Photography From A Boat: Ian Dickinson

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Nikon D7100, 300mm, 1/4000 sec., F8,  ISO 800.

This was taken on a whale watching boat near Brier Island, Nova Scotia in September 2008.

The image was taken with a 300mm f4 prime lens and I was lucky. On these whale watching tours, they bring the boat fairly close to the whales – and whales are huge. One needs a zoom that goes pretty wide for when the whale is close, but sometimes you also need to photograph at a distance. I was actually using 24mm – 120mm for this shoot. I got many good images using this lens on a Nikon D750 – then I spotted a whale at some distance doing these tail flaps. As the boat turned and headed toward the somewhat distant whale, I knew that I couldn’t wait until it got there and at 120mm, the image on my zoom was too small.

I grabbed my other camera with the 300mm which I had brought along to capture pelagic birds and got this shot.

Why do I care about the lens that I didn’t use? I care because I need to figure out what is the best combination for my next trip.

Is there a single lens that would cover the full range of a 40ft Humpback almost nuzzling the tour boat (it happened) as well as getting shots when they are in the distance? Many compact and bridge cameras have incredible zoom ranges but lack the focusing speed and accuracy to catch a Humpback in a breech.

Criteria for whale photographing equipment:

  • Fast and accurate autofocus. This means a DSLR or very high end mirrorless camera. With most compact and bridge cameras you run the risk of missing much of the action which can happen unexpectedly and very fast.
  • Focal length range from 24mm to 300mm on a full frame body or 18mm to 200mm on a crop sensor.
  • No heavy lens, as you will be shooting handheld for long periods.
  • Use a viewfinder as the boat is pitching and rolling. With a viewfinder (as opposed to LCD view), the camera follows your eye which naturally stays fixed on the subject.

During the trip, a whale breached once while I was checking my images in the camera. I plan to go back next year with this experience in mind and hope to get some better images.

To read the full account of A Close Encounter (of the whale kind) click here.

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