Shooting Whales from small boat - Need Technique and Equipment advise

Discussion in 'Nature' started by anat|1, Jul 15, 2013.

  1. Dear PNers,
    My wife and I will be on a full-day charter boat ride in the Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska area. It is a small 6-person vessel. My intention is to shoot whales, harbor seals, puffins and any other (marine) wildlife I come across. I would also try to shoot some landscapes. We will leave around 5am and have till about 4pm.
    I need some advise with technique and equipment as I have not previously shot from a small vessel for long.
    I have access to one Canon full-frame (5DM3) and one crop-sensor (7D) body. Currently I plan on using a 70-200mm f2.8 for near-tele. And a 500f/4 for further reach either with 7D (becomes 800mm f/4 but with more DOF) or with 1.4x converter on 5DM3 (becomes 700mm f5.6). I can also use the 500mm f4 + 1.4x + 7D - but i'm not sure if that will be *too* long. I will have a sturdy tripod, big ball-head and large bean-bag.
    Lens Question:
    I have not shot with a long tele such as 500 f/4 before. I have mostly used the Nikon 200-400 f/4 (with 1.4x) for super-tele work.
    Any comments on using the prime super-tele from a boat for my intended subjects as opposed to a tele-zoom? Will I be better served with a 200-400+1.4x (Canon still unavailable, will need to rent a Nikon body + lens for that)? I'm concerned I'll have difficulty even locating the subject at 800mm (i.e. without the ability to zoom in) by which time the animal may move away or composition maybe lost. Any advise?
    What other lenses (instead of above, or in addition to above) would you recommend?
    Stability Question:
    I plan to use a tripod with a large ball-head. In addition I plan to use a bean-bag renting on the side of the boat (a bean-bag which is designed to hang over a car-window, such as the Molar bag or the BLUBB).
    Which of the above two methods would you recommend I use more in a boat from your experience?
    In addition should I use a Wimberly or Wimberly Sidekick? And if so, would you recommend mounting the Wimberly (or Sidekick) on the tripod as opposed to placing it (securing it) over the bean-bag?
    I also have access to a Manfrotto Super-Clamp and maybe be able to clamp it to some handle-bar on the boat. But I'm not sure if it is safe to do with a lens as large as a 500f4. In the past I have used a super-clamp with a Nikon 200-400.
    Technique Questions:
    Shutter speeds: What shutter speeds would you recommend for shooting whales in motion from a boat which is possibly moving? With 500mm lens. Would 1/1000 suffice or should I go higher / lower? I am aware I could just do trial and error - but getting some before hand knowledge from experts will be useful.
    Aperture / DOF: I generally shoot aperture priority. For a single animal head shot I shoot close to wide open. For multiple animals I am always unsure especially when shooting crop-sensors as I don't want a distracting non-blurred background, but still want many of the animals' eyes sharp. I end up using about f/8-10 on crop-sensor with mixed results. Is there a general rule-of-thumb? I'm aware it is distance dependent, but frequent shooters of marine life should be able to give me some guidance.
    Autofocus: I generally stick to one-shot auto-focus & high-burst shooting mode. Most likely I wasn't using it correctly, but AI Servo on the 7D has given me mixed results. I probably need to fine tune the many AF options the 7D seems to have. The 5DM3 seems to have lots of AF options in the menu too. In your experience which of these options should I investigate and use? What is your AF method when shooting in such situations with super-tele primes?
    Exposure / metering: As I mentioned I stick to Aperture priority, shoot check LCD and dial in compensation. I also bracket if the situation warrants it (usually 2/3 of a stop to 1 stop on each side with compensation) but this reduces burst shooting capability. I generally leave it on matrix-metering, unless I want to spot-meter occasionally.
    Advise on metering and exposure for these situations shooting wildlife on open-water?
    Any other advise with regards to technique / equipment / how to shoot whales, harbor seals?
    Thank you very much.
  2. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Whales are huge mammals. We went whale watching in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada (Pacific coast) about a year ago, and I mainly used a Nikon 28-300mm zoom on a D7000 (APS-C) format. That is not exactly among Nikon's best lenses, but it was much easier to hand hold on a boat.
    Ideally, the combo of something like Nikon's 200-400mm/f4 and a 70-200mm, either f2.8 or f4, would be ideal. Otherwise, a 100-400mm zoom would be great also. The 200-400 needs to be on a monopod.
