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Tips for photographing whales & dolphins

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

As with all wildlife photography, whales and dolphin can be challenging to capture effectively. They are a both a fast moving subject, and very unpredictable with their behaviour.

I have been photographing these animals for at least 10 years now, and would like to share some tips and advice on what I find important in how to photograph these magnificent creatures from a boat.




Protect your gear


When heading out on a boat to see whales or dolphins on the ocean, there will always be a chance that there might a bit of sea spray. It’s common-sense that salt water and electronics do not go well together. My advice is to come prepared with: a bag (to keep the camera safe when unused), waterproof covering, a towel, cleaning solution and a cloth (for wiping down the lens). Sea spray is unavoidable and will happen regardless of how calm or rough the conditions are. Thankfully some camera models do have a protective weather seal built in, but I would still advise avoiding spray on any camera gear where possible.




Be prepared


Before heading out to do any type of photography, it is important to be prepared and always make sure batteries are fully changed beforehand, and ensuring you bring


a spare just in case. Make sure SD cards are fully empty to allow for plenty of room for photos and bring spares because they can and will fill up quickly. This is largely dependent on how active the whales and dolphins are at the time and especially if you are shooting in RAW. I also recommend using a high-speed SD card; a slower SD will cause image processing delays when using continuous shooting mode.


Camera Settings


Most importantly, you need to consider that Cetaceans are fast moving subjects which will require for your camera to be set for high-speed continuous shooting and a fast shutter speed. There are, however, many other factors to consider. Here is a run down based on the setting techniques I use for my canon 80D and Canon 90D when photographing whales and dolphins:


  • Because you are shooting fast moving subjects, I do recommend having the shutter speed set to 1/2000 or above. I always have mine set to 1/2500 but this can depend on lighting and time of day.

  • I have my ISO set to auto and with my range usually set between 200-3200. When I use the auto ISO, it will generally choose an ISO speed best suited for the daylight conditions which is why I like to use it rather than setting it manually. I’ve never had a problem with noise in my photos, usually because of the nature of shooting in vast open oceans with the ever-present daylight. There are noise reduction settings on most DSLR cameras, which have different levels of noise reduction you can have it set at.


  • I use the single auto-focus point. This gives a better chance that the focus is on my subject, and it doesn’t try to focus on surrounding objects and backgrounds, etc. I sometimes adjust the auto-focus point lower depending on the backdrops behind the animals.


  • I have the camera’s Autofocus operation set on Al-servo - This operation on Canon camera's is best suited for fast moving subjects as it will continuously track whatever subject is under your selected focus point at the time.

  • Most days I generally set my f-stop between 6.3-8.0, it can give more depth of field in my photos especially when shooting much larger animals, such as whales, especially if they are at a closer range. This is also dependent on the lighting - on more overcast days or late afternoons, I will go as low as 5.6 to let in more light.

  • I like to adjust my exposure compensation dial to be a little bit darker - this is because I use auto ISO and it helps to keep the exposure in my photos balanced. If you manually set your ISO, the exposure compensation dial will set itself automatically.

  • I like to set my white balance to either cloudy or shady. I’ve found that they bring out nice tones depending on the daylight conditions.

  • I always make sure I do some test shots beforehand. I don’t want to get out there and have an amazing encounter, then find that all of my shots are ruined because my settings aren’t correct.

  • If Manual isn’t for you, shutter speed priority (on canon cameras, this mode is called TV) might be better suited. I occasionally use this mode in more overcast or lower light situations, this is just so that I don’t need to worry about adjusting my aperture if there is a lot of action happening at the time. I don’t really recommend using full auto mode, just because you can’t set the shutter speed to where you want it but that’s entirely up to the individual photographer and their personal preferences.

Remember, this is all based on the settings I use from day to day. If you have any other questions or even suggestions on the settings etc, feel free to shoot me a message.




Be ready for action


One of the most amazing things about whales is they can display many kinds of behaviours. Many photographers go out to specifically get that ‘mighty breach’ photo. At the best of times, whales can be very unpredictable, and they have the tendency to randomly launch themselves out of the water. My advice, is to always be ready with the camera by keeping it upright, the viewfinder close to your face, and your finger ready to press the shutter release button. This is because you never know when this type of action may occur - it can happen so quickly that you may not have time to react if you put your camera down for a single second. A whale may only breach once, they may breach several times, or they may not breach at all - always be ready in any case!



