Whale Ho!

Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to see whales at play.. And always pack a camera…

There are some magical things to do in Western Australia. Whale watching is an experience that will just blow you away.

The first time you see a whale is awesome

There are many places around Western Australia where you can go to do whale watching. Whales migrate up the coast from the Antarctic waters and then return down the coast. There are long seasons when it is easy to book a trip.

You get close

At one time, whaling was a huge industry in Australia as you will see if you visit Albany on the south coast. Now whales are welcomed and the people that go out in boats, go not to slaughter the mammals but to photograph them. And each year it is getting better and better. It’s an experience that we try to enjoy every year.

These days you can be surrounded

In recent times we’ve gone from seeing just one or two whales to seeing pods of whales all around us in every direction. On some occasions we’ve had over 20 whales at different points of the compass. This is an amazing result of the care that has been taken on this subject.

At one time there was just a small boat that headed out from Albany and you heard about it from the tourist bureau or word of mouth. We heard via word of mouth and went out the first time on a very small craft. It was also the start of an addiction to viewing the whales. Today you often see larger boats and you even get morning or afternoon tea served for you.

You can snap the whale tail going under on most trips.

The iconic tail shot still needs a zoom lens

The elusive photograph of course is to try to get the picture of a whale breaching and you have to go out quite often if you want to capture these photographs. Mostly whales like to swim through the water and blow. If you go on a whale watching tour you’re pretty much guaranteed to get an iconic tail shot. You do need to give your gear some thought.

The breaching shot is always a treat
The breaching shot is always a treat
The breaching shot is always a treat

You need a zoom lens

But what to use and what to take with you? It’s an important question. Some people go with 50 mm or 35mm lenses on their cameras and when they come back the whale occupies a little bit half of a smidge in the photograph. While mobile phones are good for photographing people the action shot in the ocean is usually the preserve of something bigger. Having said that whales do come quite close to the boats these days and it is possible to get some very interesting shots using a mobile but it definitely is at the bottom of the list as far as getting real whale images is concerned. This is a zoom lens territory 101. That is if you want something to show for the trip.

We’ve tried a few lens options

Phones are good for some things but….

Over the years we’ve tried a few different approaches. I’ve been whale watching with the Canon 24 to 105 mm lens but it wouldn’t be my recommendation. The 28 to 300 mm and the 100 to 400 mm lenses are much more viable. Probably my all-time favorite lens for shooting whales is the Olympus 40 to 150 mm pro series lens. But you get the picture. You want something long that you can adjust very quickly and you want a camera that locks the focus quickly. On the recent trip we took the Nikon 28 to 300 and it was well worth using because the Nikon focus is so good. As I minimum I suggest a zoom that reaches 2-300mm.

Focus can be a problem in glare conditions and when the colour of the whale can look similar to the ocean. The difficulty of glare on the water can confuse the focus of cameras so setting the shutter and autofocus to continuous is essential. This poses a difficulty with high megapixel cameras as the buffer fills earlier and you can miss the major shot while your buffer is clearing. I suggest buffer depth above 30 for whale shooting.

Action

The Whales come close

Another surprise when taking photos of whales is that they do come very close. They sense that its safe to swim up to, around and under the boats that you are in. So having a fixed telephoto isn’t ideal. You will find yourself adjusting your zoom quite a lot.

Coming right at you!
And they come to check you out as well

Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales are an amazing sight.

Humpback Whales and Southern right whales are common around Australia. They swim up the coast both on the east and west. Southern Right Whales are a beautiful creature and are as curious about us as we are about them.

Sometimes the whales are on a definite trip and just swim past. But they are often playful and well worth the trip out. Don’t be surprised if you are affected by coming close to such amazing creatures. Some are overcome at the experience.

We recommend seeing the whales from Augusta & Albany. You can also go and see whales from Perth locations such as catching a boat from Hillaries Marina in Perth. We have found that smaller craft are often a better choice which is why we book from places like Augusta and Dunsborough/Busselton etc.

With Auto focus I find that most cameras struggle with reflections. This is common with all brands. I have found that Canon, Nikon & Olympus have performed well for me with misses well down. The Sony cameras that I have used with the exception of the A99 and A9 gave more misses in focus with glare.

The Humpback

What is a humpback whale? The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the fifth largest of the great whales. Its scientific name comes from the Greek word mega meaning ‘great’ and pteron meaning ‘a wing’, because their large front flippers can reach a length of five metres, about one-third of their entire body length!

Why called Humpback?

They are named humpbacks because of the distinct ‘hump’ that shows as the whale arches its back when it dives.

