Photographing Whales by Ossian Lindholm

Photographing whales in Peninsula Valdés – Patagonia, Argentina – is a unique experience. These huge mammals, about 15 meters long and weighing 40 tons, swimming near the boat and framed by the rugged scenery of the Patagonian coast creates a combination of landscape and marine wildlife difficult to match.

Southern Right Whale. (Eubalaena australis)
Puerto Pirámides. Peninsula Valdés. Patagonia. Chubut. Argentina.
Nikon D4S + Sigma 150-600mm  f/10  1/2000  ISO1800  @150mm

The abundance of fauna of the Patagonian coast makes it one of the favorite destinations of nature photographers. On one side the steppe fauna such as guanaco, rheas ( Choique o Ñandú petiso ), foxes, skunks, puma , and armadillo, etc. Also, there is the fauna that can be observed on the coast where the main attractions are magellanic penguins, sea lions and elephant seals. Finally, the marine fauna such as the southern right whale, dusky dolphin, and killer whale.

Photographing from the boat

 In a previous newsletter we talked about different tips to use for birds in flight photography. Several of those tips apply to whale photography with the advantage that these giant cetaceans move slower than a hummingbird, and due to their large size it is easier to keep focused. But, to take a good photo of a whale requires practice, patience, appropriate photographic equipment, and to know the behavior of the animal. Whales are under the water or floating with most of its body below the surface most of the time, without providing opportunities for a good photo. But there are some behaviors that are particularly interesting to photograph: When the whale takes out a fin and occasionally hits the water or when the whale takes out its head to spy, but certainly the most photogenic is when it shows the tail or when it starts with a sequence of jumps.

For more information about whale behavior: Southern Right Whales

How to choose a good boat to photograph whales

Sailing on small boats makes it easier to get good pictures for a variety of reasons.

Fewer people: Less opportunity of interference on the pictures. The best thing is if everyone in the boat is a photographer.

Capture a good angle: The small boat is lower and therefore allows you to take photos near water in angles which make more interesting results.

Speed of maneuver: A small boat with a good helmsman assures a good shot.

Right Whale and Calf. Puerto Pirámides. Chubut. Patagonia. Argentina.

f/8  1/2000  ISO1000  NikonD4S + Sigma150-600mm @150mm
The calves at birth weigh about 1,400 kg and drink up to 200 liters of milk per day.

The time of day

Something fundamental to get an attractive photo is the choice of the time of day. For that we have to choose to go out to navigate in the sunrise or the sunset. Moments before the sunset and during the sunset, or during the sunrise are the moments of the day that we need to choose. Any other time of day would infringe upon the possibility of achieving something impressive. The warm light and the backlighting that can be achieved during the extreme hours of the day are decisive if the purpose is to achieve unique photos.

Southern Right Whale. Puerto Pirámides. Chubut. Patagonia. Argentina

f/10  1/2000  ISO2000  NikonD4S + Sigma150-600mm @150mm

Southern Right Whale jump in series ranging from 3 to 10 jumps. Therefore if we observe that a whale makes a jump, we know that it will repeat the jump at least 2 times more giving us several photographic opportunities.

Photographic gear


In action photography it’s advisable to have a camera that shoots a lot of photos per second. That way, when for example the whale jumps out of the water, we can shoot a burst of photos that records the entire jump sequence. Then, we will search for the best photos. For these types of photos I use a Nikon DSLR camera.

If you are planning to buy a new camera , there are 2 models particularly interesting to make a good entrance to the world of photographing wild life: the Nikon D500 and the Canon 7D Mark II. Both are cameras of APS-C sensor, fast focusing and can shoot up to 10 photos per second.


I don’t recommend prime lenses because the action can happen 10 meters or 200 meters from the boat. In that case, the most advisable is to have a zoom lens. The recommended ones beacuse of their good price/quality ratio are: Sigma 150-600 (contemporary), Tamron 150-600, Nikon 200-500, and Canon 100-400.

Observing my best whale photos I can see that, except for a few exceptions, almost all of them were taken with focal distances ranging from 150 to 300 mm.