Photographing dolphins


Dolphins are very fast and energetic animals. They are fun creatures to watch, whether they are playing on the bow of a boat, or surfing some waves - either in the boats wake or at the beach. For me to get nice crisp photos without getting a bit of motion blur, I always like to make sure that my camera is set on high-speed continuous shooting with a fast shutter speed. I generally don’t go lower than 1/2500 shutter speed when shooting dolphins as they are always moving, along with myself on the boat that’s always moving too.


I have usually found the best way to capture these challenging moments is to choose an individual animal, monitor it's behaviour and the track it with my eye on the viewfinder, and have my finger ready to release the shutter. Sometimes, you can even read the dolphin’s behaviour e.g. if you see one animal is jumping, it will most likely do it more than once - in this case, I will keep tracking that animal for a while to see if it does continue to jump, etc.



Composition


There are many ways to achieve great composition in cetacean photography; whether it’s finding different shapes, textures, patterns, objects, depth of field, colours, backgrounds, angles you are shooting at or during the editing process – composition is usually there. It always comes down to how you compose your shot in the process of capturing a moment.


Whenever I’m photographing humpback whales (especially if they are exhibiting some kind of surface behaviour), I will try to get to the lowest point of the boat. This is so I can get to the same level as the whale, and keep the whale’s captured position above the horizon level. If there are opportunities with interesting backdrops such as colours or textures within the clouds and sky, I will usually try my best to get those in the frame. Even getting certain landscapes or landmarks in can help a great deal with achieving great compositions. I try not to fully zoom in on the subject because in doing this, I could be missing out an amazing background. The single auto-focus point can play a role in the way you compose a shot. By adjusting it lower, this will enable you to get the background in the frame that may be higher than the animal – This helps not to cut off certain landscapes from the frame.

Composing whale shots isn't just about getting the perfect backdrop, it can also be achieved through the angles you are shooting from, especially if the whale is at a close proximity.


* Even though this photo was shot in direct glare, I was still able to salvage the image in Lightroom. It's important not to discard any photos unless you are 100% certain they cannot be saved.







* Here's a shot where there were interesting shapes and colours in the clouds, I didn't fully zoom in on my subject and I was able to get that amazing backdrop. The whale is also midway above the horizon level which is what I usually aim for.




Backgrounds with landscapes are not always possible when photographing dolphins, as the dolphins usually come a fair bit closer to the boats, and sometimes you are shooting from above down on them. You still can find amazing shapes, patterns and textures when composing dolphin shots, and as the dolphins are engaging with the boat, sometimes they will make a bit of eye contact which can draw the viewer in.


* Here's a perfect example in which I was able to achieve a landscape/cloudy background in a dolphin shot.

This is not always possible as dolphins

usually like to swim closer to boats such as on the bow making it difficult to line them up to a backdrop.





Weather and sea conditions


Something that always needs to be considered when heading out to the ocean is the weather and sea conditions. Windy days mean the seas will be more choppy, and the boat will move around a lot more. If you don’t have your sea legs yet, the best place I can suggest, is the back of the boat to shoot wildlife. If the boat is 2 stories, the lower deck is more stable. If there is somewhere to lean against, I do suggest doing so. Always remember safety does come first and if holding on does mean missing a shot, then I suggest doing so to prevent any injury or damaging your gear. If you are not confident in windy and choppy sea conditions, I do recommend checking the weather forecast if you want a calmer day, but regardless of how calm it may be, boats will always rock around and there can still be a bit of swell.




Always respect the wildlife


Remember that there are certain rules and regulations in place when watching cetaceans from a boat in Australian waters. Do not ask to get any closer to an animal than what the required distance is. Whales and dolphins can be inquisitive animals and will sometimes approach the boat if they wish. If they decide not to interact with the boat, it is important to leave them be, keep a safe distance, and not to attempt to pursue the animal if it is feeling nervous and showing signs of not wanting to be seen.




Never give up!


If you didn’t see what you came out to see the first time around, don’t give up on the animals and keep coming out until you get that shot you were hoping for. Remember these are wild animals that we are working with, and there is no set time as to when these animals will display any sort of surface behaviour.


I often get asked if I ever get tired of photographing these animals daily – my answer is always going to be no - simply because there will always be a moment that is unique to the last with different displays of behaviour or new ways to create composition in each shot you take on any given day. It’s impossible to get the same photo twice when it comes to shooting wildlife as they are always going to be doing something different from the last. It’s the same as saying a bolt of lightning will never strike in the same spot twice. That’s how I think when I photograph cetaceans which is why I will never get tired of it, plus my love for them also has something to do with it too.



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