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10 Tips for Photographing Whales

 How can you take advantage on these short lived moments, and get those amazing whale photos?

Most people have a special affinity for whales. They are definately mysterious creatures, due to their size, strength, sentience, and their secretive marine lives. Having said that, whale photos can be difficult to capture; whale photographs usually don’t have the magic of the actual viewing.

Whale encounters are generally out of the control of the professional photographer. Chance, timing, and the whim of the whale determine a lot. Once you find a whale, it might avoid the boat, dive deeply to find food, or even vanish completely. Fortunately, there are those exceptional moments when people become the subject of whales curiosity; they interact with us, show off for us, and actively exhibit observable behaviors.

Photographing whales requires a lot of patience, even for professional photographers. Here are some tips for photographing whales:

1. Get Your Basic Settings Down Before You Go

Ensure that your white balance is appropriately set for the conditions you will be shooting in. I advocate the use of a center-weighted auto-focus point and matrix metering for exposure. Your experience or preferences may dictate different settings, but this is a good starting point for beginners.

2. Know How to Find the Whales

Once in the vicinity of whales, predicting where they will next break the water surface can be part experience, part luck, and part clairvoyance. Look for their blow mist, which erupts each time they exhale. Use your ears to hear their blows, and use your nose to detect the presence of whale breath, should you be (un)lucky enough to experience this foul, fishy smell. Use a clock system to alert others if you see where the whale surfaces: the bow is 12 o’clock; the stern is 6 o’clock, and so on.

3. Use the Appropriate Lenses

Commercial whale watching boats are, with good reason, required to stay a set distance away from whales. To take compelling close-up images, telephoto lenses are a necessity. To capture crisp images with your telephoto lens, you must use an appropriately fast shutter speed. At absolute minimum, use a shutter speed equaling the inverse of the length of your lens. For example, if you have a fully extended 300-mm lens, you should shoot with a shutter speed of at least 1/300 s. If the available light allows you to double your shutter speed, do so, and if you can quadruple it, go for it.

4. Beware of Continuous Shooting

Most digital cameras have a motor drive feature that allows you take bursts of shots; you can shoot first and select the best image later. Beware that if you initiate burst shooting too quickly, your camera buffer may fill up and you may miss the end of the sequence. To help reduce this buffer problem, use fast data cards, and only shoot Raw photos if you need to.

5. Understand Whale Behavior

If you understand the behavior of -whales, you will be better able to anticipate the images that you might capture. For example, orcas and humpback whales can be quite playful: you may see them breaching, spy hopping, tail lobbing, or flipper slapping. Before they undertake a deep dive, humpback whales usually arch their back right before lifting their tail fluke out of the water. Recognizing this action can help you prepare for a great shot of the water careening off of their tail fluke.

Tips on how to make the most of these moments while capturing technically sound and eye appealing whale photographs:

Professional photographer Bryant Austin shares his unique skill of capturing and producing life size photographs of whales and shares his view on the importance of marine protected areas to these animals.

6. Frame the Whale with the Environment

The compulsion -will be to zoom in on the whale, but your photos may be more dynamic if you use objects in the environment to frame the whales. The background may be just as important as the whale to the success of your photo. For viewers to appreciate the size of the whale, it is useful to have other objects (such as other whale-watching boats) in the frame.

7. Be Creative

If the sun is shining, try to shoot with the blow mist backlit by the sun, this can be very attractive. Likewise, framing the whale diagonally in your viewfinder can add the sense of dynamic motion to your shots.

Ocean photography is a beautiful practice that enables you to photograph whales.

8. Use a Polarizing Filter

If you are lucky enough to encounter a whale in the -water close to your boat, it is advisable to have a polarizing filter fitted to your lens. This will remove glare from the surface of the – water allowing your camera to better capture details of the whale.

Tiffen 77mm Circular Polarizer (Available at Amazon)

9. Protect Your Gear

You will usually be viewing and photographing whales in a wet and wild environment, for example, in an inflatable boat. Seawater is very corrosive to camera electronics. A wave may splash you, or you may track salt from your hands onto your gear. Wipe your camera with a wet cloth after your outing. Protective covers are commercially available, or you can fashion a cover with a zippered sandwich bag. Always wear the camera strap around your neck or wrist!

10, Enjoy!

Finally, remember to put down your camera from time to time, and enjoy these magnificent creatures!

Whale Photos


Mitsuaki Iwago’s Whales

Fantastic book about Humpback Whales

Some of the photos in this book are the best I’ve ever seen of nature photography. It is obvious that Mitsuaki Iwago went to great lengths to produce the photography he displays in this book. His photo captures of the cooperative ‘bubble feeding’ behavior of the humpbacks is remarkable. This type of behavior seems to be unique to the humpback whales of southeast Alaska which Mr. Iwago has done a remarkable job documenting in this book with absolutely fascinating photography. This is one book that should not be left out of any collection pertaining to whales.

Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales

The book is well written, the photographs are beautiful and informative, and the end notes add a tremendous depth to the essays. At the center of probing investigations are the roles of mothers and their crucial importance to understanding the big picture. Filled with insights. Highly recommended.

In the Company of Whales: From the Diary of a Whalewatcher

Diving with Whales

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