Getting the photographs of whales and other marine mammals that you hope to have can be challenging when out on the water. There is a lot to manage including the motion of the ocean, boat movements, focusing on the whales when they surface to breathe, lighting, and then animals disappearing beneath the surface out of sight.
In addition to the beautiful surrounding landscapes, we encounter humpback whales, killer whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and many other species of birds.
While whales are large animals, a lot of the time a small portion of their bodies are visible above the water when they surface to breathe. We’re looking for and listening to their visible blows, their backs and dorsal fin, and their flukes (tail fin) when many of them descend.
We all want that perfect fluke shot, breach, pectoral fin slap, and tail slap. The experience is extra exciting with all of the adrenaline pumping because it’s awesome to see whales!
Our captains study whale and other marine mammal behaviours, and have experience in understanding the way they move and travel. They will talk about observed dive times, and possible direction of travel once they’ve submerged. They’ll help with positioning the boats for best available lighting, while ensuring the safety of the whales and guests.
During your tour, you can also spend time observing the whales’ surface behaviour. Watch them, and get a feel for their direction, speed, and what they do when they surface. If they are further away then you’d like to photograph, use that time to watch what they’re doing instead of trying to photograph every single movement.
It is often difficult and frustrating just trying to capture absolutely everything. By taking your time and having patience with the whales, captain, and boat positioning, you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the experience.
Think about what gear you want to bring with you. An accessible dry bag, camera strap, camera lens(s), spare battery, spare memory card, and lens cloths. A rain cover is recommended as well if it looks like the weather could have periods of rain that day. Tripods and monopods don’t work with all of the movement on board, and movement of the wildlife.
Many guests use their cell phone cameras while onboard. These are more difficult to capture sharp images and they don’t have much for zoom. While handy to carry, like GoPro cameras, it will be difficult to get clear and close images of the animals we encounter.
If you don’t have a camera with more options for lenses, consider a point and shoot camera with a good optical zoom. There are many options for these types of cameras with improved shooting capabilities and video quality.
Think about a goal shot you’re looking to achieve throughout the tour. That will also help with choosing which lens you’ll have with you.
A lens with a versatile range of focal length is great for shooting landscapes, whales at a distance, and also for any closer passes by wildlife. A 70-200mm lens is recommended or a 100-400mm lens. Use a high shutter speed when photographing because there is a lot of movement. It is similar to sports photography in this way, but your subjects also disappear and reappear throughout the encounter. As the animals surface to breathe, water splashes up with them resulting in potentially less clear images. Using a smaller aperture will give you more depth of field in your images.
Try to capture close up shots with the humpback whale’s flukes (tail) in frame. The patterns on their flukes are unique to each individual, and are used to identify the whales that are in our area each season. For killer whales, you can focus on a profile image of their dorsal fin, and the saddle patch colouration just behind their dorsal fin. These shapes and patterns are how these individuals are identified.
Experience it all while onboard. Remember to put the camera down and feel the boat rocking, the sounds of the whales surfacing and breathing, the shrieks and laughs of delight as they’re spotted, and the action-packed burst of a humpback leaping out of the water.