PHOTOGRAPHING WHALES AND OTHER OCEAN
Tips for photographing
whales, whale sharks and other marine megafauna.
FLASH OR NO FLASH?
When it comes to shooting
whales and other marine megafauna, the question I get asked
most often is 'Should I use strobes?'. You never know what
will show up on a dive so (if it is allowed) I always carry
strobes with me. However, for truly enormous life forms,
strobes tend to be counter productive. To appreciate why,
its important to understand what strobes actually do.
Its a popular misconception
that strobes are there to brighten your images. While this
may be partially true, if there is enough ambient light, the
idea is to set your exposure so that the subject and
background are bright enough without the need for strobes.
Strobes serve two purposes.
Firstly, they throw light into the shadowy recesses so that
the image has more detail. Secondly and more importantly for
underwater photographers, they replace the wavelengths of
red light that are absorbed by the water as you descend. The
deeper you go, the bluer everything looks. Strobe light
brings back the red tones in the visible spectrum, adding
vibrancy and warmth to images that would otherwise be
reduced to shades of blue or grey.
Consequently, strobes are
invaluable in most underwater situations but when it comes
to massive subjects, they fall short (literally). Even the
most powerful strobes have an effective range of around two
meters / six feet. Beyond this they may help to add a little
contrast but the reds begin to taper off. For example, if
you try to light a humpback whale, you'll end up with a
brownish grey area near the strobes (the true colour of a
humpback when seen at the surface) but the rest of the
animal will be completely blue - a distracting result at
I suggest that you bring your
strobes just incase a smaller photo subject swims by but
switch them off while you're photographing giants.
RECTILINEAR WIDE ANGLE
LENSES OR FISHEYES?
Forget anything you've read
in the past about the the eye being equivalent to a 35mm
lens on a full frame camera - it isn't. The human eye has an
equivalent focal length of around 43mm. Lets skip the lengthy explanations about the 'cone of visual
attention'. Just trust me.
shorter than 43mm are able to see a wider field of view than
we can. Some ultra short wide angle lenses have a whopping
180 degrees of coverage. That's great for big subjects but
increasing the angle of view comes at a price.
Really wide angle lenses have
a convex front element that drastically distorts the image.
These are called fisheye lenses and the effect is called
'barrel distortion. The distortion increases the closer you
get to the subject. Fisheye lenses have the widest angle of
coverage of any lens on the market but the results can look
odd. The portion of the subject that is framed in the centre
of the image will look huge. Whereas, the parts of the
subject that are framed near the edges of the image will
look relatively tiny. Any straight lines in the image will
also look bowed unless they are in the exact centre of the
Rectilinear wide angle lenses
do not distort the image in the same way but the corners of
the frame may still look protracted and/or soft.
How does this affect marine
megafauna photography? Well, you may find that the whale
shark swimming past you looks ridiculous when photographed
with a fisheye lens. Then again, if you switch to a
rectilinear wide angle, your whaleshark won't look so much
like a zeppelin but you run a much higher risk of cutting
off the edges off its extremities. And we all agree that
cutting off shark fins is bad ;)
Whatever lens you use, its a
good idea to add some distance between you and a large
subject. This will increase your chances of getting the
entire animal in the frame and reduce the effects of barrel
distortion. You can always crop the image later.
The image above shows a whale
shark with an enormous mouth that tapers into a tiny tail.
Whale sharks are bigger at the front but fairly cylindrical
and their tails are enormous. This time, the composition
works because the big mouth looks dramatic. In the image
below, the barrel distortion is not so pleasing!
ADD PERSPECTIVE AND/OR
FILL THE FRAME.
No mater how big an animal
really is, if you frame it in the middle of the image with
lots of water around it, it will look smaller than life
size; an effect that you probably don't want.
Conceivably, you may be able
to compose a spectacular image of a whale swimming over a
gorgeous reef with dramatic sun rays slicing through the
water column and the distant whale silhouetted in front of
the sun splash. Sounds dreamy but the ocean rarely provides
visibility that would make a shot like that possible. So,
chances are, you're going for a more traditional, dramatic
shot of a big whale looking at the camera.
To make the whale look
massive, try to fill the frame with it but make sure there
is some water left between the head of the whale and the
edge of the image. This is because the human brain finds it
more pleasing to see an animal moving into the frame. If you
position its nose too close to the edge, it will look as though
its swimming away.
Another technique you can use
to make the subject look huge is to add a human. If you
can't afford to bring a model (and most of us can't) then
try to make a deal with another diver on the boat. Either
find another shooter and pose for each other or better still,
ask someone without a camera if they'll pose for you and
then share your images with them. Don't be too pushy -
everyone is on vacation but I generally find someone that is
keen to get in the image.
