As you slip into the water for your first time, no matter whether you are an experienced photographer or a novice, nothing prepares you for your first Humpback Whale.
These majestic mammals will completely pull your focus away from any thoughts of f-stop and aperture and have been known to halt even the fastest of trigger fingers.
Shooting Ambient Light
As we are only snorkeling with the whales, we are shooting ambient light only. Strobes are not advisable because the flash can negatively affect the whales and result in extra drag when most of the time the whales are not within the distance that strobes can reach. anyway. Having some practice with ambient light photography will be a benefit, as well as snorkel practice to maximize your comfort. A lot of encounters with the whales are over deep water, and so being an able snorkeller will really help you in following the guides and getting into the best positions.
Cruising at average speeds of 5 knots, shutter speed is an important factor for capturing sharp images. Most of the time I shoot with my shutter speed at 1/150th and above, with my f-stop bracketing between f/4 - f/7 depending on the time of day and available light.
Zoom lenses create the best opportunities for capturing the whales, I prefer my Nikon 17-35mm as it handles both mid range and close up shots. If you have only fixed focal lengths then a 20mm lens is a good choice.
I have had instances when amazing encounters have been happening but due to the time of day and light available I could only get a shutter speed of 1/20th - and believe me that is one un-sharp whale image! Your best time for shooting is generally between 10am and 2pm when the sun is more directly over you.
Whales prefer to approach you with the sun behind them so they can view you better. This can make shooting harder, as you are shooting into the sun, but by playing with your shutter speed you can actually capture some very nice images with the sun rays as part of the composition. Once the whales have become more relaxed then there may be the opportunity to put the sun behind you, however at this stage it is up to the whale and too much moving around may disturb the encounter completely.
Some of the best whale encounters are with the curious juveniles, as they are more likely to come and check you out. This is when your heart races as they get closer, fearing that they may be getting too close. Your best option in these instances is to try and keep one eye on the whales, whilst the other looks through your viewfinder. By doing this you will have better knowledge of how far the whale is rather than trying to judge the distance through your dome port.
"Singers" present the best opportunity for free diving with the whales, as they are generally very calm, and pre occupied with the singing, rather than noticing the divers. Only the males sing, as a sign of dominance, they hang with their heads town and flukes up, generally around 12m deep. Free diving with other whales may be possible if the whales are very relaxed. However in most cases, this can disturb the encounter and change the whale’s behavior.
Also, don’t forget the fantastic surface activities that are happening during the mating season -- full body breaches, lob tailing and pectoral slapping make for great photos. Limestone islands and sandy beaches create the perfect backdrop. For land shots, a longer zoom lens is the best. I generally use an 80-200 as it is easy to hand hold. Boats are never still and so again to capture that sharp, crisp image, high shutter speeds are used , especially when shooting breaching to stop the water drops. A shutter speed of 1/1000th on a sunny day is usually a good place to start. For breaches I am sometimes using shutter speeds of over 1/2000th depending on lighting conditions.