What do they look like? Humpbacks are ‘rorquals’, whales which have distinctive throat grooves. They also have knobs on their heads known as ‘tubercles’, each of which has a long coarse hair growing from its centre which is believed to act as a sensor. They have very long flippers (more correctly known as ‘pectoral fins’) with knobs on the front edge, and a humped dorsal fin. They are blackish, with white undersides and sides. The underside of the tail fluke is usually white with black patterning, which is unique to each humpback, like a fingerprint, so can be used to identify individual whales!

Sizes

Males average 14.6 metres and females 15.2 metres long. The maximum length is 18 metres and a mature adult may weigh up to 45 tonnes. Humpback whales have a life expectancy of 45 to 50 years.

The Southern Right Whale

What is a southern right whale? Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are about the size of a bus. These marine mammals each weigh up to 80 tonnes and may reach 18 metres long. The first time we went out to see the whales we were shocked at their size. Although southern right whales are huge, bulky creatures, they are also agile and active animals, and their acrobatic antics can keep whale watchers amazed and entranced for hours. However, their commonest behaviour is lying around like logs at the surface.

Appearance

What do they look like? Southern right whales have horny growths called callosities on top of the head. Southern right whales harbour large quantities of parasites (small crustaceans known as whale lice), and it is possible that the callosities may serve to reduce the area of the body in which parasites can inhabit. The patterns formed by the callosities are different for each individual, which is useful for researchers collecting information on patterns of movement and behaviour, as they can easily tell which whale is which. The head of a southern right whale is large — up to a quarter of the total length of the body — and the lower jawline is distinctively bowed.

No Fin on the back.

There is no fin on the back. The flippers are broad, triangular and flat and the body colour ranges from blue-black to light brown. There are often white markings, usually on the belly. The twin blowholes produce a high, V-shaped blow.

Where do they live? Southern right whales live in the cooler latitudes of the southern hemisphere, where they were once abundant. Whale watching tours that encounter southern right whales operate from Albany and Esperance in winter. They can also be seen from the shore in places such as Ngari Capes Marine Park (between Busselton and Augusta) and Point Ann east of Bremer Bay in Fitzgerald River National Park. Sometimes during the winter months, people living in the Perth metropolitan area can view them from shore, especially in Marmion Marine Park.

What a marvellous experience and an opportunity not to be missed.

Taking a look right back at you
At play

Other considerations

Glare from the ocean intensifies light and sunscreen is a definite must. The cold wind can give you a chill. I use finger-less gloves and a beanie when I go shooting. Its good to get into position quickly and find a spot where you can wedge yourself in and hold on tight. The boats do move in the swell a lot as to find the whales the boat may head out further than you expect. Not always as the whales can come in close. However I have seen plenty of sick people looking green. Just a thought.

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Why Nikon are spot on with the Z range. And where it misses.

Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA JACARANDA S LENS 24-70
Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA JACARANDA S LENS 24-70

The Nikon Z7 has been worth waiting for

People waited with growing impatience. What for? For Nikon to come up with a genuine contender in the mirror-less race. And then they did it. They announced the Z range. And suddenly they hit a goal. And apart from the fact that the learning curve has stymied some people the fact is that this is about as good as it gets in full frame high megapixel 35mm Photography. Not that any of the contenders has struck an outright killer blow on the competition as all the current pro cameras are pretty awesome. And all have things that people would change. But you can’t get past the results. They are  good.

Nikon have won a lot of friends with the cameras that they have released recently.

Personally I am one of those people that feel that Nikon have really hit the ground running remarkably well. In recent years they brought the Nikon D850 to the market and frankly it is head and shoulders the best DSLR camera that we have ever used. I agree with those reviewers that say that at present it is easily the best camera in that format available and in many ways in the 35mm field if you want to use a DSLR and your pockets are deep enough it would be the ideal choice. Having said that, size is a factor which is why people are looking at mirrorless.

Z7 Nikon Our Go To Full Frame Mirrorless Camera
Z7  Mirrorless That is Simply amazing

Its about making better lenses.

It’s not the format and size that has got our attention. We don’t mind using DSLR at all. In fact for some applications a DSLR is obviously needed. But mirrorless cameras have their advantages and it’s not simply size.

