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Getting That Amazing Whale Photo!

Experts share their photography tips.

February 14, 2013
The Maui Weekly Staff , The Maui Weekly

The Photo Tribute to the Whales exhibit, running through Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Ma'alaea Harbor Shops, demonstrates how high-resolution photography adds to our knowledge and understanding of whales.

"Photography has play-ed an important role in the advent of benign research," said Dr. Emmanuelle Martinez, Pacific Whale Foundation's senior research scientist. "Using photographs, our pioneering research throughout the Pacific has proven time and again that you don't need to kill or harm a whale to study it. The digital SLR camera has become one of the best tools we have for learning about whales."

As some of the photographers whose work is displayed at the exhibit will tell you, taking a great photo of a whale is not easy.

Article Photos

Daimar Tamarak captured this photo of a calf breaching very close to the South Maui coast. He recommends using a fast shutter speed and holding the camera just below your eye, pointing at the spot where you think the whale will surface, while continuing to keep your eyes scanning.
Photo: Daimar Tamarak

"What I tell would-be whale photographers is to go out on as many whale watch trips as possible to begin to understand whale behavior and social dynamics first before even attempting to take pictures," said Greg Kaufman, Pacific Whale Foundation founder and executive director.

"For example, if a whale breaches once, it's likely to breach again, maybe about 30 to 50 yards from where the first breach occurred," he said. "And when a whale dives beneath the ocean, it may be five to 15 minutes until it surfaces again, which means you have to keep your camera at the ready, looking in the general direction where the whale was last seen--even through what might feel like a long wait."

Kaufman, who has spent nearly four decades studying and photographing whales in Hawai'i, Australia, Alaska, Ecuador, Tonga and other parts of the Pacific, said that it also helps to be patient, have keen reactions and the right equipment.

Daimar Tamarak, an avid nature photographer and Pacific Whale Foundation naturalist, recommends holding the camera just below your eye, pointing at the spot where you think the whale will surface, while continuing to keep your eyes scanning.

Tamarak suggests using a fast shutter speed to catch the action. A setting of greater than 1/1000th of a second will "freeze" the water drops from a breaching whale. In addition, he recommends setting your camera to "continuous mode" so you can push down the shutter and take a series of pictures.

Beginners often get better results with a wide-angle lens rather than a telephoto lens. While a polarizing filter will reduce glare and improve colors, it may hinder the camera's autofocus.

To learn more about whale photography, sign up for a Whale Photo Safari--a three-hour at-sea photography workshop--with Pacific Whale Foundation. They're offered on Sunday mornings with professional wildlife photographer David Fleetham on Pacific Whale Foundation's ocean raft from Lahaina Harbor and on Tuesday afternoons during later afternoon and sunset on the small group vessel Ocean Explorer from Ma'alaea Harbor. To learn more, visit or call (808) 249-8811, ext. 1.

And don't forget to stop in at the Photo Tribute to the Whales, open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Ma'alaea Harbor Shops. Admission is free.

The exhibit is part of the Maui Whale Festival.



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