Every day I’m showing my images at a venue, I usually spend a lot of time talking with people about photography, and some of the great places to capture images on the Islands. During the winter months, the question I hear most often is, “How can I get great shots of the whales?”
Week-Old Humpback Whale Learns to Breach

A Week-Old Pacific Humpback Whale tries Breaching for the First Time

My stock answer is straight from my workshop mantra, “f/16 + be there ™”: First, follow the “Sunny 16” rule, and second, you’ve gotta be there in order to get the shot – the latter being the most important. Consider: you’re trying to capture one of the largest mammals on earth, which spends most of its life underwater. You have no way of communicating with them, and they generally have no “tells” of what behavior they are engaged in or where they are going. Capturing great images of the Humpbacks is truly a game of patience, persistence and luck. However, there are a few things you can do to stack the cards in your favor.

Day with the Whales WorkshopIn this two-part series, I’ll share 10 tips to get great humpback whale shots — if you want to put these tips into practice, sign up to be one of 10 participants in my “Day with the Whales”  workshop on March 1st.

1. Get out in a boat: January, February and March are prime Humpback Whale viewing months, and it’s easy to watch them frolic from the shoreline, or from the deck of your lanai. But from your vantage point, the whales will usually be miles from shore, making them tiny in your viewfinder, or you’ll have to use a big zoom to see them clearly. If you get out into the whale’s playground, you’ll be closer to the animals and you can get great shots with the islands in the background. I prefer smaller boats (like 30’ Zodiacs) to the larger tour boats, as the large boats can cram as many as 250 people onboard, making photography difficult. With smaller boats, you have fewer passengers, and far more opportunities to capture the whales.

2. Go as often as you can: This is the most important aspect in getting great whale shots, as it all comes down to the law of averages – the more time you spend out on the water, the more opportunity you’ll have to capture the Humpbacks. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a host of activity on your first trip out, but the Humpbacks can be elusive: Adults will usually come up for a breath every 10-15 minutes, with less time between surfacing when engaged with a competition pod or if they’re swimming with purpose. Babies have to breathe every few minutes, so finding a mom/calf is always a plus.

3. Properly setup your camera: In today’s hustle and bustle, many photographers keep their cameras set in its auto mode, or “green zone,” where the camera pretty much makes every decision for you. I’ve found there are three ways you can setup your camera, depending on your level of comfort with your gear and experience level: For those who want to follow the “K.I.S.S.” method (Keep it simple… well, you know the rest), just put your point and shoot or DSLR camera into “sport” mode. With its algorithms programmed for fast action, safeguarding a quick shutter speed becomes the camera’s number-one priority. For those of you that area bit more savvy (advanced amateur shooters), here’s the basic drill: ISO set to 200 in daylight, 400 in overcast; set Shutter Priority (or Time Value) at 1/800-second; focus set to servo mode and shooting mode to continuous. Advanced shooters with the latest DSLRs, set your f/stop to f/16, ISO to 800 and shoot at 1/800-second. In all cases, just toss in a large memory card (32GB will normally get you through a two-hour cruise) and prepare to have fun.

Camera Jacket

Camera Jacket


clear garbage bag

Clear garbage bag

4. Carry splash protection: It always amazes me at the number of people that bring high-end cameras out on small boats, and neglect to bring any form of splash protection — or even a dry cloth — for their equipment. Your local camera store (or online photo center) can outfit you with a “camera jacket” that fits over the camera body and lens. One of the tricks I learned years ago is super simple, and costs about $.08: Take a small clear waste basket bag, poke a hole in the end, and gently stretch the plastic over the end of the lens. Viola! You now have your camera protected from salt spray and rain, plus you can see through the clear bag to make any necessary adjustments.

5. Keep your camera close to your eye: When photographing wildlife, the 2-3 seconds it takes to lift your camera up to your eye and depress the shutter button can mean the difference between getting a once in a lifetime shot or wishing you got the shot. I generally keep my camera hoisted just below my “shooting” eye, so I can scan the area with my peripheral vision, while holding my shutter button depressed half-way the entire time (to keep the autofocus engaged). As soon as I detect a whale spouting or beginning to breach, I quickly move the camera’s viewfinder up to my eye, while simultaneously mashing the shutter button. The first image in the series is usually blurry (with the camera acquiring focus on the animal), but the rest of the series is usually tack sharp.

Come back next week for part two where we’ll finish up with tips 6-10 — and remember, “f/16 and be there!”