Whale Photography For Dummies

I recently spent time in Hawaii and went whale watching. Here’s what it was like, in case you’re wondering.

Photograph of a Humpback Whale, Maui, Hawaii

It was the right time of year (February), the competing male Humpbacks were out in force near Maui, and we saw some spectacular activity. The tour operator, Pacific Whale Foundation, does a great job. But trying to photograph breaching male whales is a real challenge. You may think you just need a great big lens, 1/1000s shutter speed, AF, and burst mode, and a little luck. Naturally, it’s not that simple.

The boat is big, but it’s a very windy day, so the deck is rockin’ and rollin’, and you’re being hit by gusts that could take your hat off. The PWF people want you to see whales; they’re in touch with spotters in the area and may suddenly decide to take the boat to where the action is, as fast as possible. So you’re basically standing on a moving theme park ride. And you’re not alone: 100 or so other passengers are right next to you, crowding the rails, running from one place on the boat to another as whales are spotted. There are older people (i.e. me), kids, moms with toddlers. And did I mention the metal deck has a nice glossy paint job?

It would be a challenge to photograph anything. But you want a whale, who the guide just said is out there a few hundred yards off the left – no wait, now everyone’s shouting about one on the right side…

Put that 150-600 zoom out of your mind; you can’t possibly aim, steady and zoom it fast enough to get anything. You have to be mobile, on your feet and balanced, with nice grippy shoes and lightweight hand-held gear. You’ll be dodging around on the deck, quickly getting the camera up to your eye when something happens, and then you’ll have a couple of seconds to shoot. My Nikon Z50 APS-C camera meant a small light 70-300mm lens had more reach than I could use; I never got beyond 200mm. There’s plenty of light, so go to 1/1600 to get water drops at a distance, and forget about ISO, image stabilization and IBIS.

If you haven’t done this before, you may have this image in mind: a magnificent Humpback leaps into the air, you point, zoom, frame, and hold down the shutter for a burst. It fills the frame, you post it online, next day your phone rings and it’s National Geographic. Well that could happen – if you took the cruise 100 times.

In reality the whales are at least 100 yards away (the legal approach limit) and usually further. You’ll be alerted when an active group is spotted, but there’s no way to know when one might actually breach; and a breach actually lasts just a couple of seconds. Spend those seconds fiddling with the zoom and you’ll get shots like this:

Photography of Humpback Whales, Maui, Hawaii

Better to zoom out to something like 100mm, aim at the activity, wait for a leap, then get a burst. Here’s one of the better ones I captured:

Photography of Humpback Whales, Maui, Hawaii

It’s a nice photo on Facebook. But here’s the entire frame:

Eventually Lady Luck smiled – the guide got word of a group of competing males, the boat sped to the location, and I got a couple unique shots from fairly close. Here are 2 battling males – at least 60 tons each – coming out of the water together, with the spray creating a bit of a rainbow.

Photography of Humpback Whales, Maui, Hawaii

And here’s another pair locked in a Sumo contest in which one has actually gotten cut and is bleeding.

Photography of Humpback Whales, Maui, Hawaii

In the end, you choose between trying to get photos or just enjoying the experience, and both choices are correct. I got off the boat sort of wondering “what did I just see?” On the other hand, I like having the photos I was able to get, as memories of a fantastic day.

So how did your whale watching session go? With photography, failure is always an option. Did you taste victory or go down in defeat?

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