Avoiding the fail whale.
August 26, 2010 6:10 PM   Subscribe

How do I take great pictures on a whale watch?

The mister and I are going whale watching soon off of Gloucester, MA. I have a DSLR, but I'm not terribly skilled with it just yet. How can I take the best pictures possible with what I've got?

Here's what I've got:
-Canon Rebel XSi
-18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS (the kit lens)
-50mm f/1.8 (nifty fifty, no IS)

I know how to use the various manual settings (Av, Tv, ISO, white balance, etc.), and sometimes I know when to use them. But I don't really know what settings are best for this type of photography, or even which lens will be my best bet. The nifty fifty is lovely, but doesn't have the stabilization that the kit lens has. Is 50mm or 55mm even long enough for this?

What settings? Which lens?

Also, where should I be in relation to the sun to get the best lighting? Stick to the usual "sun behind you" rule?
posted by dayintoday to Science & Nature (14 answers total)
Use the kit lens zoomed to 55mm, camera on auto. It will think for you. It's very easy to take good photos outdoors on auto in daylight. You'll be on a boat, yes? You won't have much choice about where the sun is, but you should have plenty of good light no matter. I would practice taking pictures quickly of anything you see on the water, any little piece of trash or anything. Then when the whales come and go quickly, you'll be ready.
posted by lee at 6:24 PM on August 26, 2010

I'm no photography expert, but the point is worth reiterating: for big creatures, whales are fast. You'll need to click quickly.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:37 PM on August 26, 2010

Never been whale watching, so my question is how close would you get to the whales? 18-55mm isn't much a range to be working with. If possible, borrow or rent a zoom lens so you have more range.

Deciding between the 2 lenses you own, I think it would depend on the conditions of the day and I'm leaning more toward the 18-55mm. If the water/boat are choppy you may have to rely on the IS of the 18-55mm to help you freeze the image better. If the conditions are better (still water, close to the whale) the 50mm might take better images.

And for the camera settings, you have to set the shutter speed high to freeze the image without blurring. But then that often bumps up the ISO. High ISO's are going to make the photo look more noisy. You might want to play with your ISO ahead of time and decide at the max level of noise you'd be comfortable with.

One thing I'd also suggest is buying a circular polarizing filter. The glare from the sun may cause reflections in the water and the filter will cut this down. But these things are not alway cheap and you may have to get one for each lens.
posted by Cog at 6:39 PM on August 26, 2010

Hey, I just did this on Monday! California, not MA, but still. And small point-and-shoot camera. Whose card I forgot to dump before the trip, so I was frantically deleting old photos while trying to keep an eye on the whales.

These are the results.

Your captain is restricted by law from approaching closer than [some amount], but the whales are of course allowed to approach your boat. Three humpbacks spent a long time right next to our boat; the captain cut the engine, and we just stayed there as the whales swam under the boat, behind the boat, breathed on us, etc. I'm sure some folks got way, way better pictures than I did, but I worked with what I had.

My advice: Make sure your battery is charged and your memory cards are empty. Shoot a lot - whales move fast, even when they're hanging out next to the boat. And the boat is moving, too, even when the engine is cut, so the shot you planned can evaporate when a swell rocks the boat.

But also remember to spend time looking with your eyes. Just look, and remember. And then take more pictures.
posted by rtha at 6:45 PM on August 26, 2010

lee, I will be on a boat, but I think I can pick what side I want to be on. Away from the glare is probably the best bet.

Cog, I don't know how close we'll be. I guess that depends a lot on the whales. Pretty close if we're lucky! I fear a rented lens getting wet, but I can see what they suggest at the local camera shop. I have UV filters on both lenses... is that enough or do I need something more?

Thankfully, the XSi is pretty good about ISO noise. It has to go to 1600 before you really notice, but that will be great to keep in mind when I bump up the shutter speed (thank you for this tip!).

I'm feeling better about this already, thanks!
posted by dayintoday at 6:48 PM on August 26, 2010

In my experience it's pretty difficult to get good photographs of whales. They move fast and you don't know where they're going to pop up next. I've managed some OK shots, and basically I set the camera on continuous mode and just had it constantly taking pictures in the general area where the whales are "doing stuff", and hopefully it'll catch the right moment. I used the highest resolution setting and didn't try to zoom all the way in, so that a larger area was covered and I could crop the picture later (that does of course reduce the quality somewhat). That said, I was working with a consumer level compact digicam with significant shutter delay so the chances of me catching anything any other way were close to nil.

