whales, including how far we need to stay away. The rules are complex, depending on species and location. Generally, if we’re a commercial vessel in Canada, we stay at least 200 metres away. In the US, it’s 200 yards. Learn more about responsible whale watching.

An Eagle Wing Tours photographer aims her camera at a whale with a sunset behind her
Whale photographers love sunset light! / Eagle Wing Tours

10. Enjoy the magic!

This is the most important whale photography tip of all: don’t look through your camera the whole trip. You’re in a spectacular marine environment watching some truly magnificent wild animals. At some point, put your camera down. Take a picture in your mind instead. Use your eyes. Fill your senses. Breathe in the fresh ocean air. Close your eyes and listen to the whales breathing. Trust us, it’s absolute magic.

Good luck and we hope you and your camera can join us soon! To book a tour give us a call or book online!

Blog written by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours

Published March 15, 2022