Both Canon and Nikon appear to see the value of making good lenses even better

What both Nikon and Canon have realized is that better lenses are possible. They chose to attack the problem of mirrorless from two sides. They looked at form and lenses. And that’s brilliant. Digital sensors have the ability to record remarkably fine detail. Sometimes the lenses are the limiting factor though not to the degree that might be argued… Changing the way that lenses are made so that they can be optically better and positioned in a better form on the camera body is a stroke of genius. It really shows that someone has been thinking about this issue carefully. Other companies have approached the issue of better lenses by using smaller sensors and they have achieved remarkable clarity from small sensors using the Micro 4/3 system which, you discount at your peril. It is actually quite amazing and people should stop and look at it. MFT or micro four thirds is a lot better than those that have a fixation on full frame might have you think. We’ll talk about that elsewhere.

NIKON-Z7-ISO-640-S-LENS-LENSCRAFT-MFT
S SERIES 24-70 LENSCRAFT MFT PHOTOGRAPHY

For now though, taking it from the Nikon Z series camera and using a remarkable full frame sensor, then the approach has been to design a completely different mount and make lenses that are remarkably good optically and provide an excellent basis for both still images and video.

Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA S LENS 24-70
Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA S LENS 24-70

Image stabilisation built into the camera is always preferable

Then too we are so impressed about the fact that Nikon decided to build the image stabilisation technology into the camera body which we always regard as the very best place to put it. There is no doubt that it is essential in photography and most photographers will tell you that they tend to shoot images at the lowest ISO rating that they can. So for example if you go through a professional catalogue you will probably find that most of the photographs are taken around 200 ISO or less where possible. That is certainly true of our catalogue. Image stabilisation often allows you to get a shot using a lower ISO rating and is therefore essential. However when stabilisation is built into a lens it increases its weight and makes it more complicated. When it is built into the camera body it means that every lens that you fit to that camera is automatically able to take advantage of the stabilisation. It is just fantastic. So for the first time we have a pairing of a high megapixel sensor with inbuilt stabilisation and now we are seeing some amazing lenses of a quality that we haven’t seen in this form before. For me it’s like carrying round a medium format camera that is remarkably small and has all the advantages of the 35mm format. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration but that’s what it feels like and it certainly gives results that are in that ilk. We’ve used a number of medium format cameras and we’ve never been able to achieve the sort of results using any of those cameras up to 50 megapixel that we can get from the Z7 when paired with their new S series lenses when we nail the shot. Rich full images with lots of room to work to bring out the shadows if needed.

Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA MARINA S LENS 24-70
Z7 STRAIGHT OUT OF CAMERA MARINA S LENS 24-70

So after trying the Z7 for while how do we feel? The converter for fitting Nikon lenses is good. A great idea well implemented. Adds size but we can understand the thinking behind it. If you have lots of native Nikon glass then the adapter provides an option. For me I’ll just use existing Nikon glass on the DSLR. Coming back to what’s really exciting though. It’s the NEW glass. The lenses are what it’s about. It’s always been important to use good lenses. And this is where Nikon have made amazing advances because the S series lenses are something else. The S series 24-70 is one of the best lenses of that focal range we have ever used. And we’ve used them all. From simple to esoteric. This one is so even and sharp that it takes the camera’s potential to a new level. I like the Z7 generally but I wasn’t feeling all that enamored with it when using the adapter. Don’t know why really but I didn’t feel that the focus when using the adapter with third party glass was exceptional and looking online there appears to be a few that had that experience.. however forget that.. now the S lenses give us something to get our teeth into. And I’m shocked at the improvements.

The quality of image is very good when the focus finds its point. Sadly it misses more times than I am comfortable with.  On a recent evening shoot we shot with two mirror-less cameras The Sony A9 and the Nikon Z7 and the results when compared were startling. In 309 images taken the Z7 focus missed almost 60 times whereas the Sony A9 missed focus just once in over 400 shots. In a further trial against the D850 we got similar results though the D850 missed none. In sunny conditions with glare it gets a lot better but it is a niggling worry. I guess it hunts more than i would like.

The Z7 is frankly close to being the most well-rounded mirror-less camera that I have used in full frame format. But it isn’t.  Its a great overall design and size. But until the focus is better it isn’t up to being in my kit unless shooting in bright conditions or shooting manually. I wish the focus were better but at the moment I am hoping for a firmware improvement. 

Hats off to Nikon for a job well on the way but not yet ready for 5 stars.

Other good things

The grip is superb

The metering is excellent

The weight is great

The EVF is clear and bright

The menu system is simple. [Why do people complain about these things…? Its not rocket science and easy to navigate.]

The ISO rating is great

The images are usable up to 6400 ISO for our purposes [We could easily go higher and get prints up to A3] but as noted we would always shoot below 1000 and mostly our average is 200 so its there but for most photographers it won’t matter that much.

