a young gray whale comes for a look at the surface in baja

Tips for Photographing Whales (and more) in Baja

There’s something about watching whales that connects us to the natural world in a truly profound way.  It’s a glimpse into a vast undersea world with one of the more intelligent and sentient creatures on our planet. When in Baja watching Gray Whales, their overall friendliness often takes us by surprise.  Here we have the opportunity to make and capture extraordinary memories.

Photograph while anticipating motion

Whether you’re photographing a moving or breaching whale, or you yourself are moving in a bobbing zodiac, you’ll want to anticipate movement. That is, you’ll want to make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze such motion.

Generally speaking, I like for my shutter speed to be somewhere around 1/500th of a second when trying to freeze motion of an animal.  Fortunately, in the bright conditions of Baja, this shouldn’t be a problem with a “normal” aperture of f/5.6 or f/8 and a modest ISO of 200, 400, or 800.  The faster the shutter speed you can afford, without sacrificing too high of ISO or too shallow depth of field, the more you can freeze motion even in the currents of water or droplets coming off of surfacing whales.

a gray whale comes to the surface to breath in baja

Consider using adaptive focus

Focus terminology differs with each camera platform.  However, no matter the system, be it Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, etc., they all have some excellent follow-focus technology  (typically referred to as some derivative of the word SERVO).  This allows the camera to continuously focus on the most prevalent subject as you hold the shutter button halfway down.

This type of setting is excellent for whale photography, as the camera will quickly and automatically focus on the whale as it comes up to the surface.  Saving yourself half a second in focusing time can be the difference in a good shot and a great shot.

Prior to heading out on a whale watching adventure (in Baja or truly anywhere) it’s worth familiarizing yourself with how to set this servo-focus ability.  Oftentimes it can be a bit rushed with excitement while actually out whale watching, so being able to quickly and easily adjust your camera’s focus settings will be key to experimenting with this technology.

a young gray whale comes for a look at the surface in baja

Highlight the extraordinary lighting

Because of the wide-open landscapes, big skies, and sweeping vistas, you’ll have lots of opportunities to play with light. This goes for dawn and dusk light, too, which can be extra captivating in these desert conditions.

cool blue colors of dunes in baja

By experimenting with your white balance settings you can capture incredible hues that give landscape photos a life of their own.  Remember, white balance can vary from “hot” to “cool”, which is basically from a yellow to blue end of the spectrum, rated by Kelvin (denoted as K in the camera’s menu, usually).

While we’re on the topic of light, sunsets and sunrises in Baja can be especially dramatic, so be sure to read up on sunset and sunrise photography techniques ahead of your adventure.

a sunset shimmers over the mountains in baja

Capture the Experience

One of the most powerful ways to tell the story of your adventure is to integrate the wildlife you seek into general travel photographs.  And perhaps the most dramatic method is to capture wildlife with fellow travelers.

a young gray whale comes to the surface near a group of ecotourists

It’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do, to capture both a whale and a fellow zodiac in one frame, but as you can see it really gives you that “picture yourself here” moment. When it comes to reliving the memories of your adventure, or telling your story to friends and family, getting travelers with wildlife is a great technique.

Another technique for capturing the experience is to aim to document every facet of your journey, paying particular attention to those things out of the ordinary. If you are on one of the classic expedition-ship-based adventures in Baja, things like map charts and other nautical equipment make for excellent photographic subjects.

travelers looking at a map on board an expedition vessel in baja

a bell is located at the stern of the sea bird in baja

So as you can see, there is a lot more to photograph than just whales in Baja!  Between the extraordinary scenery, enigmatic desert light, and then of course the charismatic gray whales, it’s a multi-faceted adventure.

If you have any tips on photographing in Baja please do share and leave a comment below!


Court Whelan Signature