Tips For Photographing Whales & Dolphins

Capturing big animals that move fast is not easy. You’re juggling delicate electronics & glass, a rocking boat, sea spray, stealth animals that give us only a spit second to see them, a myriad of technical issues, and other photogs who also want to get the shot. If you know what to do and where the whales are there, you will get the shot with the right preparation.

Know what you’re looking for. Humpbacks are especially fun, because the breach, fin slap, lobtail, spy hop, lunge and porpoise. Not all whales do this, so study up on and be prepared for the kind of whale you are hoping to see.

Camera Gear
Use the longest lens you own, but don’t go overboard. Something in the range of 100-200 is just fine. Remember that a long lens also requires more light, so anything over 200 may come out blurry if you don’t know how to quickly adjust for the situation. Also keep in mind that a polarizing filter on a long lens cuts down on light.

For point & shoot cameras use full zoom, but stay within the optical zoom range and skip digital zoom. Consider a zoom add-on lens, but understand the consequences.

Whales just below the service should definitely be shot with a polarizing filter. Even with a small point & shoot camera filters are available. Don’t get on the boat without it.

Bring extra batteries and memory cards. Never start with a half-charged battery. Memory cards fail, so have extras and have them formatted before hand.

Designate one camera for the whales. Don’t try to switch lenses to get people shots on the same camera. Bring a point & shoot for that.

Bring a lens towel with you and keep it in your pocket.

Set your camera on the fastest shutter speed your camera, lens, and conditions will allow for. Splashing water will blur with a shutter speed less than 1/500th of a second. When shooting anything that is likely to jump out of the water you need to be at 1/1000th of a second, or higher to capture the action. Anything less may give you Facebook quality photos at best.

Better your odds by shooting continuous high speed if you have that option, but know the limits of the camera and card you are using. If your cache is full and your camera is trying to catch up, you won’t be able to shoot until it does. Make sure you have a high capacity card that has been formatted to the camera before you start.

Automatic modes don’t work! The camera doesn’t know that everything is moving so fast. If you’re using a point & shoot camera and can’t override the automatic functions, try using a “Sport Mode” or “Action Mode”. This will give you a faster shutter speed with lower light.

If you’ve got a DSLR you should never be in Automatic or Program mode. Set your camera to Shutter Priority so that you can force the camera to shoot fast. This will significantly cut down on your light, so you have to pay close attention to the f-stop the camera gives you. If the aperture is wide open and your shutter speed is too high your images may be too dark.

Don’t be afraid to try Manual mode. Use the setting your camera picks in Shutter priority mode and manually enter them, adjusting if necessary.

The long lens, high zoom, polarizer and fast shutter speed will work against you when trying to get enough light for the shot. It will help to change your ISO to 200 or 400 for lower light. Be careful not to go too far, because low ISO settings will cause grainy images. If you have a DSLR turn on “Low ISO Noise Reduction”.

Shot at 1/250th of a second appears sharp enough for online images, but when you zoom in you’ll see the image is not sharp.

Be ready to get the shot. If the boat captain tells you there are whales nearby, your camera should be in position and ready to shoot with all the camera settings already set.

Watch for animal behavior! Tail and fin slapping is a great opportunity to get some good shots. Not all whales breach, but if you’re around humpbacks, have your camera ready.

You’re going to get many more crooked horizons and big splashes than you’ll get whales, but if you’re lucky you might just capture that one spit second of a perfect photo opp.

Try to keep the sun to your back if at all possible, so you don’t get harsh shadows where you want detail.

For your eyes only!
You’re not always going to get the shot. Don’t beat yourself up about it. The story you bring home to your friends will always be better than anything you capture with a camera.

Whale watching in California
Getting another boat in the background helps to provide a size reference and makes your image more interesting than an image without.