A Guide to Photographing Humpback Whales Underwater in Tonga
Whales don’t move very fast in the water unless they have to, so generally a shutter speed of about 1/125sec to 1/180sec will be sufficient. With the aperture, usually you can set the f-stop on your camera to f4 – f5.6 for an ideal shot. Because you are close to the subject and surrounded by nothing but the deep blue sea you don’t always need to worry about depth of field.
Most of your shooting is done close to the surface so there is a lot of natural light so strobes are not required or in anyway effective on such a large subject, plus we don’t want to have a negative impact on their behaviour so flash photography is generally not permitted. The beams of light piece the water quite dramatically and you may want to increase your f-stop to f8 – f11 to capture the contours and contrast that the light creates in the water and around the whales.
The whales have a lot of contrast because they are white underneath and dark on the back so try and meter for the light areas on the whale. It is easier to fix under exposed shots then it is to fix over exposed shots. It is a good idea to set your Exposure Compensation setting a third or half a stop down(EV 1/3 – ½ ) as it is better to be slightly under exposed than over exposed.
The key to photographing whales in the water is to always try and position yourself with the sun behind so you don’t get silhouette shots. The best angle is to be 45 degrees to the whale so you can see the front and extent of the whale’s body which allows for a good perspective on a 14 – 16 metre long Humpback whale.
As for the types of lenses you should use, there are number of good wide angle lenses or converters for compact cameras that will enhance the ability to fit your subject in shot. A 10-22mm will allow you to be only 2 – 3 metres away from the whale and allow a lot of space in the shot. With a 17-40mm lens you get a tighter shot at 2-3 metres in front of the whale. Fisheye lenses are also very effective and allow for a much wider view and have some very nice creative effects as a result.
Generally when I am with the whales I shoot ISO 200, 1/180 sec, f5.6 but depending on the light play around with the ISO to get the desired results.
Gear check and assembly
Make sure you bring spare o-rings for your underwater camera as I have seen some expand in the heat and let moisture in. nothing too damaging but enough to fog up your housing.
Remember to put your camera and housing together in a cool place or under a fan as there is a lot of humidity in Tonga. I often use compressed air cans to blow out the inside prior to putting the camera together. You don’t want to be taking your camera apart on the boat as this is where accidents happen and cameras get flooded.
Make sure you always check your housing, as a lot of people get very excited when seeing a whale up close for the first time and you do not want to flood your housing. There will be plenty of opportunities in the water with the whales, so don’t rush your set up of your gear.
Make sure you wash your camera in fresh water every night and I like to press all the buttons on the housing to avoid salt build up so then the housing won’t jam when you are taking the shot.
In Tonga the voltage is similar to Australia 220-240volts, so check to make sure you have this set up correctly so your batteries charge fully.