In this post, I will be writing about photographing a wide variety of marine wildlife, from boats, above or near the surface of the water. The post has nothing to do with diving or underwater imagery. In terms of locations, much of my marine photography is carried out offshore, in Indian Ocean waters, along the south and east coastline of South Africa. In the Cape Town area, my marine operator of choice is Apex Shark Expeditions. They are respectful of the wildlife, highly-skilled and have experience catering for photographers.
Marine animals that I like to photograph include seabirds of all kinds, as well as other creatures, whether they be mammals or fish, that come near or above the water surface. These would include dolphins , whales, seals as well as sharks.
Keeping It Safe
Obviously it is extremely important to work from a seaworthy vessel, and one that is safe. The ocean is not a place to take chances. For my own marine photography, the single most important thing to take note of is the weather. Rough weather can make it very difficult to take good photos, and can also put my gear at risk of damage. Salt water is totally unforgiving, and I take every precaution to keep it away from my gear.
I typically keep my camera covered when I am not actually shooting, either in a custom-made neoprene bag, or stored away inside a camera bag. If there is the chance of wind-blown spray landing up on the camera when I am shooting, I may take a small hand towel and drape it over the lens barrel. It can also be useful for immediately wiping away spray. In windy conditions, I may use a clear or UV type filter on the front element for more protection. I also always keep lens hoods in place when shooting from boats.
If you place or store your gear on the floor of the boat, make sure that it cannot get wet from a wave washing across the floor unexpectedly, or if the boat stops suddenly.
For me, the ocean is seldom smooth enough to allow for using tripods. Instead, I shoot handheld all the time. If you like using camera straps, then a boat is a good place to make use of them. Another advantage of shooting handheld is that the photographers body, and arms absorb much of the vibration from the floor, especially if the boat engines are running.
I use autofocus all the time, and I always set up my camera in Ai Servo (moving subject) mode for Canon or AF-C (Continuous) for Nikon or Sony cameras. This is not only because I like photographing moving subjects but also because the boat is almost certainly going to be moving. Even if the boat engines are switched off, there is usually movement up and down due to ocean swells.
Using Ai Servo or AF-C means that I need to be precise with where I place my focus point, as in this focus mode, the camera will not lock and hold focus in one place, but will rather keep finding focus wherever my active focus point is in the frame.
It is a personal preference whether to use a single focus point or a group of them for photographing moving subjects. Generally, newer model cameras, or those that are middle range to high end, may provide accurate focus results with both single point or multiple points, whereas older or simpler camera models often do best using the centre focus point or one close to it.
Some of the marine mammals or fish that jump out of the water do so unexpectedly. What this means is that there is very little time available to actually pick up on the subject before it disappears beneath the surface. In Ai Servo (AF-C), I prefer to work with my camera autofocus geared more towards Release than Focus Priority, especially for the first shot in a burst. This is because I find that the extra time taken when my camera may be set to provide extra priority to Focus, can sometimes delay firing for too long. I want to get images whilst the leaping subject is on its way up, or clear of the water, rather than have a delay and only capture it when it is splashing head-first back into the water.
I don’t use any polarizing filters even though they do help cut reflections, because they slow down autofocus too much, and also may require adjustment in what are sometimes fast-moving photographic situations.
For this kind of photography, I prefer to make use of zoom lenses. One reason for this is the wide variety of subject matter that I may come across. Birds may be as small as a storm petrel, and mammals as big as a whale. I most often use wide-angle zoom lenses that start out at 16mm or close to it. Some Canon examples are the trusty Canon EF 17-40L f4 for full frame, and the EF-S 10-18 STM IS for crop (APS-C) dslr bodies. I like having the wider field of view that these lenses provide, for those instances when a subject approaches the boat very closely, and I am wishing to include more of the surroundings. Whilst it takes a little extra effort to manage more than one camera safely on the boat, doing so enables me to react quickly should the opportunity arise.
