Introduction

Before setting off on your whale watching trip of a lifetime, you may be in a quandary as to which camera to invest in or bring with you. And ask yourself: “Do I really need to spend $5K on a professional camera with a 100-400mm lens, tripod and the latest editing suite to match?” The answer is no, absolutely not. Particularly if want to just have fun with photography and capture wonderful memories.

The challenge

That said, choosing a camera phone, a compact camera or a digital SLR (DSLR) camera can pose a challenge. Not only is it potentially a considered financial decision, but it will also determine what kinds of photos you’ll be capable of capturing.

This guidance cuts through all the marketing hype in order to highlight the most important differences between each camera type—thereby helping you to decide which one is best for you while in Southeast Alaska and your shooting style.

A humpback whale’s flipper giving everyone a cetacean sized hello!

Camera phone

The idea behind camera phones is that if you’re caught without the digital camera, your camera phone can offer.

Pros

  • Convenience: You rarely leave home without your smartphone, which means you’re never left short. (That is, as long as it’s charged.)
  • Cost: Less expensive than buying a digital camera, video camera and cell phone.
  • Quality: The latest camera phones are increasingly good quality; their ability to produce high resolution images enables you to crop the image and capture a close up of the wildlife from afar.
  • Functionality: Most camera phones offer red eye reduction, auto-focus, and zoom, among additional features, such as a video camera, including time lapse and slow motion. Perfect for capturing the moving reminiscences when the whales tail slap, spy-hop and lunge towards lunch!
  • Versatility: In addition to taking regular pictures, you have the capability to shoot panoramas and in burst mode, rapid fire shots to pick out your favorite action shot.
  • Post-production: The built-in editing features will help to enhance your photos.
  • Multimedia: With Wi-Fi everywhere, it couldn’t be simpler to send your pictures to friends and family, regardless of how far.
  • One-stop shop: Along with your camera, your smartphone will perform many other tasks and saves you having to carry multiple items.

Stock image by Zeendo

Cons

  • Cost: The latest camera phones can be pricey; if you want the higher resolution and added features, you have to pay for it.
  • Capability: Less capability than a digital camera in terms of depth of field, dynamic range, shutter speed, aperture priority et cetera.
  • Zoom: Zooming in prior to taking the shot comes with a tradeoff—your image will lose quality, be less sharp and more grainy (also known as image noise).

Tips

  • Housekeeping: Leave plenty of space on your camera phone for filling it up with a plethora of images—trust us when we say you’re going to become trigger happy around the whales!
  • Go steady: Try and keep the camera phone steady to ensure your pictures are in focus.
  • Rule of Thirds: Applied by aligning a subject with the guide lines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section. Namely, avoid putting your whale / subject in the center of the shot, it’s a less attractive composition. Keep the subject slightly off-center.
  • Post-production continued: When tweaking your pictures, it’s worth remembering that no amount of editing can turn a bad photo into a good one. So always start out with the best image possible. Avoid over-processing the image; it can soon look like the place you visited was on steroids when the colors are saturated.
  • Power: An external battery pack will top up the charge in your phone; constant use of the camera and, or video can deplete the power rapidly on some models.
  • Accessories: Consider investing in a decent case; one that will protect it if dropped and getting showered on as it rains frequently in Juneau.
  • Online resources: 10 Smartphone photography tips to improve your photos.

Applications

  • Camera app: To help you shoot better pictures, consider downloading a camera application. Camera 360 (for Android) or Camera+ (for iOS) for example are apps that let you take pictures, edit them, apply filters and publish them to your social media sites, all within the app.
  • Editing app: For the next level of editing beyond the simple features on your smartphone, consider downloading an editing application. Pixlr Express (for Android) for instance launches your default camera app to snap and import photos from. There is a bevy of free presets, as well as manual adjustment sliders, bringing you as close to raw editing as possible. You can text, crop the image, resize, recolor, to achieve whatever effect you desire. For iOS phones, try Snapseed.
  • Filter app: Since the advent of Instagram, filters have found real meaning in social media. PicsArt app (for Android) or VSCO (for iOS) for example, means that you can apply a covey of filters on an image, where you can combine multiple filters in one go.