Speaking to other photographers about full frame and the general opinion is that Nikon have really got it right. They were talking about the bodies. But when you add in the S lenses which are priced competitively then you have a system with legs that is already delivering excellent results.

We will add some images here soon.

Nikon S 24-70
Nikon 20-70 F4 S Lens. The best 24-70 mm lens we have ever used to date

Just one caveat with these comments. We have yet to try the Z6 but we understand that it is the same camera with a different 24.5 megapixel sensor. I’m firmly of the opinion that 20 megapixel or there about is plenty for any application up to poster size and beyond. Exposure technique remains much more important than the megapixel count of a sensor. Speed is also important and that is achievable with full frame with a lower megapixel sensor much more easily than with higher megapixels.

A few comments re Lenscraft Photography. When we comment on equipment in these pages the comments are based on use in the field. They are never based on a single use or just a couple of days using the equipment. We try the equipment with at least two disciplines in photography and determine how it performs from there. Lenscraft Photography is a website devoted to photography and sharing experiences with equipment. We are not affiliated with any manufacturer. We have used equipment professionally from Canon, Nikon, Ricoh, Minolta, Sony, Leica, Olympus, Hasselblad, Zeiss, Sigma, Pentax, Zenit, Bronica, Rollei & Kodak.

Some of these companies have been absorbed into others. Currently we regularly use equipment from Olympus, Nikon, Sony, & Hasselblad. [Plus lenses from Zeiss and Sigma]

Medium Format Full Frame or?

Over the last 20 years an ethos has been developing. The idea that larger sensors are better. They must be better. They are bigger.. bigger is better right? Right? Are you sure about that?

Cameras of Yesterday Look Remarkably Similar To Today

We need to dump the notion that bigger megapixels equals better images. We need faster focussing and faster speed. 20 Megapixels is plenty.

Well the cameras are certainly bigger and the lenses are. And they look impressive don’t they. All those huge cameras and lenses. You must be professional to use something like that. Well looks can be deceiving can’t they. Bigger is definitely not always better as many tens of thousands of photographers have learned at (sometimes) great expense. Better to know something of the background perhaps before reaching for the purse.

Taken with Olympus MFT

The first digital cameras had small megapixel sensors. But while the concept of digital was new the camera was an old beast. Recognized as a camera and well developed, there was a common shape and size. There was also a well regarded means for viewing the scene through the lens and these cameras were called single lens reflex.

Thus the camera we see today in common use is a marriage between concepts based around film and the digital sensor. The space is filled with electronics and batteries of course but it is a recognizable shape. It is comfortable in size. Along with this came the concept of ‘full frame’ being basically a sensor equivalent in size to a piece of 35mm film. Essentially lenses were set up for 35mm film and so making sensors a different size would mean making different lenses. There is some room for smaller sensors using the same lenses but ‘full frame’ is an expression that it is hard to go past. The merits of full frame and medium format are widely commented on.

Full frame sensors allow you to shoot in reduced light with a lessor amount of noise at higher ISO levels. The images will be softer but perfectly usable.

Most images are shot at ISO levels between 50-1000 ISO

Digital is Advancing Quickly. Old ideas are slipping out of date.

Images 2000mm high [2 metres] can be printed from well exposed images taken from a tiny sensor.

Image stabilization in cameras [best] or lenses [good] is allowing us to maintain low ISO ratings.

Heavy lenses are consistently left ‘on the shelf’ because photographers don’t want to carry them all day.

Colour Matched Images from different sensors printed at A3 give the same visible result whether the file size is 16 megapixels or 80 megapixels.

If I printed 4 images [colour matched] at A3 with cameras from 16, 20, 46 & 80 megapixels with sensor sizes from micro four thirds to APSC to Full Frame and Medium Format, and you viewed them side by side there is no way that you could tell the difference between the results. [Though the micro-four-thirds image would probably appear slightly sharper.]

If photography is your aim you would probably find that a lighter and smaller camera would cover all of your needs.

Taken with Olympus MFT
Taken with Olympus MFT

And as an after thought. Micro-four-thirds [MFT] is a much smaller sensor with lighter cameras and remarkable lenses that cost considerably less than alternative systems. Those of us that have been shooting professionally for years are coming to realize that what we need are smaller and lighter systems with sharper lenses and the MFT approach is clearly the right one for this.

Morning light in Western Australia – No filter required

Not that we don’t use DSLR for some styles of photography. But micro-four-thirds has far less limitations than some reviewers suggest. And 20 megapixels is absolutely the optimum size for photography for many reasons. But that’s another page.