I always pair that wide-angle lens with a longer focal length zoom lens, like the Canon EF 70-300L F4-5.6 IS or the EF 100-400L f4.5-5.6 IS ii. These lenses focus fast, which is important, are light enough to make handholding comfortable, and have very good image quality. They also have relatively close minimum focus distances, which can come in very useful at times. In the past, I worked mostly with Canon 70-200mm lenses, in both their f2.8 and f4 aperture forms, but I found that the 200mm definitely limits the images I can make and was not often enough focal length. This led to my preference for the 70-300mm or 100-400mm zoom lenses. There are also some very good telephoto zoom lenses with more focal length that this, from Nikon (200-500), Sigma and Tamron (150-600) and they give even more reach on the water. The more unsettled the ocean surface is, the harder it becomes to manage longer focal lengths though, and I seldom use more than 400mm.
I keep image stabilization (IS) switched on at all times on those of my lenses that are equipped with it. I typically keep my Canon lenses set to IS Mode 1 or Mode 3. Make sure to read up on the characteristics of your own lens’ optical stabilization so you can make it work for you. With vibration coming through the deck from the engines any time they are running, and ocean-imparted motion, I find IS invaluable. For Nikon substitute VR for IS.
I prefer to shoot fast shutter speeds much of the time, and especially so when there may be a chance of capturing action. When shooting from boats, I don’t change this approach. Shooting offshore also means that I have to usually have to take into account the added motion that comes from swells and wind. If there is enough ambient light, I will typically choose shutter speeds upward of 1/1000sec when I am using a telephoto zoom lens (70mm upwards). There may also occasions when the only way to stay with a fast-moving subject is to have the boat running alongside under power, which again requires fast shutter speeds. Big swells and wind can add to that movement in both the vertical and horizontal plane. The fast shutter speeds help to counter that. This need for high shutter speeds often means that I may be shooting my EF 70-300L or 100-400L at wide-open aperture settings, much of the time. These lenses still deliver high image quality, even at their widest apertures. Zoom lenses that may require being stopped down to smaller apertures for image quality reasons might be a drawback in such instances.
Moving subjects also allow for the creative use of slow shutter speeds, to obtain images showing motion blur. Slow speed captures that include water and waves can really bring motion to life in an image. Typical shutter speeds would be between 1/20 sec and 1/80sec.
Light and Water
The water surface has a big impact on my shooting. Totally smooth water surfaces off-shore are infrequent happenings where I visit, but when the sea surface is glassy and flat, I always look extra-hard for subjects to photograph. Not only can the images show a reflection, but the water surface reflects lots of light onto the underside of my subjects. This can be especially useful for lighting up the underside of low-flying marine birds and revealing added detail.
From an exposure point of view, on days with unobstructed sunshine, I try to remember to guard against white feathers on seabirds over-exposing. Some days I may have to underexpose by over a stop to prevent this from happening. I don’t have any kind of fixed rule for this, but just keep a careful eye on my camera’s histogram. If I do have have to underexpose for a white bird it often just ends up making the background water a darker blue, which is not usually an issue.
One other challenge that I sometimes face comes when marine mammals (or fish), leap clear of the surface. On bright days, the water that they splash into the air can easily overexpose. Sometimes, a film of water also clings to the animal, and can cause very bright reflections of the sun, that blow out in the exposure. In such situations, I try carefully in post-processing to tone down the highlights. I also look to clean up any chromatic aberrations which sometimes show up around the edges of these high-contrast white areas.
About the only way to completely avoid this is to be able to shoot when the sun is not overly bright, perhaps filtered by clouds, or else very early or very late in the day.
Sometimes marine wildlife can come very close to the boat, and it pays if you are able to take advantage of such instances. To this end, having a zoom lens that can go wide enough to capture a wide angle scene can be very helpful.
It can also work well if you have a super-zoom, or in other words a lens that goes from the wide end to telephoto like Nikons 28-300 mm lens.
Respect Marine Wildlife
Most species of marine wildlife live outside of protected areas, and are under ever – increasing pressure from a wide variety of threats, the majority of which are attributable to humans or our activities. The last thing that seabirds, or marine mammals or fish may need, is unnecessary pressure or disturbance from photographers. I prefer to be patient rather than rushing in, and I believe that if you respect the amazing wild creatures that we photograph, you will be rewarded by better photo opportunities.