So you want to know how to take photos of whales? You’re in luck! I’ve received a few questions recently about tips for whale photography, particularly while out whale watching on boats. So I’ve pulled it all together into a blog post!
Note: I’m not a professional wildlife photographer but I AM a passionate whale watcher who’s been going whale watching (and taking photos of whales) for a good 10 years or so. These are all tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
Camera settings – getting the shot
📷 Tip #1: Use a fast shutter speed
Whales are big but they are also FAST. If a whale breaches, it’s breaking the surface of the water, shooting upwards and then coming back down inside of two full seconds. Sometimes less than a second, if they don’t get much height.
You want a fast shutter speed to freeze the movement and keep the image sharp.
I usually start at about 1/2000 and go up or down depending on conditions.
📷 Tip #2: …and shoot in burst mode!
To maximise your chances at getting the shot, you want to set your camera to burst mode or high-speed shooting. Instead of taking one single frame, it will take a series of consecutive frames, FAST.
Why do we shoot in burst? Imagine you’ve got yourself set up, the whale breaches and you take the shot… only for the camera to capture one single frame and it’s a bit fuzzy. Yeah, you only make that mistake once!
📷 Tip #3: Autofocus (and continuous autofocus at that!)
I know there’s an argument to be made for manual focus but, personally, I’ve found it’s much easier using autofocus. Simply for the fact it’s one less thing for me to worry about.
Does every single shot end up in focus? Hell no. But I still think I get waaaaay more shots in focus than I would if I was having to do it manually. And autofocus in cameras is generally pretty good (fast) these days.
To make it that little bit easier for yourself, switch to continuous autofocus (AF-C) if you have that option.
Gear to use for whale photography
📷 Tip #4: Telephoto lens is a must
Most whale encounters happen further away than you’d think. Yes, even some of those breach photos I’ve taken where it looks like the whale is about to land in my lap (like this one here)!
To capture the action, you’ll need a telephoto lens.
My go-to is my 70-300mm (though I would loooove a 100-400mm 🤤 hello, Sony! 🙏) but I know others use a 70-200mm, a 28-300mm and other similar focal lengths.
If all you have is a wide-angle or a prime lens with a short focal length (e.g. 50mm) you can still use it, but you’ll probably need to crop the image down to be able to see the details of the whale/action.
📷 Tip #5: Camera vs mobile phone = photos vs video
If you want really excellent photos of whales, you’re going to need a camera.
You can sometimes get decent photos with a mobile phone but the photos that have everybody 😲 I will bet were taken with a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Point and shoot cameras can work – a lot of my early whale watching was done with a point and shoot! – but a DSLR/mirrorless gives better control for the resulting image. (Entry level is fine – see below! It doesn’t need to be a professional camera!)
If you only have a mobile phone, you’re better to stick with taking video. But with the way they are these days, you can get some truly cracking video with mobile phones!
(I picked that particular tip up from someone else but given my own experiences I can’t believe it took me this long to realise!)
📷 Tip #6: Forget the tripod/monopod
Oh my god, just no. If you’re on a boat, don’t even think about using a tripod or monopod. If the boat is moving/rolling with the swell, the tripod/monopod is not going to do you any good.
I was out last season or the season before and some guy had all this expensive-looking camera gear. In the middle of his set up, he brought out a monopod. 🤦♀️ (What’s the saying? ‘All the gear and no idea…’? Yep.)
Leave your tripod or monopod at home.
The whales… and everything else!
🐋 Tip #7: Learn the whale’s behaviour
Most of my whale watching is with the Southern Humpback Whales, the ‘acrobats of the whale world’. They’re known for their breaches – where they jump out of the water before crashing back down with a giant slap – but did you know there are several other behaviours they show?
Learning their behaviours can be handy – it can give you an idea of what they might do next. If they arch their backs as they dive and bring their tail up, this involves a deeper dive and can sometimes indicate they’re going to breach!
But they’re also know for pec fin slapping (where they slap their long pectoral fins onto the surface of the water), lobtailing (slapping their tail up and down onto the water), spyhopping (appearing vertical up out of the water, head first) and penducle throwing (a power move where they lift their lower body up out of the water and throw it sideways). And there are lots more!
🐋 Tip #8: Be prepared and stay alert
The whales can be fast and they’re also wild – they aren’t trained. They can pull off acrobatics and appear where you’re not expecting in the blink of an eye. (Literally, blink and you might miss it – speaking from experience here!)
So keep your eyes open and scan the water. Rarely do they reappear in exactly the spot they disappeared.
🐋 Tip #9: Go out a LOT!! (i.e. practice makes close-to-perfect)
My last trip out in 2019 was my 50th (!!) whale watch outing. Well, that I have photographic record of. I think there are more from years back but I couldn’t find the photos. 😂
Anyway, my point is I’ve gone out a lot. It’s probably the main reason I can generally capture at least one good image in a trip. If you want to capture consistently good photos of whales you need to go out a lot. It’s all practice. Learning their behaviours and what to look for, getting used to the movement of the boats, etc. This only comes with repeated trips.
If you don’t get that magic image on your first trip (or first 10 trips!) out, don’t get discouraged. Keep going!
🐋 Tip #10: Take LOTS of photos
In addition to going out a lot, take LOTS of photos while you’re out there.
Guaranteed you will come away with at least half of your photos being duds (yep, still me on occasion 🙈), BUT the more photos you take the greater your chances of getting one REALLY good photo.
🐋 And a final honourable mention: Don’t only look through the camera!
It is amazing what you can miss when you’re staring down the viewfinder of your camera. The viewfinder can be such a small window that you could be missing all sorts of action just outside that little square!
Look up! This is something I still have to remind myself of occasionally!
It’s best if you hold the camera close to your face but not right up to your eye. That way you can scan the surrounding area for that surprise breach, lobtail, or peduncle throw.
I hope this has been helpful. If you’ve got any questions or comments (fellow whale photogs, I’d love to hear your tips/experiences!) please leave a reply in the comments section below.