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Whale photography: tricks of the trade with Scott Portelli – Part 2

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Wild About Whales
Humpback whale tail. Photo: S.Portelli

Scott Portelli is an award-winning professional wildlife and underwater photographer. In the second part of our two part series, Scott shares with the Wild About Whales community his top tips for whale photography – this time focusing on the preparation, equipment and settings that will increase the likelihood of the perfect shot.


This probably sounds obvious, but ensure batteries are charged, memory cards are formatted and your camera settings are correct before you venture out. Always bring some lens cloths and blowers to clean lenses while out in the field, especially near salt water as sea spray can often build up on your lens and camera body.


If you have a DSLR camera you probably have some great features and functions that can help enhance the end result. Most digital cameras have 20 megapixels or above. The more megapixels, the more you can crop into a photo which is important when you are shooting from a distance. Coupled with a good lens you can produce some sharp, closer cropped photos that capture all the action as if you were only metres away.

Compact cameras are moving forward in leaps and bounds and a lot of point and shoot cameras come with a good optical zoom lens. If you are looking to take the next step with your photography the new range of mirrorless cameras have some great features, including multi-purpose lenses which would be ideal for photographing whales.

Use a tripod or monopod on land if you are shooting from a distance and need to stabilise your shot. Not all cameras and lenses have built in stabilisers, however if you are shooting at high speeds then this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. You may also want to give your neck and shoulders a rest from carrying heavy camera equipment!

Choosing the right lens

A zoom lens is important for photographing whales as you can’t always get close to these majestic creatures. Shooting from the shore means you may be a little further away from your subject than you would like, so a 100-400mm lens can be used in combination with the 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to extend the focal length of your lens.

Most digital SLR lenses these days have gyro stabilisers built into them so if you are shooting at slower speeds and you are moving the camera around a lot to capture the action, these work to quickly stabilise the shot.


ISO speeds have become more refined over the years and a high ISO does not necessarily mean a noisy grainy photo anymore. So it’s worth pushing up the ISO to 400-1000 to account for your fast shutter speed and help keep your images sharp.

If you have a camera with a high frame rate (i.e. 7-10fps) this is ideal for capturing a sequence of images, allowing you to get your camera in the right position to focus and shoot continuously.

Set your camera to shutter priority (usually the letters ‘Tv’ on your mode dial) as you want to have a high shutter speed of at least 1/1000 sec to capture all the action. The combination of a high shutter speed, high ISO, a stabilised zoom or long fixed lens and a small f-stop are ideal for shooting whales from the shore.

For example: Canon 5D MK III (21 megapixels) with a 100-400mm lens and 1.4 x teleconverter with the settings 1/1000, f8-f11, ISO 1000 will give you optimal results. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, and you should experiment with different settings to achieve the look you are going for.


UV filters should be on your lens at all times to protect your lens. Polarising filters help reduce the glare off the water and can be very useful as the sun at different times of the day reflects light directly into your lens.

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

Plan and book your next coastal adventure with Wild About Whales. Find the perfect whale watching vantage point and download the smartphone app to log and share your whale sightings.

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