Whale Photography 101

We live in a world of perpetual documentation. Everyone wants to be the person to record every pivotal moment in their lives (or their food, whatever, we’re not here to judge). This has given rise to the idea that everyone is a photographer.

Among the people that lament this fact the most, are wildlife photographers. Actual, real-life, professional, photographers. The investment they have made in their equipment, training, skill, and time is phenomenal, and yet they regularly witness people with a 3-year-old smart phone, taking a photo through a window, hoping to get National Geographic quality shots.

That’s probably not gonna happen.

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. Sometimes this is because us non-wildlife-photographers don’t have the time or patience to wait the hours, days (or sometimes weeks/months!) required to get the shot we desire. More often, it’s because human eyes physically can’t see far enough, or process images fast enough, to see the details that make wildlife photography so compelling. 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!

Whale watching is a difficult practice in and of itself. Whales pretty much only come to the surface to breathe, meaning they are invisible for 95% of their lives, surfacing only for a fleeting moment before disappearing again. And that’s after you find them! 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.

If you come whale watching with Prince of Whales, you can sit back, relax and leave finding the whales up to us. But once we’re watching them, how do you take your photos to the next level?

This photo was taken by our most senior zodiac skipper Mark Malleson, and his secret to success is: a lifetime on the water, 20 years of whale watching experience, an unmatched passion for whales, an extensive spotting network, a boat, and a camera body and lens worth as much as a small car.

If you’re not a professional and hope to get shots like this, I highly recommend you just enjoy the whales with your eyes and then check out our Flickr, Facebook, or Instagram pages for the best of the best images ever taken on the Salish Sea.

If you’re keen to try your hand at whale photography, we have some tips!

    Come prepared!
  • Dress warmly, it’s hard to take steady shots with shivering hands!
  • Bring fully charged/extra batteries
  • Make sure there’s plenty of room on your memory cards
  • Bring waterproof gear for your equipment (especially if you’re on a zodiac)
    Anticipate whale movements
  • Most whales surface three to five times in a row (30-60 seconds between surfaces) before disappearing on a longer dive, so don’t panic if you miss the first one, just be ready for the next ones
  • Don’t look at the spot where you last saw a whale, that’s pretty much the one spot it’s guaranteed NOT to show up
  • Watch the direction and speed the whales are heading and try to guess their next surface spot
  • Follow the footprints (smooth circle of water left on the surface after a whale disappears) as they will give you an indication of speed and direction
  • Humpbacks usually show their flukes on the last breath before a dive; we can anticipate this because they arch their back first (breath, tail pump, arch, dive, flukes)
  • Keep your finger on the shutter button at all times
  • If you lose the whales, watch/ask your naturalist, they’re the spotting experts
    If you’re using a point-and-shoot camera or cell phone
  • Get a memory card with the fastest possible processing speed
  • Turn off your flash
  • Use sport or burst mode for continuous shooting
  • Do not use digital zoom, stick to optical
  • Make note of your shutter lag and shoot accordingly (yes, this means pressing the button 1ish seconds before you want to take a photo!)
    If you’re 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! Work those built-in stabilizers, they’re called arms and legs!
  • Shoot in shutter priority with a speed between 1/800 and 1/1250, depending on lighting
    Scan your surroundings
  • Don’t forget, whale watching is about the whole experience, and you don’t want to miss it because your camera is glued to your face
  • 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, and mental pictures stay with you just as long as digital ones
  • You might see someone no one else has noticed; whales don’t care what side of the boat everyone is looking over!

And don’t forget to enjoy! It’s about the whole experience!

Want to experience the trip of a lifetime? Give us a call or book online!