Photographing the Whales of Northern Norway

killer whales Norway

Northern Norway is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and rich marine biodiversity. From the majestic humpback whale to the elusive orca, this region offers photographers a unique opportunity to capture these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

northern Norway

However, as whales only return to the Norwegian Sea during the winter, it can also prove difficult to photograph them in the harsh Arctic conditions and sub-zero temperatures.

Therefore, this guide equips you with the knowledge required to navigate these unique challenges by delving into equipment recommendations, photography techniques, and insights into responsible whale-watching practices.

Essential equipment for whale photography

Camera equipment

Packing the appropriate camera gear ensures you are prepared to capture the best possible images during your trip to northern Norway.

Primarily, a telephoto zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 400mm will enable you to capture detailed shots of whales from a safe distance, ideally with image stabilization to minimize camera shake when shooting from a moving boat.

whale watching northern Norway

Since water spray is inevitable at sea, consider using a neoprene coat for your camera lens and investing in a waterproof camera bag to provide additional protection from moisture.

Temperatures in northern Norway may drop to -30 degrees Celsius during the winter. Therefore, having plenty of spare batteries and memory cards is essential to avoid running out of power or storage space during your trip.

Additionally, to combat glare and enhance colors in bright sunlight or reflective water, a polarizing filter can be a valuable tool, further improving the quality of your images.

Personal equipment

The weather conditions in northern Norway fluctuate constantly. Therefore, protecting yourself from the elements is essential.

Opt for a layered clothing approach, starting with a moisture-wicking base layer, followed by an insulating layer, and finishing with a waterproof and windproof outer layer.

northern Norway whale watching

A high-quality jacket and trousers with sealed seams will keep you stay dry and comfortable in the event of rain, snow, or saltwater spray from the sea. Make sure to protect your hands with insulated gloves and shield your eyes from UV rays with sunglasses.

Lastly, sturdy hiking or rubber boots with good traction will keep your feet dry and stable on the wet and slippery surfaces of a ship deck.

Tips for whale photography in northern Norway

To make the most of your time on the water, here are some top tips to help you capture great whale photographs.

Understand behavior

Whales are unpredictable creatures, and capturing compelling images of them requires a combination of luck, timing, and skill.

Therefore, spending time understanding and observing the behavior and movement patterns of different whale species will allow you to anticipate the right moment to capture them.

Several behaviors warrant special attention. Breaching, where whales propel themselves out of the water, stands out as one of the most dramatic moments to photograph.

killer whale behaviour

Additionally, tail slapping, in which the cetaceans vigorously slap their flukes against the water surface, adds a distinctive element to an image.

Spyhopping, characterized by an animal raising its head vertically out of the water to survey its surroundings, offers a unique perspective, often resulting in intimate portraits.

Lastly, documenting the interactions of a whale pod, such as hunting for herring, provides interesting insights into their intricate social dynamics.

Use burst mode and continuous focus

When photographing cetaceans, reaction time is paramount. As whales often surface for air unexpectedly, utilizing burst mode to capture a rapid sequence of images significantly improves your chances of seizing a perfectly timed shot.

killer whale photography

Additionally, engaging continuous focus mode and tracking the whale’s movements with your camera enhances the probability of achieving sharp and detailed images upon pressing the shutter.

Make sure to use a high shutter speed alongside these settings to effectively freeze motion and capture details in the scene.

killer whales Norway

Instances where a high shutter speed proves advantageous include capturing the water droplets of an orca’s blow, depicting the pandemonium of seagulls soaring overhead during a herring hunt, or a whale calf unexpectedly emerging next to its mother.

Get creative with composition

The stunning scenery of the Arctic offers an ideal canvas for exploring various angles, perspectives, and framing techniques. However, aboard a ship, controlling the location and proximity of whales poses a challenge.

To address this, employing a zoom lens ensures flexibility and adaptability in composing your shots, enabling you to capture the best possible images regardless of the whales’ movements.

northern Norway whale-watching photography

Even in a limited space, there is no need to confine yourself to a single angle. Explore different perspectives by moving around the deck, opening up opportunities to capture images from both a bird’s-eye view and at eye level.

Integrate environmental elements into your compositions to create a richer narrative of the cetaceans and their habitat. Vary your framing to capture close-up portraits and detail shots, such as a whale’s fluke, to highlight the features that distinguish an individual animal.

Leverage the light

As whales return to northern Norway in winter, prior to the onset of the polar night, capitalizing on the soft lighting conditions during this period can result in images with flattering, pastel-colored tones.

how to photograph whales

Simultaneously, photographing with limited daylight presents a unique set of challenges. While increasing ISO sensitivity can introduce noise into your images, decreasing shutter speed hinders capturing the fast-moving whales.

Besides using a fast lens, adjusting shutter speed, and employing denoising software, timing plays a crucial role in overcoming these obstacles.

The optimal period to explore northern Norway falls in mid-October to early November, when soft daylight is abundant, complemented by golden sunsets and the mesmerizing display of the northern lights.

Responsible whale-watching practices

Before embarking on a whale-watching excursion, conduct thorough research to ensure your chosen tour provider prioritizes the well-being of the cetaceans and minimizes disruptions to their natural behavior.

A fundamental aspect of responsible whale watching is maintaining a safe distance from the whales, avoiding pursuits, or approaches that could cause undue stress or disturbance to the marine mammals.

whale watching Norway

Many tour operators in northern Norway integrate educational components into their whale-watching excursions, offering specialized guides and biologists who possess a thorough understanding of cetacean behavior.

Additionally, some employ hybrid engines to minimize underwater noise pollution, thereby reducing disturbance to marine life.

By selecting a reputable tour provider, you enhance the likelihood of successful whale sightings and the opportunity to witness more natural behaviors, all while ensuring a respectful interaction with the whales.

In conclusion

Photographing whales in northern Norway is a thrilling and rewarding experience that offers photographers the opportunity to capture stunning images of these marine mammals.

Following responsible whale-watching practices, utilizing the right equipment, and employing essential photography techniques ensures that you can showcase the beauty and grandeur of whales in their natural habitat.

Visit Lana's website

Lana Tannir is a National Geographic published nature photographer and science storyteller based in Germany. Her photographs encapsulate stories of conservation, biodiversity and the intersection of humans with nature. As a World Animal Protection and Girls Who Click ambassador, she focuses on challenging environments and remote Arctic regions to unveil the last wild places on Earth.

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