Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

What it Takes

The skiff rolled right, left and back, as the bow slammed over another crest, and into a confused, shifting valley. My camera case jumped from the bench and slammed into the aluminum floor at my feet. Thank god I remembered to latch it! Salt water splattered my glasses and salted my tongue. The remaining three doughnuts left their box to join the scales, grit, and dried fish blood in the bottom of the boat.

Unable to steady the camera, speed was my only hope if I was to capture the action, but to achieve a fast shutter speed under a blanket of heavy, dark clouds would mean compromising grain more than I wanted, and necessitate a perfect exposure.

Fortunately, just as we got into range, the sun punched a hole in the clouds over my left shoulder, casting an Elvis-worthy spotlight on the roiling water, and dramatic shadows on the wrinkled Chilkat Mountains beyond.

Taking advantage of the increased light, I spot metered the fluke of the diving whale, quickly dialed up the shutter speed to 1/2500, compensated f-stop and ISO, preset my focus where I thought the whale would re-emerge, and tried not to be thrown from my seat. I only had a moment. I knew he would reappear in seconds.

Just as the bow of the boat was violently thrown up and to the right, partially blocking my view, the whale burst through the white caps, chin first. Water sheeting down his black head, over his massive eye, and down his flank, glistened in the low-cast sun. His right pectoral fin lit up like a rhinestone-bedazzled white jumpsuit.

Right knee against the thwart, left foot wedged against the anchor bucket, I braced hard and lifted off the seat just as the bow peaked. Pointing and hoping, I held down the shutter, and let the camera roll off a dozen shots as the whale crested and splashed down on his back.

A couple hours later, after an exhausting roller coaster ride back to the harbor, I was able to scroll through the images and see my results. There is no time for looking at photos in the heat of the action.

To successfully capture wildlife with lens requires much more than just understanding the science of photography. It requires knowing your subject, studying its behavior, and being able to predict its next moves. It takes a willingness to put yourself in harsh, sometimes dangerous conditions, and an ability to shift as quickly as the weather.

In this moment, dangerous seas, rapidly shifting lighting conditions, and a suddenly explosive target, required dipping into the wells of naturalist, explorer, and photographer all at once, while being intimately familiar enough with my camera to make necessary adjustments in a split second.

Of course, the casual viewer of the photo has no idea of any of this. They will look at the photo, remark about its beauty, tell me how lucky I am to see such an awesome display, and ask what kind of camera I have. To, them, I simply respond that I use a Nikon camera, and that, yes, I am indeed, quite lucky!

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