Beth Miller, one of our 2022 Whale SENSE photography contest winners, was on a whale watching trip with American Princess Cruises when she took the gorgeous photo of a humpback tail shown above! We asked Beth to provide some insight into how she got started with photography, and what skills and tools helped her capture this “Tail Shot Category” winning image shown above! Her responses, posted below, will be the first in a series of features from some of our wonderful Whale SENSE photography contest front-runners. Who knows, you might find yourself on the winning list in next year’s photography contest after putting some of their tips to the test!
How did you get started in photography?
I’ve been taking photos of whales (with varying success) for about 25 years, since my college internship at Moss Landing Marine Lab in the Monterey Bay area of California. Back then it was with a film camera with no real zoom, and I had to wait for my photos to be developed (with doubles!) only to see that I got 24 (times 2!) shots of water with a splash at the surface—or if I was really lucky, a dorsal fin. I have photos from that internship that are labeled “That’s a Baird’s Beaked Whale—really, I swear!” As the years went by, I upgraded to digital point-and-shoot cameras with some sort of zoom, and then to DSLR with a better zoom, and got better at my whale-to-splash ratio.
What is one thing you wish you knew earlier about photographing marine life?
When to snap the photo in order to get the whale instead of the aftermath of the whale! But I think that just comes with practice.
What are your top 3 tips for photographers?
- Paying attention to the background as well as the marine life. It’s great to get a shot of a whale doing anything, but when you remember to include the beach or buildings in the background, or to incorporate a nearby vessel or another marine mammal or seabird, it adds interesting context to the photo.
- Be ready for anything. You never know when a whale is going to lunge feed or breach, and if you’re looking down at your phone and miss it, you may not get another chance!
- Get a monopod or stand. I’m still adjusting to using one, but on the moving deck of the boat, it really helps to stabilize the camera, and also helps me keep my balance. And straighten your photos before sharing them! It took me way longer than I’d like to admit to realize you can do this, which is a lifesaver for me because most of mine are crooked.
What is one of your favorite photos you’ve ever taken, and why is it a favorite?
A recent favorite is this one of a humpback whale mother and calf that I took in Monterey, CA, in August 2021. It was thrilling to have captured them as they dove at just the same moment, but the “wow” moment for me is that their flukes are tipped toward each other, as if in a gesture of love between a mother and her baby.
Do you have any future goals or ambitions for your photography?
With regard to my photography skills, I’d like to become more confident and comfortable with the camera settings, and take pictures that are more consistently sharp and focused and interesting. As for species and environments, I always love the humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins we have in the NY area, but I’d love to see other species as well. I was fortunate to get out to San Diego recently and photograph blue whales and fin whales, but I’d love to see and photograph orcas and deep water species like beaked and sperm whales, as well as Arctic species like bowheads and narwhals.
In your opinion, how does photography support and encourage ocean conservation?
Most people know the importance of conservation, but if they have not had firsthand experience seeing whales, dolphins, and other marine life in the wild, it may be more of an abstract concept to them. If they see photographs of a humpback whale calf breaching, or a lunge feeding humpback exploding out of the water in a spray of fish, or a leaping dolphin with her calf, it brings these species to life and makes them more real.
But these are the “happy” photos. Perhaps more important is photographic documentation of a whale entangled in fishing gear, or the tragic carcass of a whale with a horrific propeller gash in its side, or the piles of plastic trash strewn on an otherwise pristine beach in the Arctic after drifting countless miles from where they were tossed overboard. These photos need to be juxtaposed with the “happy” photos, so that people can see what human impact continues to do to marine life, in the hope that this will inspire people to do more for ocean conservation.
Tell us how you use photos to create a story and in what ways you think photos of whales can promote Whale SENSE messaging!
In the New York area, where I do the bulk of my whale watching, the story is that we have whales in one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the world, with the busiest ports on the east coast! It is a huge testament to the human effort to clean up the waters here with the passing of various legislation 50 years ago, including the Clean Water Act. Our waters are the cleanest they’ve been in probably over a century, and we have enormous schools of menhaden, or bunker, which the humpbacks come here to eat. Whenever possible, I try to incorporate photos of the immense container ships, the NYC skyline, or the large apartment complexes we see from the water. These photos tell the story of how incredible it is to have whales in this busy metropolis—and also illustrate the dangers these whales face by feeding and traveling through this busy shipping lane.
Thank you again to Beth for the fantastic advice about how to take marine animal photography to the next level, and for the reminder to think about the greater environmental context of each image captured! Look out for more photography advice highlights from our other 2022 Whale SENSE photography contest winners!