 

Example of a compact camera

Compact camera (“point and shoot”)

Pros

  • Compact: Easy to carry, hold and store. Their diminutive size can make a difference if you don’t want to lug around a big DSLR with several lenses.
  • User-friendly: The compact will shoot normal photos with “point and shoot” ease.
  • Inexpensive: The cheapest entry into high dynamic range photography, you can buy one for about $100 and start your whale watching without having to take out a second mortgage.
  • Light: Ability to use an external flash unit.
  • Multi-purpose: You can use point-and-shoot for whale watching photos during the day and HDR at sunset. They also make wonderful learning platforms to teach children about photography.
  • Functionality: Greater range of pre-programmed creative modes than DSLRs and no mirror/shutter mechanism that can fail after approximately 10-100K shots.
  • RAW format: RAW file format support.
  • Zoom: Most models have an electronic zoom, which is great for getting close ups on the whales.
  • Results: Compacts produce exceptionally good image quality for printing purposes.

Cons

  • High Dynamic Range: HDR refers to a scene that includes both bright and dark elements—the sun, reflecting off water, with deep shadows in the tree lines for instance. HDR isn’t quite so automatic with a compact camera although this isn’t a deal breaker by any means.
  • Capability: Less capability than a DSLR. 

Tips

 

Example of a digital SLR camera

DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) camera

Pros

  • Autofocus: Faster camera autofocus.
  • Shutter lag: Less shutter lag (delay between pressing the shutter and starting the exposure).
  • Speed: Greater range of ISO speed settings.
  • Frame rate: Higher maximum frame rate, which means you can pick out the money shot.
  • Long exposures: Ability to take exposures longer than 15-30 seconds (via manual or bulb mode).
  • Control: Offers complete manual exposure control.
  • Light: Ability to use an external flash unit.
  • Zoom: Manual zoom control (by twisting the lens).
  • Choice: Greater choice of interchangeable lenses.
  • Future-proofing: Ability to upgrade just the camera body and keep all of one’s lenses.
  • Results: Superior image quality with high mega pixels and best image capability possible.

Cons

  • Cost: Most expensive option.
  • Inconvenience: Less portable, heavier and bulky.

Tips

  • Lens: Consider something like a 28-300mm lens as it’s not only ideal for whale watching but it is a versatile travel lens on top.
  • Shutter speed priority: Maintain high shutter speed while aboard the moving boat. If you’ve got 100mm focal length, the rule of thumb is that you need to double the shutter speed to a minimum of 1/200 second. This will prevent camera shake. When you want to capture a tail shot for example, opt for 1/250 second. Big action shots such as breaching for example require at least 1/1000 second in order to keep your images super sharp.
  • Sustained usage: Carry spare batteries and sufficiently sized memory cards to keep up with you.
  • Accessories: Consider a neoprene cover for the DSLR and lens for when it rains. (In Juneau, it’s a case of when, not if.)
  • Post-production: To get the most of out your shots, an editing suit such as Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture for example.
  • Online resources: Ten DSLR photography tips for better photos.

Choose the most appealing option for you

The preference between each camera type really comes down to one of (a) flexibility and the potential for higher image quality versus (b) portability and simplicity. Camera phones and compact cameras are smaller, lighter, less expensive and less conspicuous. Compact cameras are the middle ground between the smartphone and DSLR, a happy compromise. That said, DSLR cameras boast a shallower depth of field, a greater range of subject styles and higher image quality.

When all’s said and done

Compact cameras are better for learning photography, since they cost less, simplify the shooting process and are a good all-around option for capturing many types of scenes out of the box. SLR cameras are better suited to specific applications, and when size and weight aren’t important and cost isn’t an issue.

Example of a mirrorless camera

Mirrorless camera

It’s worth throwing in the option of a mirrorless camera. It’s a digital camera that accepts different lenses. Also called a “mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera” (MILC), “hybrid camera” and “compact system camera” (CSC), the body is thinner than a DSLR. They have the portability of a compact but the quality of a DSLR. Pleasingly, they are less expensive than DSLRs so hemorrhage your budget.

 

Conclusion

You’ll do your own research but ultimately, the choice is yours. Whichever camera ensemble you go for, you’re capturing the whale watching experience and preserving the big moments forever, being able to travel back in time.

Just don’t forget to put the camera down during your whale watch and take it all in! And we’d love for you to share your images with us on Facebook (@JuneauToursAndWhaleWatch).

 

Other useful resources