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Whale photography: tricks of the trade with Scott Portelli – Part 1

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Wild About Whales
Humpback entertaining whale watchers. Photo: S.Portelli

Scott Portelli is an award-winning professional wildlife and underwater photographer. With a passion for the ocean and an affinity with cetaceans including whales, Scott has spent the last decade working with humpbacks, photographing and filming their behaviour both above and below the waves. In Part 1 of our 2 part series, Scott shares with the Wild About Whales community his top technique tips for capturing the perfect whale image.

Everyone wants to take that elusive breach shot or capture a perfect tail fluke just before a humpback dives, but it can sometimes take a little patience and know how to help you achieve those special moments. Here are some technique tips to make your quest a little easier.

Be poised and ready

If whales are breaching continuously, they tend to breach in a forward moving direction, so you should try and anticipate the next position they might launch out of the water. You also need to be patient and keep your camera poised ready as you never really know when they are going to propel their 40 tonne bodies out of the water.

Humpback tail slapping. Photo: S.Portelli

Right place, right time

We are lucky to have a beautiful coastline around Australia and you can often position yourself at good vantage points for spotting whales. Photographing from either a cliff or from the beach can produce quite different results. If you have a long lens and whales are breaching then being at water level can produce some dynamic photos. However, shooting from a cliff line has its advantages and you can get some almost aerial views of the shape and enormity of the whales.

Because you only see 1/10th of the whale from the surface, most of the time, you will feel the urge to keep shooting continuously. Be conscious that the back of a whale just breaking the surface from a distance can look like a black log on the horizon, and you will end up with hundreds of shots of indistinguishable black backs. Wait for the right moment when the hump or dorsal fin of the whale is easily recognisable.

Keep focused

Focusing at distance or on the surface of the water can play havoc with your auto focus, so often it is a good idea to try and pre-focus at a certain distance. That way, if the action starts your lens is already focused closer to the subject and will help you speed up your shooting. If you know the line that the whale is cruising along then you can focus at that distance to ensure the next time the whale pops up your shot will be in focus.

Humpback spy-hopping. Photo: S.Portelli

A glaring issue

Try to keep the sun behind you and not shoot directly into the sun unless you are looking to take a silhouette. Remember you will get a lot of glare off the water so use polarizing filters when possible to reduce the glare and let you see your subject as you peer through the surface.

If whales are tail slapping, the white wash of the water being flung into the air can also be a little over exposed. When possible check your exposure settings after taking a photo like this; you may need to underexpose the shot a little to reduce the highlights that the white wash causes in bright sunlit days. Most cameras have an exposure compensation feature which will allow you to do this.

But no matter what you do, be patient, photographing whales means long hours watching the ocean in search of the blow or body of a whale. Don’t be discouraged if that perfect shot doesn’t happen immediately, it can take years to achieve that perfect whale photo.

In the next edition of this two part series, Scott shares his top tips when it comes to your equipment, lenses, settings, filters and more.

For details on Scott Portelli, including his upcoming workshops and options to purchase posters and prints featuring his stunning imagery, visit his website at

Check out our top spots for all the best vantage points for whale watching.

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