 Camera Settings

Before embarking we must make sure to have in our backpack an extra battery, enough memory cards, and the camera set up and ready for the encounter with the whales. A good camera setting is fundamental, as it isn’t the same to take pictures of landscapes as it is to be facing the action.

Southern Right Whale. Puerto Pirámides. Chubut. Patagonia. Argentina.

f/10 1/3200  ISO720  NikonD4S + Sigma 150-600mm @220mm

Let’s see the recommended settings:
Auto-focus: Nikon AF-C   Canon AI-Servo
Focus Area:

  • Nikon: Single-point and Dynamic Area. Also you can do well with group-area AF in case that the model of your camera has the system
  • Canon: Single-point and Expansion of focus points. 

Shooting modes: Fast burst .
Light measurement:  Center Weighted

Recommended Exposure Mode: It is essential to use high shutter speeds for 2 reasons, on the one hand we are photographing action, and on the other we have the movement of the boat and the inability to use a tripod, a tool that would be totally useless because the waves move the boat. But not only the shutter speed is a priority here, there is something worth slowing down a bit to discuss. When we photograph large animals, as is the case with whales, you sometimes find yourself close to one so the depth of field (DOF) happens to have an important role in our photos. It can happen that when we are looking at our photos on the computer, we can have nice photos, but lament that a part of the animal is perfectly focused while the rest is terribly out of focus.

Also in the case of Peninsula Valdés, the surrounding landscape can give the photo an important plus, so it is good to have a deep depth of field that allows us to admire the background of the image even with a slight blur. When we saw exposure modes in previous Newsletters  we talked about starting with bird pictures in the Speed priority mode ( S Nikon or Tv Canon ) . But according to the above paragraph it is possible that this mode is not the most effective when we face the great Patagonian cetaceans. We have two alternatives: The first is to use Aperture Priority AE, starting from an aperture such that the depth of field is deep enough to achieve what we want. For example, f/11 and we will change the ISO manually, so that the shutter speed stays high. There is an option that is good for not worrying about the ISO that is using Automatic ISO setting it so that the shutter speed will never lower than, for example, 1/1000. In this case of selecting f/11 the camera will be raising or lowering the ISO, according the availability of light, so the shutter speed is never lower than 1/1000.

If during the action we observe that the camera achieves the speed of 1/1000 at the cost of an extremely high ISO, then what we have to do is to open the aperture, first to f/8 and if we see that the ISO is still too high open to f/5.6, and so on until we have the maximum aperture of our lens.

Another alternative is what I use. Somebody called it combined priority. It is highly recommended for those who have already exceeded the learning stage in wildlife photography. It consists of using Manual exposure mode, we maintain the control of the aperture and therefore of the depth of field and also of the shutter speed, but setting the camera in automatic ISO. All Nikon models allow this configuration and some models of Canon do.
I started using this setup during my first trip to the Galapagos. There, you can get very close to the animals. In fact, because the fauna doesn’t fear humans, the limit for getting close to them is determined by provisions of the National park and it is forbidden to approach to a distance of less than 3 meters.

Due to this proximity, and since we know that one of the factors that affects the depth of field is the distance to the subject (closer to the subject , shallower depth of field), it can occur in some photographs of birds that we have the eye in focus and the beak out of focus. So then with the option combined priority you can play with the aperture to achieve the desired depth of field and you are able to raise or lower the shutter speed according to your needs, but the most interesting thing is that the auto ISO will keep a correct exposure.

NOTE: All reflex cameras have a button that is very useful but few people use; it is called Preview button or DOF Preview Button. If you press and hold this button you are able to preview the depth of field before you take the shot.

Southern Right Whale. Puerto Pirámides. Chubut. Patagonia. Argentina.

f/8 1/2500  ISO2800  NikonD4S + Sigma150-600mm @360mm


Southern Right Whale. Puerto Pirámides. Chubut. Patagonia. Argentina.

f/10 1/3200  ISO1250  NikonD4S + Sigma150-600mm @165mm

Join nature photographer Ossian Lindholm on a Whales & Penguins Patagonia Photo Tour. October 18 to 24 , 2018.

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