The Brass Tacks of Wildlife Photography

How to capture your best shots

We all know the feeling. There you are, sitting under a stunning–almost bewildering–sunset; you reach for your iPhone and you snap a photo. But looking back down, you see the photo isn’t nearly as astonishing as the real sky is: the colours, the span, the dancing clouds, the impact. It’s all reduced to pixels on a screen and it just doesn’t quite cut it. It’s understandable, then, to conclude that perhaps just enjoying the sunset IRL is better than trying to capture it on screen. Often, our guests notice that similar feeling when out whale watching. Attempting to capture wildlife with their smart phones often produces a similar “hmph” feeling.

An orca pod commuting in the morning light
“We live in a world of perpetual documentation. Everyone wants to record every pivotal moment in their lives” our naturalist Jennifer Dickson explains. “This has given rise to the idea that everyone is a photographer.” But National Geographic quality wildlife shots, she explains, require so much more than a smart phone. “The investment they have made in their equipment, training, skill, and time is phenomenal, and yet they regularly witness people [on tours] with a 3-year-old smart phone, taking a photo through a window, hoping to get the same shots.”

“The number one tip for photographing whales is to make sure you have a fast lens which is at least 200 mm” – Mark Malleson

These shots can take days, weeks, and sometimes even months to get, Dickson explains. “One of the reasons we humans find wildlife photography so darn stunning, is because it often captures things that we can’t see with our naked eye.” Remember when an Australian photographer caught a sea lion riding a whale? She didn’t realize what she’d captured until she reviewed the photos later!”

An orca breaching in the Salish Sea
Whale watching, in particular, makes photography notably difficult. What some may not know precisely because of the bounty of phenomenal professional whale photography on the internet, is that orcas and other cetaceans only fleetingly surface. “They’re invisible for 95% of their lives,” our passionate naturalist exclaims. They spend most of their lives commenting under the deep blue sea. “Don’t forget they can travel over 100km in a day, transiting 1000’s of km in a month, and rarely follow any pattern discernible to humans.” 
Mark Malleson, Centre for Whale Research Photographer, and seasoned Prince of Whales zodiac skipper
But what if you are a photographer? What if you do have the equipment, patience, and expertise? If you’ve come bedecked with DSLR in hand for a Whale Watching Tour with Prince of Whales, we’ve collected our top tips to capture your best shot from our most senior zodiac skipper and Centre For Whale Research photographer, Mark Malleson.

If a whale breaches, be ready for the next one as they often jump twice!”

While his secrets lie in a lifetime on the water, 20 years of whale watching experience, an extensive spotting network, a boat, and a camera body and lens worth as much as a small car, there’s still much to learn from the experienced photographer. “The number one tip for photographing whales,” Malleson tells us, “is to make sure you have a fast lens which is at least 200 mm.” A fast shutter speed is also important, he says, as everything is moving around you: yourself, the camera, the boat and the whale! “I never shoot less than 1/1000 second.” Malleson suggests trying not to bury your head in the camera, “so you can follow the whale’s movements and get a sense of its timing,” he tells. “If a whale breaches, be ready for the next one as they often jump twice!”

Some additional tips: 
  • Bring waterproof gear for your equipment (especially if you’re on a zodiac)
  • Keep your finger on the shutter button at all times.
  • Get a memory card with the fastest possible processing speed, and use sport or burst mode for continuous shooting.
  • Do not use digital zoom, stick to optical.
  • Make note of your shutter lag: press the button a full second before you want the photo taken.

If using a DSLR:

  • Bring a versatile zoom lens: 100-400mm or 70-200mm are recommended.
  • Bring multiple lenses if you want, but changing lenses in the heat of the moment on a rocking boat with the possibility of salt spray can be more trouble than it’s worth.
  • Set your ISO to at least 400 (up to 1600 in poor light).
  • Don’t bother with a tripod/monopod/stabilizer; the ground is the ocean, so you’re going to be moving regardless!

A humpback tail at sunset
When watching the best photographers, Dickson notes that they’re great at anticipating whale movements. “Follow the footprints (smooth circle of water left on the surface after a whale disappears) as these will give you an indication of speed and direction,” she reminds us. “If you lose the whales, ask your naturalist, they’re the spotting experts!” Dickson explains that Humpbacks usually show their flukes on their last breath before a dive, “We can anticipate this because they arch their back first (breath, tail pump, arch, dive, flukes).”
Birds flying over a humpback diving deep into the Salish Sea
Lastly, listen to the birds, smell the salt, feel the wind on your face; take in all your surroundings. The original 360-degree camera is turning your head and looking around. You might see something no one else has noticed; whales don’t care what side of the boat everyone is looking over. And remember, Dickson advises, “Mental pictures stay with you just as long as digital ones.” And most of all, “Have fun!” Malleson adds.

They clearly both love what they do!