It was late last year that I received a message from Nigel, a fellow photo friend saying, “Your daughter-in-law is a better photographer than you are!” What did I do? I just smiled wryly. And what does this have to do with a day on the water? Hang in, it will be revealed.
Every year, whales migrate north along the eastern coast of Australia to warmer tropical waters. After a winter in the waters off northern Australia, they then return to summer in Antarctica. With greater protection of whale populations, their numbers have markedly risen, and along with came a thriving whale-watching tourism sector.
Last month that my Better Half and I went out on our first whale-watching cruise. It started with a pleasant run along calm waters in Sydney Harbour, then out through the Heads and into open water. Out there, the fun began. A two-metre swell was running. Up then down, then same all over again, with sprays of saltwater over the boat each time the bow dipped and hit the next wave. I was on an outside deck with the Leica V Lux 114, but quickly put it inside my waterproof jacket to isolate it from the salt spray.
Click on images to expand and to view a slideshow of all images in the article
Tricky pic captures
We were with a company called Go Whale Watching. They are very experienced at knowing where to go to find whales, with some secret methods involved. So they were able to take us straight to a location a kilometre or three offshore (I can’t judge ocean distances), then cut the engines, and we waited only a minute or two before we saw our first whale.
Wow, those humpback whales really are huge. That afternoon they were involved in tail-throwing and slapping. I found photography really challenging. The problem wasn’t the Leica V Lux 114, it was the photographer. I had last used the camera at the Melbourne MotoGP races last year. That photography was easy, just set the focus on a corner then use burst mode to catch the bikes as they passed through. I soon learnt that whale photography is much tougher – you simply don’t know where the whales will next surface, slap their tails for a second or two, then head back under. You can’t prefocus and point because they never oblige. They’re out there having their own fun, not acting as photographer’s models.
I finally gave up on strong zoom and viewfinder, choosing instead to set a shorter focal length to cover an area of water, then shoot from the hip when a whale appeared.
Images from an Expert
Now it’s time for me to declare why I introduced this article with the comment about Rachelle, my daughter-in-law. In fact, she spends three days a week as an onboard photographer for the whale-watching company that we were with that day. Well, she was on the boat too. And yes, she is an infinitely better photographer than me.
She uses serious kit. A Canon 1Dx camera with a monster Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens bolted on the front. While I was on the upper deck of the boat so that I could sometimes see the whales in the water, she does her photography from the lower deck near water level in order to get a better perspective. And she doesn’t use autofocus, saying that it’s too slow and that she can manual focus faster with her top-end kit that she knows inside out.
Some days are better than others
Rachelle describes herself as a wildlife portrait photographer¹. Her images have been used worldwide in tourism advertising and the magazine industry, as well as syndicated newspapers (recent whale images in British newspapers were her shots from over here on this side of the world). Whales are favourite subjects for her, and she did tell us before our outing that while she can guarantee that we will see whales, there is no certainty how they will perform on a particular day. Too true, we only saw tail flaps ‘n slaps on the day that we were out there. But the next day was different for her with the whales breaching, and just now this weekend some weeks later she caught some brilliant shots.
Late afternoon, returning home.
After nearly three hours in open water, it was time to head back into Sydney harbour. Tourists started relaxing on the boat, while the serious photographers began editing their images in the cabin. So, for me it was back to the V Lux 114 and more relaxed photography, my comfort zone. Here are some images as we concluded a very different day for us terrestrial types.
- You can see more of Rachelle’s images at “Faunographic” on Instagram. Or her website Faunographic.com ↩