    Something like a 500mm/f4 is just too big on a small boat. I have used a 500mm/f4 on a boat at the Kakadu National Park in Australia, in a setting very similar to the Everglades in Florida. The water is very calm and there was a lot of space on the boat to set up a tripod, and I was photographing birds and alligators, much smaller subjects in a tropical setting.
  3. There are a lot of factors to consider in this, and as usual many are beyond your control. I the weather is good and the seas are calm and the animals are broaching far enough from the boat, Use the 500 I would use the tripod if there is room on the boat to do so, but then it would not be that small would it? I would not advise hanging a sandbag on the railing. It would be my advise to use the lens that you can hand hold. I have done some of this in Hawaii where the water was a bit rough and I used the 100-400 zoom. I wished for the 500 because the law requires that the captain maintain a certain distance from the animals, (the animals however do not always obey the law). If you are physically able to do so I would have the long lens and a shorter one at hand, and so that you can pick up either one. Of course I would take all my lenses then once the conditions on this particular day were understood, mount the best lens I have for them, and stow the rest safely somewhere out of the way The boat crews are usually helpful with this.
    Use the fastest shutter speed you can commensurate with the Iso you choose. If you set your shutter for about twice the reciprocal of the lens length or higher in shutter priority mode with iso on auto, you should do well.
  4. I recently went on a boat trip looking for wildlife. Im my case I hand-held a 70-300 zoom. This was just about long enough for large birds though longer would have been useful at times. The birds sometimes came close to the boat so a zoom was very handy. My top tip (given that I am not an expert) is to set as high a shutter speed as possible - in my case in the 1/1000 second or faster - and increase the ISO to get that where necessary.
  5. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    I personally wouldn't recommend a 500 and, on the trips I've been on, a tripod, even a monopod was pretty useless.
    What did prove to be VERY useful was a gun stock. I had a 70-300mm Tamron LD at the time and this was generally rather good, although, at the time, my autofocus system wasn't the best.
  6. I agree with Douglas; a tripod/monopod transmits all of the vibrations from the engine/motors to your camera. I once tried cushioning the tripod feet in closed-cell foam, but even that was only marginally successful. If you can get the boat captain to turn off the engine. . . :)
  7. When I was on a zodiac in the Galapagos to photograph penguins and birds, I had a 70-200mm f 2.8 VR lens mounted to a Nikon D 300s, a 1.5 crop sensor camera. The VR was turned ON and set for the setting that allowed for all kinds of movement(up and down, sideways, etc) That special VR (IS for Canon) setting is important in a moving boat. I have a 500mm f 4.0, but I would not take it on a small boat as it would be to hard to get any useable images. I would consider taking a monopod, if it is allowed, onto the small boat, to help you stabilize the 70-200mm or 300mm lens you might decide to use. Make sure it has enough leg extensions so it can be opened to short length in case that is needed. When I was in Alaska, I had weather protection gear for my camera and lens to use on land, boats, etc. Make sure you have good quality weather protection gear as you might be shooting a lot in rain, snow or spray. And you will need a dry bag or its equivalent to protect your camera and lens from the elements while boarding the boat and waiting for the shooting to begin. I use Aperture priority, shoot in RAW, and want my shutter speed to be no shorter than 1/500th of a sec and better at 1/1000. I always shoot in Continuous Mode; never in S mode and I use back button focusing, and matrix metering. If in doubt I set minus exp compensation of .3. I rarely bracket. You are better to slight underexpose than to overexpose. I always check my histogram to see if my exposures are correct. On a boat with a deck, I use a tripod or a monopod and add a rubber shoe to the foot/feet to absorb deck vibrations. or just put the monopod on my foot.
  8. Do you have time to practice with the 500 before you go? Your trip sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime gig, so you really don't want to try to learn how to use a lens while trying to get shots you'll never encounter again. If you can't practice before you go, I recommend you reconsider the 500. You face the very real possibility of getting home with no 500 mm shots that you'd want to show anyone else, while using the 70-200 on the crop sensor body can give you images that you may have to crop to get the framing you want, but smaller images with good quality may be a better result than large images you can't use.
    I agree with those saying the the 500 is too much for the whales - they are large and you won't be shooting from the shore, so your 70-200 is probably going to work best for whales. However, the 500 could be useful for puffins. They are small, but they are fast - makes practicing with that 500 even more important.
