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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkVallarta Living | Art Talk | February 2009 

Photo Tip of the Week: Shooting Whale Images - Part 2
email this pageprint this pageemail usLarry Bennett - PVNN

Photo Tips of the Week are written by Larry Bennett, a professional photographer living in Puerto Vallarta. To view more of his work, visit
Let's do some preparation before your guide yells whales! This is when you will see why photographing a whale is both fun and frustrating. If you're shooting a point and shoot, timing is everything. Let's hope that you didn't buy your camera on the way to the airport and you know nothing about it.

If this describes you, please just sit back and enjoy these beautiful creatures and your time on the bay. Then I would plan on reading the owner's manual that afternoon on the beach. Some point and shoot cameras will have a setting for action or sports mode. If your camera does, use that setting, as this will be your best setting.

If your camera does not have this particular setting but has TV mode or shutter priority, this is good. Turn the shutter speed to 1000-1200 and turn your ISO to 400. This will give you the best range for all around shooting.

Those that have digital and optical zoom, you will have better images if you use the optical zoom and forget the digital zoom. It's my opinion your images will be blurred plus its easier to pan your shot without digital zoom.

With your point and shoot you will have good luck if you count down and know how long you have from where the whale is in the water and how long until you get the shot you want. Hold the camera steady and shoot; remember there is going to be some shutter lag so you need to watch the whales and know when you need to shoot.

There is a period of time that the whale will seem almost motionless and it's just before they peak on their roll. This probably doesn't make sense right now, but after watching them you will understand. The whales come up for air, blow, and sometimes run on the surface for a few seconds before they start their roll by doing the famous Humpback arch and go back down into the water and repeat.

It has been my observation over the years, that there will be an average of three whales surfacing when they blow, breathe, and arch before they do the dive roll and show that beautiful fluke. Watch a few times before you start shooting to observe their behavior and roll patterns, while getting the timing down, then point and shoot your camera.

Shooting speed is determined by the size of your camera's processor and your flash or memory card. All cameras are different, so you will need to play with it. If you can, turn off your flash, there is no need for flash when shooting the whales.

DSLR people let's get going as we have lots to prepare for. When shooting the whales, I shoot in many different settings and modes, taking into count the natural light, location and time of day.

Let's start with white balance. I never use automatic white balance. On my Canons I have the dummy symbols, sun light and shade. There is a difference between these two symbols and automatic. Use your white balance settings and change them with the situation and remember every time the boat turns you might need to check and see where your lighting is.

I don't use or need a light meter. Your camera has a built-in metering system which will tell you where you need to be. Reflective light meters that are built-in to your camera can be fooled by the blue reflective water. This can cause white out skies, white objects including whale flukes can be washed out, be careful and continue to watch your meters often. I like to shoot 2/3 of a full stop underexposed on bright sunny days or shooting into the sun on more than a 45% angle.

Early mornings is when I go, I like to shoot on sports or action modes, as it gives me better lighting. During this time, the white balance is okay until the sun gets up and you're able to meter properly. Your DSLR will go to automatic mode and all you do is point and shoot for a few minutes. Enjoy it and don't worry about it, you always have Photoshop.

After we get going I shoot only in shutter priority. I shoot fast and I like stop action shooting not just for the whales but there's also dolphins, pelicans, sea gulls, birds, and more birds! My shutter never stops! I like to shoot at 800-1250.

I'm constantly changing for what I'm shooting, if a whale is breaching I shoot a little faster than if they are just surfacing and diving. I leave my ISO at 400 most of the time, it's a little quicker and on most of the DSLR cameras it's the automatic default ISO.

Shooting a camera on automatic is boring and I never do much of it, but if you're out and just not sure of what settings to use, flip your camera to active or sports mode. If your camera does not have this feature, use the P mode, that the automatic setting on steroids. I tell all of my students to stay out of the green box or automatic, make your camera work for you.

Using a histogram works great on sunny days on the bay when it's hard to see your image. I like to use the histograms that come up with the previewed image. Talking about histograms is left for another week if you the readers would like. Read your owner's manual or go on line there are some great tutorials on this subject.

I like to shoot both automatic and manual focus. At different times of the day, the automatic focus goes nuts while out on the bay. It's all blue and there's nothing for your camera to focus on. One thing I have done when using automatic focus is to set my focus screen for center spot focus, it's easier on your system to find and focus on the whales when they surface and a little quicker than the 9 point full screen focus mode.

If I have a whale doing the tail slapping and I know the whale is going to be there a few minutes, I will take a few seconds to flip off automatic focus, switch to manual focus, and keep shooting. Manual focusing allows me better speed and if all the activity is happening in the same area, I can gain another shot per second (over automatic focus) while staying focused on those whales.

I do the same with a breaching whale, I will fine focus the camera on the first breach and be ready for the second and third and fourth, but this has cost me a few times also with stubborn whales that are not willing to show off. This is all being and getting used to your camera, knowing how and when it works.

If you haven't already figured it out, this is a very fast moving sport and you need to have your camera up, finger on the shutter release button, and be able to move and react quickly; this is the difference in shooting a breaching whale OR a big splash in the Pacific Ocean.
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Photo Tips of the week are written by Larry Bennett, a professional photographer living in Puerto Vallarta. These tips are to be just tips, refer to your cameras owner's manual for specifics on your camera. Readers are welcome to enjoy Larry's website at

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