Paul Grayson | Leviathan


January 31, 2015  •  1 Comment

LeviathanLeviathanCopyrighted Digital Photograph


After taking another huge breath, a Humpback Whale slides back into the Pacific Ocean, off of the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, its tail streaming water.




Our boat took us out of Honokohau Harbour in search of some of the thousands of whales who migrate annually from Alaska to Hawaii in order to breed, in the case of females in heat, and to give birth, in the case of females already pregnant for the 12 months of whale gestation. He gave a running commentary on the lives of whales, particularly the Humpback whales which are most common in this area. These animals are far greater in size and bulk than our 40 foot boat, even though they are far less massive than their Sperm Whale cousins.


We spent some time with a mother and its calf, supported by a protecting male, whose action was definitively self-interested, given that females frequently come back into heat having given birth and accompanying her as she fed her offspring, might lead to a future recurrence of this happy event.


Captain Dan


Captain Dan McSweeney was full of interesting information about the whales: the fact that they do not feed while in Hawaii; that the mothers provide an enormous amount of milk per day to their calves, squirted into their mouths underwater, thereby losing 10 tons of body mass while nursing; the mating hope of the protecting males, who fend off any other interested suitors (or not) and the remarkable story of the regeneration of whale populations since they were largely protected in the 1960’s. See his website:





Many of the images taken during this voyage were at the legal limit for protection of the species. However, this photograph was offered to me as the boat returned to harbour, when a passing, lone Humpback, not knowing the rules, surfaced just to starboard about a mile from the harbour.


A Life On The Ocean Wave…


Taking photographs of a fast moving mammal from a pitching and rolling boat requires fast shutter speed, having a Vibration Reduction lens and being able to compensate for the interdiction of getting nearer than 100 yards to a protected species.


The first two issues were dealt with by using the Speed function on the exposure controls, which made shutter speed the defining parameter. With ISO set at a fixed level, the camera decided on its adjustments for exposure by changes to the aperture. Happily, given sunny, bright conditions, the reasonably high quality ISO choice still enabled a depth-of-field enhancing aperture at that fast shutter speed. The last issue, that of getting close to the subject required one hardware adjustment and exploiting two software choices.




The hardware was the addition of a Nikon 1.4X magnification Teleconverter. The fact that this reduced the choice of aperture for low light conditions was not relevant in this bright light situation. Adding this element increased the effective size of the lens to 195 X 1.4 = 274mm.


The software choice was to alter the effective sensor size from its normal Nikon “FX”, which is equivalent to the traditional 35mm frame of a film camera, to “DX”, which is the smaller sensor size of earlier generation Nikon digital cameras. The optical effect of attaching a lens which is optimized for 35mm is to multiply the magnification produced by that lens by 1.5. Therefore the final magnification produced by these adjustments is 274 X 1.5 = 411mm.


A final layer of “Reach” was produced in post-processing, where the full-size image was cropped to make the target image fill the frame.




Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: VR 70-200mm zoom f/2.8G, with  added 1.4X Teleconverter

Focal Length: 195 mm

Vibration reduction: On

Focus Mode: AF-S

Image Capture area set to “DX”

Autofocus Area Mode: Single

DX Mode

Aperture: f/14

Shutter Speed: 1/1600s

Exposure Mode: Shutter Priority

Continuous High (maximum frames per second shooting)

Exposure Compensation : -0.3

Metering: Matrix

ISO Sensitivity: 640

Hand Held


This was a moving experience on many levels, generating a meditative response from me. Although you could not share that particular journey on the ocean, I hope that the image gives you pause for thought.


Copyright Paul Grayson 2015


La vue de baleines est toujours un moment fort chargé d'émotions que jamais ne remplace un reportage télé ou une image.Ta photo est très réussie techniquement mais ne peut donner l'émotion ressentie à leur vue, ce que tu décris très bien dans ton commentaire. Lecteurs, si vous avez l'occasion d'aller en voir n'hésitez pas.
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