The other thing is that when I've tried to get photographs of whales, I ended up concentrating on that instead of actually enjoying the show. In my case I get to see them quite often because I live in an area that they frequent and spend a lot of time on boats, so no big deal, but if this is your only chance to see whales I'd suggest that you may be better off without trying to get pictures.
posted by Emanuel at 6:50 PM on August 26, 2010

Rent a 70-200 IS. Set it on ISO 400, Tv, 1/500 sec. Check and see if you get any blinkies, adjust as needed. Shoot raw, if you can.

Don't do what I did: 5D, 100-400, extra cards->two pictures of a goddamn sunfish and nothing else, because the wife and I were too busy blacking out, praying for death, and puking from seasickness.
posted by notsnot at 6:50 PM on August 26, 2010

rtha, fantastic advice all around (and nice shots). I do have a terrible tendency to just shoot and not actually watch and enjoy.

OK, I'll try to stop threadsitting now.
posted by dayintoday at 6:51 PM on August 26, 2010

I'd also consider getting a polarising filter for your lens. It should allow you to shoot through some glare and deeper into the water.
posted by dantodd at 6:53 PM on August 26, 2010

Everyone's different, of course, but spending time looking rather than shooting gave me the chance to look a whale in the eye, and see it looking back. It pretty much knocked the breath out of me. Obviously, I took pictures too, but it might have been a weirdly good thing that the memory card was full, since at a certain point I gave up trying to dump old photos; it gave me "permission" to quit taking pictures and just look. (And thanks! Seeing that killer whale was a total thrill - the captain said it had been four or five years since he'd seen one on a trip.)
posted by rtha at 7:19 PM on August 26, 2010

If you get sick of dealing with camera settings, you can use the Sports/Action mode.
posted by Cog at 7:26 PM on August 26, 2010

Can you set your camera to keep taking photos as long as you hold the shutter down? If so, do it. The difference between successive frames will be huge, and only some of them will be worth keeping.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:46 PM on August 26, 2010

I also happened to go whale watching just a week ago and not too far from you (Out of Provincetown).

I actually didn't take any pictures for some of the reasons mentioned above. It was an amazing experience and some of my friends took pictures that I enjoyed later.

Don't want to repeat too much of the advice regarding settings. Yes, just take the pictures as quick as you can and don't worry too much about framing.

My advice is more strategic in terms of placing yourself. When the whales first appeared, everyone on the entire ship ran to that side. For various reasons, I stayed put and was rewarded when the whales came over to my side and I had some prime viewage with no-one else around. So if I was going again with the intent of getting good pictures I would do the same thing, only more rigorously.

Keep in mind this is a bit of a gamble, if you stay in one spot while everyone is rushing over to the other side, that may have been your only opportunity. In my case we had a good 45 minute period of high activity and there were 12 different whales that showed up, some of them literally feet from the boat. It would have been hard *not* to get a good picture.

Oh, and if you have a choice take the sunset schedule. When the whales were blowing water, the mist from the spray created rainbows!
posted by jeremias at 8:06 PM on August 26, 2010

Is it possible for you to rent a longer lens? The 18-55 is great for day to day shots, however for whales, it depends how close you are getting close to the critter. If it's possible, could you rent/loan perhaps the 55-250? Or even better, the 100-400/IS. 55mm on a crop camera isn't too long, sadly.

Lighting wise, try to see if it's possible to light the critter from the side, however you will be on e ship yes? See if it's possible.

Exposure wise, if you are comfortable with manual mode, set it so that you have an exposure you want (check the histogram), with a suitable shutter speed. I follow the 1/(focal length * crop factor) rule, so say on a 300mm I'll be at 1/(300*1.5). I also follow the rule that if the subject is moving, double the shutter speed; if subject and photog are moving, at least triple. YMMV :)

PS: With your nifty 50, with a sufficiently high shutter speed, you do not need image stabilization. I also find that any shutter speed about 1/500, stabilization sometimes introduces movement on its own and i disable stablization at higher speeds. For moving subjects that you want to freeze, shutter speed >>>> image stabilization.

* crop factor canon is 1.6, I shoot nikon, dx crop factor is 1.5
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:37 AM on August 27, 2010

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