• Rhonda Norman

So you want to know how to take photos of whales?

You’re in luck because I’ve pulled together my Top 10 tips! Including when you’re out on the boat. While most of these tips are for photographers, there are tips here for people without cameras as well.

Note: I'm not a professional wildlife photographer but I AM a passionate whale watcher who's been going whale watching (and taking photos of whales) for a good 10 years or so. These are all tips that I've picked up along the way.


Image: Sarah Gower


Camera settings


Tip #1: Use a fast shutter speed

Whales are big but they are also FAST. If a whale breaches, it's breaking the surface of the water, shooting upwards and then coming back down inside of two full seconds. Sometimes less than a second, if it doesn't get much height.

You want a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement and keep the image sharp.

I usually start at about 1/2000 sec and go up or down depending on conditions. Don’t go below about 1/1000 sec.


Tip #2: ...and shoot in burst mode!

To maximise your chances at getting the shot, set your camera to burst mode (high-speed shooting). Instead of taking one single frame, it will take a series of consecutive frames, FAST.

Why shoot in burst mode? Imagine you’re set up, the whale breaches and you take the shot, only for the camera to capture one single frame… and it's blurry and out of focus! You only make that mistake once!


Tip #3: Autofocus (continuous autofocus preferably)

I know there are some who prefer manual focus but, personally, I've found it's much easier using autofocus. Why? Simply, it's one less thing for me to worry about.

Does every single shot end up in focus? Nope. BUT I still get a LOT more shots in focus than I would if I had to focus manually. Autofocus in cameras is generally pretty good/fast these days.

To make it easier for yourself, switch to continuous autofocus (AF-C) if you have that option.


Gear to use


Tip #4: Telephoto lens is a must

Most whale encounters happen further away than you'd think. Yes, even those breaches I've captured where the whale looks like it’ll land in my lap!

To capture the action, you'll need a telephoto lens.

My go-to is my 70-300mm lens (my kingdom for a 100-400mm!) but I know others who use a 70-200mm, a 28-300mm and other similar focal lengths.

If all you have is a wide-angle or a prime lens with a short focal length (e.g. 50mm) you can still use it, but you'll need to crop the image down to be able to see the details.


Tip #5: Camera vs mobile phone = photos vs video

If you want really excellent photos of whales, you'll need a camera.

Decent photos are possible with a mobile phone but truly gobsmacking photos are usually taken with DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Point and shoot cameras can work - my early whale photography I used a point and shoot! - but a DSLR/mirrorless gives better control for the resulting image. And entry level is totally fine!

If you only have a mobile phone, you're better to stick with taking video. With the way tech is these days, you can get some truly cracking video with mobile phones!


Tip #6: Forget the tripod/monopod

Nope, nope, nope. If you're on a boat, don't even think about using a tripod or monopod. It’s not going to do you any good with the rolling/moving of the swell. You’ll just make yourself very unpopular with others onboard when you get in the way.

Please. Leave your tripod/monopod at home.


The whales... and everything else!


Image: Sarah Gower


Tip #7: Learn the whale's behaviour

I highly recommend learning about them – behaviour can indicate what they might do next. For example, if diving Humpbacks arch their backs and bring their tail up, this means a deeper dive and can sometimes lead to a breach!

Humpbacks are also know for pec fin slapping (slapping their pectoral fins on the water’s surface), lobtailing (slapping their tail up and down on the water), spyhopping (rising head first, vertically, out of the water) and penducle throwing (BIG power move – they lift their lower body out of the water and throw it sideways). Plus lots more!


Tip #8: Be prepared and stay alert

The whales can be fast AND they're wild. They pull off acrobatics and appear where you're not expecting – literally, blink and you might miss it!

Keep your eyes open and scan the water. Rarely do they reappear in the same spot they disappeared.


Tip #9: Go out a LOT!!

I’ve been on well over 50 whale watching trips in the last 10 years. It's likely the main reason I can generally capture at least one GOOD image in a trip. If you want to capture consistently good photos of whales you need to go out a lot. It's all practice. Learning their behaviours and what to look for, getting used to the movement of the boats, etc. This only comes with repeated trips.

If you don't get that magic image on your first trip (or first 10 trips!), don't get discouraged. Keep going!


Tip #10: …and take LOTS of photos!

In addition to going out a lot, take LOTS of photos while you're out there.

Guaranteed you will come away with at least half of your photos being duds (still me on occasion!), BUT the more photos you take the greater your chances of getting one REALLY good photo.


A final honourable mention:

Don't only look through the camera!


It is amazing what you can miss when you're staring down the viewfinder of your camera – all sorts of action happens outside that little square!

Look up! This is something I still have to remind myself of occasionally!

It's best if you hold the camera close to your face but not right up to your eye. You can scan the surrounding area for that surprise breach, lobtail, or peduncle throw.


Guest Writer | Sez Gower, Whale Whisperer

https://www.instagram.com/sarahmgower/

https://www.instagram.com/whales_australia/

https://sarahmgower.com/


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