Photographing whales in Hawaii

edited February 2017 Posted in » Nikon D3100 Forum
We are going to Maui next month (yay!). We timed this trip so that we could see the whales migrating, which is a spectacular sight, almost spiritual. I'd like to capture some images of whales breaching, and just flopping around. Last time we were there at this time of the year, we had a front row seat on the beach; they were fairly close and it was amazing. I'd like to shoot from the beach. We also plan to go on a whale-watching excursion, so I hope to have an opportunity to get some good photos from the boat.
Any tips on settings, etc.? Thanks so much!


  • edited February 2017
    Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to stop motion.

    Use AFC and either single point or dynamic area focus. Avoid multi-area which may focus on the wrong thing, and probably 3D as well, since the whales may not be distinguished well from their surroundings by color.

    Chances are that the whales will be at some distance, so depth of field will be less of an issue, so don't worry too much about aperture on lenses that are already a bit slow. For kit lens or similar telephoto, you're probably OK to open it up. I've shot some whales in Antarctica, Alaska and California. Some of the ones in Antarctica were right up to the ship, and a little more depth of field was called for, but not extreme. At one point we got a pod of sei whales that came right to the bow. It was bright mid day, and I was able to keep the ISO at 100, put the aperture at f/8, and on A priority, got a shutter speed of about 1/160. That was dangerously slow, and though a pixel peeper would likely find some motion blur at the edges, they came out OK. If doing it again, I think I'd set the ISO up a stop to 200 so as to double the shutter speed. But then again, if doing it again, I'd be using a D7100 now, which has better high ISO than the D3200, so I'd have more leeway.

    Practice panning, so that you can follow a moving whale. If you pan, you may be able to use a slightly lower shutter speed, but you'll likely still need a fairly fast shutter speed. You might do OK at something around 1/250, though some wildlife photographers suggest 1/500 or more. Whales, because they don't have fur to get blurry, seem a little more forgiving of slow speed than some things, but you still need to avoid edge blur. The better you can pan in the direction the whale is moving, the better you'll do. A swimming whale may be easier than one breaching.

    ISO will depend on the weather, but try to keep it fairly low if you can. You're probably fine up through 400. Above that you'll begin to get some noise and image degradation, but if the choice is between motion blur and digital noise, choose the noise. If you can, experiment a bit beforehand on similar scenes on the water, etc. to see how you tolerate different ISO settings on your own camera. Don't trust the camera's display too much. A computer will likely show more grain and less blur.

    Set your shutter release at continuous. Even though you should not just "spray and pray" every time you see something, some things happen pretty fast, and you're better off with a sequence of shots when the whale breaches or dives. Just make sure you know how many shots your buffer will hold before it slows down. I'm not sure about the capacity of the D3100. The D3200 will only do about 6 to 8 raw shots in a row, but that's usually enough to catch flukes nicely. You're better off shooting in bursts of three or four, though, rather than just holding the button till it stops.

    I would suggest shooting in Raw mode, so that one can compensate exposure, white balance, shadow recovery and the like after the fact.

    Here's a sei whale that is just about to break the surface:
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