Whale watching photography tips


I recently went whale watching in Sydney for the first time and loved it! I knew I wouldn't be happy with just seeing the whales, I needed to capture them too! With my camera. This joke is less common than the ‘I'm gonna shoot a whale, with my camera' one but it's probably equally bad.

If you've been following this blog for a while then you probably know how this following bit is gonna go:

I was contacted by a company to experience or use a thing in exchange for a video or a post on one of my social media accounts. In this case I've made the above video but I'm also making this blog post. I'm gonna be honest, combining a blog post and a youtube video leads to better search results, which leads to more growth which leads to more money which leads to more and cooler projects for you all to enjoy. Honestly that's really it. I've started this blog because I wanted to have an independent platform on the internet, one that I control, one where I am the algorithm. This algorithm won't hide any content. This algorithm shows you exactly what you've signed up for. This algorithm is also quite lazy when it comes to keeping this blog up to date lol. Not only is it fun to have my own blog and to be in full control, it's also a great excuse for me to practice my writing more. As many of you know (do you?) I am from Belgium. English is not my first language. I'm one of those ESL people (English Second Language). Anyways, I digress. Whales, whale watching, how to shoot whales, what to do when you see a whale, what gear to use etc etc. Let's get going.

What photo or video gear to bring when going whale watching?

Before you decide on what to bring you should decide on what you want to shoot. Be realistic and don't overreach. Chances are slim you are going to walk away with a single perfect shot so don't even bother chasing both a banger set of photos as well as video clips. As I mentioned (too many times in the video blog) I would be content with a single good photo, or a single good video. Hell, I would have been happy just spotting a single whale with my own eyeballs! We got lucky though and had plenty of time to shoot, resulting in me walking away with more than what I wanted: a set of nice photographs as well as some high resolution video and slow motion footage of the whale's tales.

So, figure out what your key focus is. A photo? A video? In the end, if you only have one camera available then this chapter isn't really that important. I probably should have opened with that..

Bring a long lens. I used the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L lens. An absolute beast, and one of the biggest ‘bang for buck' pieces of long glass out there. It has built in Image Stabilisation, which makes it much easier to shoot smooth video when on a rocky boat.

Bring a camera (duh!) with lots of pixels. If you don't have a long lens these extra pixels will allow you to crop (digitally zoom) in on the photo afterwards, making it look like you were closer to the whale than you actually were.

Bring a circular polariser (CP) filter. A CP filter is a rotating filter that you mount on the front of your lens which cuts through certain reflections and haze in the sky and on the surface of the water. This makes it easier to spot whales through the surface of the ocean and brings out their skin more when they're above water. Whales have skin right? I don't know what else to call it.

Bring a camera strap. As you're shooting with a long lens having a neck strap will allow you a third point of stability when you hold it out in front of your face. Two hands on the side of the camera and a tense strap around your neck results in steady shots!

Tap the GIF below to check out the exact gear I used to photograph these stunning creatures. If you buy anything through the link I make a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. It's part of how I survive so thanks in advance for considering.

Photo settings to shoot whales

You're on a moving boat, shooting a large moving object at quite a distance with probably a tele zoom lens. If you don't have a fast enough shutterspeed your photo will be blurry due to motion blur. You need to increase your shutterspeed to the likes of 1/1000 of a second to freeze the action in the frame and make sure everything's nice and sharp. Zooming in to the longest end of your lens means less light hits the sensor, pair that with the darkening circular polarizer and you're going to have to boost up your iso speed. I chose to shoot in manual mode, with my aperture wide open (4.5-5.6 depending on how much I zoomed in on the 100-400mm lens) and auto iso. The auto iso will make up for the change in brightness you'll experience when zooming. Granted, I could have shot on Tv or Shutter speed priority mode (you decide the shutter speed and the camera does the rest of the work) but I like shooting Manual. It makes me feel like I'm in control which is a refreshing feeling.

The photo below was shot at 182mm at 1/800 of a second with an f9 aperture and iso 400.

Video settings to shoot whales

Because I was alternating between capturing photos and videos and more often than not did not have the time to dial the shutter speed back down to 1/200th of a second (shooting at 100fps means you ideally shoot at 1/200 of a second) I opted to stick to the same shutter speed for video as I did for the photos. This saved me a fair amount of time when shooting. I'd much rather have a piece of video that I technically shot at the wrong shutter speed but that still looks good and shows off an amazing vision than no video at all because I missed the action. It's easy to get caught up in technical details, just remember that the story and subject are more important than being technically perfect!

As mentioned I kept the same settings so I was in manual mode, with a fixed shutter speed and aperture and auto iso.

Final notes

A big thanks to FantaSea for inviting us on this whale watching trip in Sydney. Ticket prices are cheap ($49 AUD), they have multiple excursions per day when the season is on (May to November 2018).

A big thanks to you for reading, feel free to subscribe on youtube if you haven't already!

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