How to Get The Best Whale Watching Photos
As some of you may have seen from my Instagram feed, I recently came back from a trip to Nova Scotia, Canada where I went whale watching for the first time! Seeing the whales up close was definitely an experience I wanted to remember, so naturally I intended to take some photos during my whale watching tour. As whales and their pods only surface briefly, capturing that moment is difficult for even seasoned whale photographers- that is if there are any pods in the area.
While my photos are by no means National Geographic standard, I thought I would pass along some tips I received from a photojournalist I met along the boardwalk in Halifax, who had some amazing photos of whales breaching, playing and spraying in southern Nova Scotia.
Consider the whale watching company you’re going with
Although Googling “best whale watching company in xyz” is a great place to start for anyone wanting to go whale watching, it’s also important to see what kind of whale watching tour they offer and what you’re looking for. Many companies will offer a range of different sized boats for the tour. When I went whale watching in Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton Island, I went with Capt. Mark’s Whale & Seal Tour. I opted for a smaller boat called the zodiac, as they’re known for their speed and for being almost surface-level with the whales. I would recommend larger boats, like research vessels, to anyone who is easily motion sick, as zodiac rides are very choppy.
I would also recommend phoning in advance to learn more about the company’s policy about approaching whales. As they are wild animals, the company should not use bait to lure the animals into their patrolled area. They also should use their motors sparingly when near a pod, as the noise and disturbance in the water may scare or disorient the whales. We’re just there to watch them, not to change their natural migratory patterns.
Bring your best photography gear
As with shooting any animals, whales will only surface for a moment before disappearing under the water. Every. Millisecond. Counts. Although it is possible to capture a whale surfacing on a point-and-shoot camera or a smart phone, I found that using my Nikon D3100 camera and my Nikon 55-300mm lens worked best. The photojournalist I spoke with used a Canon camera (I can’t recall the exact model) with a 55-300mm lens for the many whale watching excursions he took in Nova Scotia.
I would also recommend deleting some old photos on your SD card or purchasing a new memory card before your trip. I ran out of room on my Duracell 32GB SD card as some of the whales were popping up beside our boat, and I was left hastily switching SD cards with my waterproof camera (which I did not end up using). As you will be trying to keep a steady hand in ocean waves, trying to keep glare from the water to a minimum and keeping an eye out for whales, lots of space on your SD card is a necessity (as is a quick finger)!
Update your camera settings
Before going out on the water, make sure that your camera settings are able to keep up with the speed of whale sightings. If you are a beginner photographer, ensure that your camera is in sport or active mode and that your image stabilizer is on. The camera should also be set to multiple shots, as opposed to single shot. This allows for your camera to take multiple photos when you put your finger on the shutter button.
Depending on the time of day and your camera, sometimes automatic won’t allow for the best photos. If you have experience in manual mode, set your ISO to 400 and the shutter speed between 1000-1200.
Protect your gear
Electronics and water don’t mix. Most whale watching companies know this and will provide you with a waterproof bag to put your camera and valuables inside during the trip. I would also recommend investing in a good microfiber cloth to wipe your lens clean from any ocean spray.
Know when to go
When booking your whale-watching trip, check what kind of whales are in your area and what their migratory patterns are. For instance, when I booked my trip in Cape Breton, I knew that I would most likely see pilot whales or mink whales, who are in the area from May until September-October.
The photojournalist recommended the south of Nova Scotia to me, as there were more whales in that area during the summer months. This also included a pod of whales on the brink of extinction. He almost made me change my mind, but I thought Cape Breton was too beautiful to ignore.
It’s also important to note that even though the company may advertise “guaranteed” whale sightings, it’s not always the case.
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Do you have any tips for whale watching photography? What would you recommend to first-time whale watchers?
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