How to Photograph Humpback Whales
Out of all the marine mammals I have worked with, humpback whales are my favourite. They are peaceful to watch and mind-blowing when you see them breach. Their somewhat unpredictable nature engages you as you never know what they might do next.
Humpbacks are amazing to photograph but they don’t make it easy, often only revealing themselves for a split second. In this tutorial, I will be explaining ways to anticipate and capture unique behaviours of humpback whales and how to photograph them from a boat.
Where to find humpback whales for photography
Humpback whales are widespread and inhabit most of the world’s oceans at some point in the year. During the western hemisphere’s winter, humpbacks can be found south in Hawaii and Mexico where they breed and give birth in the warm waters, but they do not feed. Only once they have undertaken the 8,000+ km migration to the nutrient rich waters off the west coast of Canada and further north to Alaska can they begin feeding.
I spend most of the summer photographing humpbacks in British Columbia, more specifically around Johnstone Strait. It’s a beautiful environment to photograph whales as they are surrounded by vast mountain ranges creating beautiful backdrops.
I recommend between June and October to photograph humpbacks in British Columbia as they are feeding and displaying some amazing behaviour, allowing you to capture beautiful images. Plus, the weather is often fairer allowing for a more enjoyable experience.
As whales can appear anywhere, it’s a good idea to have a zoom lens in case the whale comes close and you can zoom out to fit it in the frame. A fast-focusing camera and lens will increase your chances of getting a breaching image. I use three lenses and a teleconverter alongside my camera:
I found using a lens longer than 400mm to be very difficult in a boat unless conditions are perfect. As they can appear from anywhere, having a shorter zoom increases your chances of finding the whale in the frame before the action is over.
A polarising filter can be helpful not only to take the glare off the water, but off of the whale too. Humpbacks are dark, shiny animals when they are out of the water and by using a polariser it removes the glare revealing a darker and more accurate representation of the whale.
Photographing whales from a boat
Use a fast shutter speed! It’s important for most forms of wildlife photography to have a fast shutter speed, but in a boat it is crucial.
The added motion of the boat means you need a shutter speed of at least 1/1250th in order to capture a sharp image. I usually set my shutter speed to 1/2000th as it gives me the confidence that whatever happens the camera will be ready and shots sharp.
Read more: The Real Reasons Your Photos Aren’t Sharp
A small aperture of f/6.3 to f/11 is preferred with humpbacks due to their size, and it allows for most of the whale to be in focus. If a whale comes close and you have a wide aperture of f/4 it will result in a small area of the whale being in focus. This can be good to isolate a particular feature, but if you want a tail shot use a smaller aperture of f/11 to get the majority of it sharp.
Ground level photography has become a real trend in the last few years as it makes the subject look bigger and more engaging as you are at eye level with the subject. You’ll be pleased to hear this can also be done from a boat.
Getting close to the water separates the whale from the horizon and accentuates its size, creating a more impactful image. If you are booking a whale watching trip, a smaller boat is better for photography as you are closer to the water rather than a larger vessel with high top decks where you look down on the whale. Sometimes the higher viewpoint can be helpful to gain a different perspective.
Learning about humpback whale behaviour
Learning humpbacks behaviour is very important when it comes to photography. All of my images of whales have been taken from a boat, making it crucial to be able to predict behaviour to increase the chances of capturing the perfect moment. Fortunately, there are ways to predict what they might do.
A common feeding technique is called lunge (trap) feeding. This is when a whale lunges up with its mouth, open engulfing a herring ball that has been created by diving birds compressing the fish together. It may seem hard to predict when it occurs, but if you see a mass of diving birds and sea gulls in a frenzy you know that a whale is not far away.
If you’re patient a whale could appear at any moment, so you have to be ready. Never put your camera down and constantly refocus in the middle of the bird frenzy to give you the best chance of capturing a whale’s mouth coming out of the water. When the birds take off it is usually a sign that the whale is coming.
Breaching whales are always amazing to photograph, but it can be difficult. They can jump unexpectedly and without notice, making it nearly impossible to capture, but sometimes they will breach multiple times.
In this instance, having a lens over 400mm narrows your field of view and makes it hard to find the whale. Having a shorter lens widens your field of view and increases your chances to find, focus, and compose your image.
The most common image people want, for good reason, is the tail (fluke) shot. Humpbacks can dive for over 30 minutes, but before they do they will arch their back out of the water higher than normal. This is a sign that they are going to lift their tail up and go for a deep dive.
Photographically I feel the best tail images are the ones where it’s angled down towards the ocean and with water running off the tail. By knowing the arching action results in a deep dive, it will increase you chances of capturing that perfect moment.
Top tips for humpback whale photography
1. Move the focus point before the action
If you can see a whale is moving in a particular direction, move your focus point and compose your image while it’s underwater. This means you’re ready to grab proper focus and fire the shutter at a moment’s notice.
2. Watch the whale
Humpbacks tend to swim in big circles when feeding. In such cases, readjust your focus on the water in the area where the whale surfaced last. This will help your camera lock focus on the whale faster as it doesn’t need to hunt as far.
3. Tell the story using wide and long lenses
Whales are big animals, but not as big as the ocean they live in. Wide lenses are perfect for ‘animals in their environment’ images. These are important images to get as they help to convey the surroundings that the subject lives in and will add diversity to your portfolio.
Don’t always zoom in – sometimes the best images are taken with a wide-angle lens.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
4. Work with the weather
Weather conditions play a key role in photographing whales. Bright, sunny days can be challenging as the sun will reflect off the whale’s back resulting in loss of detail and harsh shadows.
Mornings are good as you have soft light and the water is often calmer. Sunset will allow for silhouettes, so make sure you have a recognisable shape. A whale coming towards you will look like a rock, whereas a tail flat onto you will be a clear and recognisable.
Fog creates an atmospheric feel to the image. The challenge here is focusing because your camera’s autofocus may hunt. Instead, use manual focus. I also like to overexpose the image by a +0.3/0.7 stops to make the fog white rather than a dull grey. It can also help to adjust your white balance to achieve this.
At the end of the day, you are in their home so please be respectful. Follow all the whale watching laws that are in your area and try not to disturb them.
Humpback whales are peaceful animals and a joy to watch. You don’t have to take a picture every time they surface, so make sure you watch them with your own eyes sometimes and rather than exclusively through a viewfinder.
Hopefully you have learnt something from this article and are ready to photograph whales. You can have all the knowledge and all the gear, but you still have to find them first and that’s the hardest part of all. Good luck!