    I've never found a tripod useful on a boat of any size - not enough room. But I can't hand-hold anything anymore, so I use a monopod. I rest it on my foot to insulate it from engine vibrations, and that works pretty well. Since mine can adjust down to a pretty short length, I can use it while seated, too. I've never tried a gun-stock assembly, but it might be worth trying if you have time. It, too, would be something you should practice with before you go. Don't find yourself trying to get the hang of it while missing shots of a lifetime.
  9. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Well, if you use a 500mm/f4 on a small boat that is rocking, you face the real possibility that it will get seriously damaged before the end of the day.
  10. I might carry a tripod just in case, but I have found the The Red Pod ( to be a very useful and mobile lens stabilization device. I have put it on the lens foot of the Nikkor 200-400 f4 VRII lens and then curled up and balanced the Red Pod on my knee or back of some chair. Took this on a African safari on a D800 and was able to get great video as well as stills.
    Personally, I would be worried about water splashing on your gear and severe rocking of the boat.
  11. For sea water splashes I use a UV filter on the lens to allow a brisk wipe with a micro-fibre cloth and another cloth to get the worst off the camera and lens. If there is any sort of swell running you will probably not be able to avoid the odd splash. Mopping up quickly seemed to me to be the best plan.
  12. Thanks to everybody for their useful advise. Much appreciated. I was going to respond in the afternoon but couldn't get to it - sorry. I summarize the responses below and have some follow-up questions:
    Lens choice:
    Consensus seems to be that 500f/4 on 6-person vessel for photographing whales will not work:
    - 500mm too long of a tele for whales which are large animals. (Got it)
    - 500mm f4 is a large heavy lens and may not be manageable on a boat (Got it, follow-up)
    - Use 200-400 f4 in conjunction with 70-200 f2.8 (Follow-up question on that)
    - Don't use a type of lens for the first time on this trip as it may lead to no keepers! (got it!)
    - Use a hand-holdable lens like 70-300 or 100-400
    Follow up on lens choice: I find that the Nikon 200-400 f4 VR II and the new Canon 500 f4 II are both roughly 7 lbs and similar size! Would I then also find the 200-400 too much to manage on the boat? I have shot with the 200-400 on safari from a vehicle (bean bag or super-clamped), and also at Brook's Falls from a tripod. I believe I have managed a few shots hand-held, but I don't see myself being able to do that constantly. A monopod or beanbag will be essential for me to use the 200-400. Does that mean I should exclude that lens?!
    While I have shot with the 100-400 & 70-300, I have not been extremely pleased. I was very much hoping to use a sharper lens. But it looks like such a sharper lens, due to its weight, may not necessarily give me sharper images in this scenario.
    As was pointed out in one of the responses, this is a rare occasion for us - having our own boat for the day in Glacier Bay - so wanted to be able to use as close to best equipment as possible.
    Wide-angle? Some of you pointed out that you used a 28-300. How often did you end up using the wide end of that? While I can take a 17-40 onto the boat with me easily (or even a 24-70), I wont have more than 2 bodies, so to shoot with wide-angle I may have to change lenses.
    Question on strap for super-teles: I generally have not used any straps with large teles like 200-400. But I have been contemplating trying something like a BlackRapid sling strap that attaches to the tripod collar allowing me to hang it across my body over my shoulder. This will free-up my hands when I'm not using the lens. I could even use a Dual BlackRapid and hang both 200-400mm and 70-200mm simultaneously. I wouldn't necessarily do this on the boat, but say while hiking in Denali etc. Anybody used such a method on & off the boat? Any issues I should be aware of?
    - tripod use may not be possible as I may not be able to extend legs fully
    - tripod / monopod may transmit all the vibrations of the boat to the lens
    - possibly keep monopod on my shoe to minimize vibrations. Or add rubber shoe to monopod.
    - ask captain to shut-off engine - I think this is possible, it'll just be myself & wife on boat. Do you know if there is some general procedure on boats not to switch off engine - is restart difficult / iffy?
    - Maybe use Red Pod-like bean bag

    Shutter speed
    - as high as possible keeping highest ISO to that I find acceptable.
    - above 1/1000 sec
    - Use "active" VR (or IS) if available. Continuous burst mode.

