By Val Shore
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 I feel each time I go on the water as a naturalist and photographer with Eagle Wing Tours!
Passengers often ask me for 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 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. Gone.
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 I’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.
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 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. My usual preference is shutter-priority mode and I set my shutter speed at 1/1000—or more if light allows. But you do lose depth of field, so if it’s a calm day and I want to get scenery in the background I 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.
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. SLR users: sure, you can bring your honking big 600-mm lens but I’m pretty sure you’ll be joining the blurry shot club. Tripods and monopods don’t work very well on a moving platform with moving subjects, so you’ll have to hand-hold. My workhorse lens is a 70-200 mm that lets in lots of light. I’ll put a doubler on if it’s a fairly calm, bright day.
5. Keep it simple.
Should you bring multiple lenses? Entirely up to you. I 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). Best for your blood pressure and sanity to stick with a zoom lens with a versatile range of focal lengths.
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. SLR 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.”Oh, how many times have I heard those dreaded words. Or “ My card’s full.” The whales can sense this, I’m 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.”
8. Think like a whale.
Well try, anyway. A common mistake I see early on a trip 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. 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 about how boats should behave around the whales, including how far we have to stay away. Generally, if we’re in Canada, we stay at least 100 metres away. In the US, it’s 200 yards.
10. Enjoy the magic.
This is the most important tip of all—don’t look through your camera the whole trip. You’re in a spectacular marine environment watching some truly magnificent animals. Put your camera down. Take a picture in your mind instead. Fill your senses. Breathe in the fresh ocean air. Close your eyes and listen to the whales breathing. Trust me, it’s absolute magic.
11. Remember to use your eyes.
It is indeed a magical experience watching wild whales. It is extra special if you are able to capture a moment on film with your camera, but be aware that staring through the viewfinder, especially with a longer lens, every little vibration translates into motion which can, for some people, exacerbate motion sickness. Also, the best picture you will ever take is the one that you create using your eyes—–find a balance that allows you to create beautiful memories using your eyes and try to capture a nice picture with your camera. Good luck 🙂