Once you've found a
cooperative model, ask them to position themselves behind
the subject. This way the subject will look even larger than
life. Conversely, if the model is positioned in the
foreground, they will make the subject look smaller than it
really is; as in the following image.
Often, marine megafauna dives
are snorkeling encounters so your model needs to be able to
duck dive down to the whale's depth on a single breath. If
they remain at the surface, not only will it be harder to
get them in the shot, but the surface wave action will make
it difficult to see them at all. If your model can't dive
(or if they're just someone caught in the background of the
image) then you will have to dive instead so that you can
line them up with the animal. In this situation, you'll have
to get even deeper than the whale to position the surface
model behind them. This means you'll be shooting upwards
towards the light so your subject will be in shadow. More
about megafauna silhouettes in the next section.
Generally, its pleasing to
see models looking streamlined. Better still if they are
swimming in the same direction as the subject. But, you can
sometimes make a bold statement by having a snorkeller in
disarray as if the've been bowled over by a behemoth!
SHOOTING MARINE MEGAFAUNA
Encounters with massive
animals tend to be fleeting but if time is on your side, you
may want to try shooting some silhouettes. Very large
animals are ideal for this type of photography because they
are relatively easy to line up with the sun.
You have two choices when
shooting silhouettes underwater. You can position the animal
directly infront of the sun so that it blocks the harsh
sunsplash, or you can stop down your exposure so that the
sun splash is visible and throws shards of light in every
direction. The latter can look amazing when done well but it
is an extremely challenging technique because your exposure
settings generally have to be so low - to avoid overexposing
the sun - that the subject is completely lost in the
Even if you're blocking the
sun with the subject - as seen below - you will still need
to stop down your F-stop so that your lens lets in very
little light. This mean you must shoot in manual mode
because other camera modes will average the available light
and completely blow out the background.
GO FOR THE SPLIT
If your whale or whale shark
is close enough to the surface and moving predictably, you
may have a chance at nailing some splits. Remember that the
key is to expose the terrestrial world correctly while spot
focusing on the underwater subject. For split frame images
to be successful, you need an interesting topdide view as
well as a well composed underwater subject. Coastlines,
boats and sunsets or interesting cloud formations will all
Read more about split frame
photography in this handy tutorial:
Split Frame Photography
TRY CAPTURING BEHAVIORS
Once you've got your first
'proof of life' images, its time to raise the bar. This may
mean just getting closer so that your images have more
detail or you can go for gold and try to capture interesting
behaviors but lets face it, capturing anything other than
animals swimming is no easy task. Humpies and whalesharks
are intrinsically shy animals that are never seen mating or
birthing. So if you do run into this kind of activity, shoot
like a photographer possessed because even if your settings
are off, the images you capture will be very well received
by scientists and the general public alike.
Some interesting behaviors
that you may have a chance to witness include humpbacks
spy-hopping and whale sharks 'bottling'. These behaviors
both involve the animals floating vertically in the water.
For the whales, this is a chance for them to expose their
sensitive chin pores to the air where they can 'smell' or
'taste' the environment. They might do this to find out who
else is in the area or perhaps to judge the position of
large masses of krill. Whale sharks bob at the surface in a
similar way but its likely they are simply staying in a spot
where the food is particularly thick or perhaps hanging
vertically to release air bubbles that have lodged in their
stomach cavities after long periods of surface feeding.
LASTLY, BE READY FOR THE
Humpback whales love to
breach - leap out of the water. They do this to make loud
noises that other whales can hear and to rid themselves of
parasites and maybe sometimes just for fun.
If you want to get good
breach shots, you have to pick your destination carefully.
Some well know humpback hotspots like the
Silver Banks are great for watching
humpbacks underwater but there are surprisingly few
breaches. At other places like on the
South African Sardine Run,
it seems as though the humpbacks never tire of breaching.
Its not uncommon to sit in the boat and watch a pair of
humpbacks breach fifty or sixty times in the exact same
spot. You could not ask for a better opportunity!
To nail the shot, you need an
experienced boat captain that can position the boat on the
sunny side of the breaching whales. You also need the right
lens. A good captain will get you close enough to the whales
that you don't need a long telephoto. A mid length zoom that
stretches from wide angle to around 200mm at the narrow end
should be perfect.
You'll need to use a fast
shutter speed - perhaps around 1000th of a second or faster
- to capture the breach and freeze all of the water droplets
that are thrown off as the animal emerges.
If the opportunity arises,
give it a try!
Andy Murch is a fanatical big
animal photographer. His images and shark stories have
appeared in hundreds of books and magazines around the world
from titles as varied as National Geographic, Scuba Diving,
FHM, Digital Photography Magazine and the Journal of
Andy is the Creator of
the ever expanding
Shark and Ray Field Guide on