    Weather protection
    - rain cover
    - wipe immediately
    - keep in dry-bag when not using
    As an aside: For some reason PN doesn't like two exclamation points (that I had erroneously typed)!(!) I had me correct it before accepting my response :). I wonder, what other grammar / punctuation filters does PN use?
  13. I'm concerned that the OP is going out to watch whales and taking a lot of heavy, big photographic gear in a six person boat. There is no chance that a tripod will be usable. You should really only take one body and lens. You will certainly get wet, no doubt about it.
    We had a surfer killed here two weeks ago with one flick of the tail on a large whale estimated to be 50' long. There is now a 300m exclusion zone. What is the zone in Alaska? This will dictate the length of lens. Shuns setup is optimal. You will need to wear buoyancy vests and wet weather gear.
  14. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    First of all, I have used a 500mm/f4 lens on boats on several occasions, but the boats were larger, and the water was calm in all but one occasion. I always used it on a Gitzo 3 series tripod. The one time when the boat was really rocking, I hardly captured any images with the 500mm. In this case, the boat is small and the subject is huge. I would say forget about the 500mm completely.
    Whether you are better off with a 200-400mm/f4 + 70-200mm/f2.8 or 100-400 depends on several factors. The most important is how calm the boat will be, which can change from minute to minute. If it is relatively stable, I would use the 200-400 on a monopod, assuming that there is space for that, as a 6-person boat is small. In Alaska, you don't get the sun all that often, so the faster f4 has some advantage.
    The safe choice is the 100-400 (or 80-400 for Nikon). It is easily hand holdable and relatively light. The wide zoom range means it is easily adaptable for near and far subjects.
    Add something like a 24-70 for the scenic, etc.
    Concerning shutter speed, I would use at least 1/1000 sec and maybe 1/2000 if there is action. The problem is that when it is not sunny, which is likely the case, you are talking about ISO 800 to 1600. Those ISO should be fine on modern DSLRs introduced within the last 3 years or so. I may use 1/500 sec if the focal length is shorter and when it is necessary.
  15. The 500/f4 will work great from a small boat, if you hand hold it. All your lenses need to be hand held to isolate them from the vibrations that'll come through the boat structure. (It's not the gross movements of the boat so much as the vibrations through the hull. Hand hold will decouple the camera from the boat). That and setting your ISO at 800 for sunny days and 1600 if overcast (your 5D3 can handle it) will give you lots of great shots. 1/2000-sec. is not too high. I consider 1/1000-sec. the very slowest you'll want to get, unless the water is like glass.
    As Shun says, which lens is going to depend on how close the boat operator can get you to the subjects, particularly the whales. Your 5D3 will AF at f/8 and has superior AF to the 7D, so I'd use that body. However, you may want to carry a two-camera rig, which is what I do when shooting birds and wildlife. I'd put the 70-200mm on the 7D, with 1.4X TC attached and put the 500mm on the 5D3 and carry the 2.0x TC-III in a vest pocket, in case the whales are far away. It sounds like a lot, but you can sit with the 500mm in your lap and the 70-200mm on the 7D around your neck. (Your wife may or may not help with your load. Ideally she'll manage one camera and you the other).
    Really, investigate and practice hand holding. For boat and many situations on land, it'll increase your keeper rate. A two-camera rig is not as unmanageable as many might think. Look at the photographers on the sidelines of football games. Almost all have two-camera kits. They use monopods because the spend a lot of time poised in the ready position. This happens with wildlife, but you're often not in the ready position for long periods when shooting wildlife. Decoupling becomes doubly important in boats.
  16. AN I use a Bush Hawk gunstock with electronic shutter release with a 70-200 VRII or 80-200 on a Nikon D3s for
    breaching humpbacks at the Silverbanks. The newer 80-400 VR is probably a better choice. The advantage of the Bush
    Hawk is that you can keep the camera ready to mount at your hip and shoot all day long without fatigue. I shoot at f 5.6-8
    and shutter speeds around 2000th and always over 1000th. Also I use a rubber eye cup and drape a towel over the
    camera barrel to cover the camera and lens in the spray. When not shooting I keep my camera lens and gun stock in a
    1510 pelican with padding along with a short focal length zoom in case we get close. When I am in the water with my
    housed camera the pelican box protects my stuff on deck and keeps it perfectly dry and ready to rock and roll when I get
    out. Good hunting.

Share This Page