Seven Underwater Photography Tips for Documenting Whales
There is a beauty when photographing marine wildlife underwater that is hard to describe. As a photographer who only started getting into underwater photography two years ago, it’s opened up a new appreciation and respect for the ocean. Photographing and documenting humpback whales has been one of the best experiences of my life and I’m happy to share some pointers on how to capture these incredible animals in their habitat.
1. GET YOUR GEAR READY BEFORE YOU TRAVEL
When both diving and free-diving, I find that my breath slows, I calm down, and find an inner peace when carefully working with a camera underwater. If you have not used an underwater housing before, it may take some getting used to. They are clunky, you have to balance carrying it with swimming, and you will need to know where all your usable buttons and knobs are. For photographing whales, it’s important to note that you’ll be shooting a massive animal at relatively close proximity, so you’ll need a wide angle lens with a dome port on your housing. Here’s what you’ll need:
This is the case that holds your camera, keeps it dry, and allows you to access the camera’s functions underwater— and they are all made to be body specific for DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Housings are not cheap and can range from being even more expensive than your camera itself to prices in the mid $100s. I’ve used three brands over the past couple years, and will list them and the differences below. When purchasing a housing, you should note that the housing and the port (i.e. the part that protects /covers the lens) are sold separately and only fit specific lenses.
Nauticam— top of the line products, but also the most expensive.
Ikelite— solid housings, mid-range prices
Seafrogs— works well up to 40m in depth, most affordable bang-for-buck housings
Dome Port and Wide Angle Lens
In order to photograph whales (and many other large aquatic animals), you’ll need a dome for your underwater housing. This will allow you to use a wide angle lens. Typically, to photograph whales, you’ll want to use a wide angle lens between 11mm and 35mm.
GoPros are also great if you want to shoot videos of whales underwater, since they are both wide angle as well as fixed aperture sports cameras. Unlike a DLSR or mirrorless camera in a u/w housing, GoPros are the underwater version of a point and shoot. Stabilization technology and quality was greatly improved with the HERO 7 Black and HERO 6 Black , so I’d recommend going for one of those if you want to shoot on a GoPro. One option is to attach a GoPro to the top of your underwater housing and roll video. This way you can do both at the same time.
2. GET YOUR SETTINGS READY BEFORE DIVING IN THE WATER
You should prepare your settings as best as possible before you jump into the water. Once you get in, you’ll be mesmerized by the whales and with the Adeline pumping you’re going to want to focus on your subject, not fiddling with your settings.
First, remember that light is very important, and that because whales are massive, you’re going to want a decently high depth of field to get them in focus. This means you’ll typically want to shoot with an aperture around f/8 (more or less a couple of stops). If light conditions are not very bright, you may want to bump your iso up a bit to compensate for the smaller aperture— plan on shooting around iso 400 to 1200. You’re also going to want to shoot with a minimum of a 1/150th of a second shutter speed, if not faster.
If you notice the corners/edges of your photographs are blurry or out of focus, you will need to increase depth of field by upping your f-stop a bit. This is due to shooting through a dome.
Always check your photos between dives and readjust your settings as needed, ideally without having to open up your housing unit.
3. GO WIDE
Whales are huge. And when photographing them you get close, we’re talking just a couple metres away. A wide angle lens with a dome are going to be your friends when photographing whales underwater— typically between 11 and 35mm with the sweet spot around 15-20mm.
If your housing unit / lens does not allow you to adjust zoom, remember to set your focal length before putting your camera into the housing. Since you’ll be shooting on and off a boat, you’re not going to want to open your housing unit ideally until you’re back on solid land. 16-20mm has normally been my shooting range with whales.
4. DIVE DOWN FOR MORE NATURAL ANGLES
If you’re with a particularly playful bunch of whales (with no calfs present), you can dive down 5-15 metres to get a better angle— ideally you want to photography from the animal’s eye line or slightly below.
5. SLOW MO YOUR VIDEO
When shooting video, you’re going to want to shoot at 120fps (or at least 60fps) for video in order to be able to slow to 1/4 speed.
6. EARLY MORNING SUN AND MID-DAY CLOUDS ARE GREAT
There’s a fine balance with lighting conditions for photographing whales. In the early morning, the sun is great, since it adds lots of nice, angled light. Mid-day sun can be problematic for photographing whales, since the sun reflects on the surface of the waves, causing a rippled effect to be mirrored onto the backs of the whales, or a tunnel-vision like effect if shooting downwards into the water.
If you see a cloud approaching to block direct sun rays and disperse the light across the ocean’s surface get ready to go, as these are ideal conditions!
7. CHECK YOUR DOME FOR BUBBLES
Photographing whales involves quite a bit of jumping in and out of boats. All this motion may result in small air bubbles forming on the outside of your dome— and these buggers will appear in your photos unless you clear them off the end of the dome by gently brushing them away with your hand or pushing water over the dome’s surface with a little bit of force. Remember to check your dome every once in a while while in the water to make sure nothing is blocking it.