Capturing Wild Sea Otters on Film: Tips from an Expert
By Joe Tomoleoni
Sea otters are many things: apex predators, keystone species, a conservation success story, and for photographers… a highly sought after and engaging photo subject. It’s easy to see why people love otters and why photographers love to take their pictures. They are expressive, beautiful, and intelligent subjects. And of course, few images have the ability to “break the internet” like a fuzzy newborn otter pup. In reality, otters can be an extremely difficult species to photograph. Here are some tips that will help you come away with memorable sea otter images:
Where, When, and How
You can find otters in or around kelp forests along the rocky outer coast. This is a dramatic and scenic habitat, but otters are generally too far away to effectively photograph from shore. Otters also utilize bays, estuaries, and harbors. Not only do these protected waters give you a better chance of getting within photographic range, but the calmer waters make for easier photography.
For otters close to the coast or in protected waters, you may be able to shoot from the shoreline. This is my preferred method since it allows me to setup my rig on a tripod, sit, and wait. For otters that are further away, you may need to shoot from a vessel. Whale watching boats or wildlife tour boats often cater to photographers and generally do a good job of finding your subject while still maintaining a safe distance. Kayaking is also very effective at getting you out to the otters. Just remember to protect your gear from the saltwater, and to maintain a respectful distance.
If your plan is to photograph sea otters with your smartphone, you should go to your local zoo or aquarium. If you’re close enough to a wild otter to get a good camera phone pic – you’re way too close! Any DSLR camera body will do, though choosing a body with a cropped sensor will give you more “pixels on subject” than a full frame sensor. As is usually the case with wildlife photography, the glass you use is more important than the camera body. You’ll need a sharp telephoto lens. There’s no such thing as too long a lens when photographing wild otters. Use the longest lens in your bag. My go-to lens is the Canon 500mm L f4, and I often pair it with a 1.4x teleconverter to maximize my reach. If you’ve got a 600mm or 800mm telephoto lens in your kit, even better. When shooting from shore, I love setting up on a sturdy tripod with a gimbal head. On boats, tripods are useless so be aware that it may be difficult to handhold a very long lens like a 800mm while bouncing up and down in the waves. You may be better off with a mid-length telephoto like a 400mm when shooting from a boat. A pair of binoculars is a useful piece of kit for scouting areas and looking for otters.
Techniques and Tips
The techniques used for sea otter photography are much the same as those used when photographing any terrestrial mammals.
1. Become a keen observer and study sea otter behavior. This is best tip I can give you, the one that will get you the money shot. Do your homework. Don’t just hop out of the car and start clicking away at the nearest furry critter. Watch the otters, learn their habits, and be patient. Almost every great otter image I’ve made came as a result of sitting quietly in one spot for a long period of time.
2. Blend in. Become part of the shoreline. Go slow and stay low to the ground. Avoid unnecessary movement. Not only will you be rewarded with some great otter encounters, but all sorts of other wildlife will also come within range while you wait.
3. Watch your exposure. Sea otter fur can be very dark. I usually dial in +1/3 to +1 stops of exposure compensation to correctly expose for the otter’s fur. Sometimes this means the water gets overexposed, but that’s ok. The subject is the otter so that’s what you want to get right.
4. Look for unique compositions. The profile of an otter on the surface is long and thin, and as a result, leaves a lot of negative space in traditional compositions. Look for different angles or body positioning to combat this problem. Try shooting tight portraits where you just get the head, shoulders, and forepaws of the otter in the frame. These tight crops are often very effective compositions because they fill the frame better and they focus on the expressive face of the otter. Don’t cut the otter off mid-body. One of the golden rules of people photography is to avoid cutting off the feet – so mind the flippers too! Mid-body crops are awkward. Crop for a tight portrait or else include the entire otter.
5. Don’t always fill the frame. The exception here is if you’re shooting a portrait. Otherwise, give the otter “room to breathe” in your composition. Don’t crop the image so that the head and tail are right up at the edges of the frame. Shoot from further away and incorporate some habitat (surface water, kelp bed, etc.) into the shot for a more pleasing environmental composition.
6. Get low. If you can shoot from the water level you’ll be rewarded with a nicely isolated subject and some smooth, creamy bokeh.7. Capture interesting behaviors. Otters do some really cool things. Grooming behaviors can make for great shots. A personal favorite of mine is foraging behavior. Otters feed on dozens of different invertebrates, and a great image of an otter doing battle with an octopus or Dungeness crab is much more interesting than yet another sleeping otter picture.
A Word on Ethics
All photographers want to come away from their shoot with a great photo, but it’s important to remember that these are wild animals and must be treated with respect. Sea otters are living on a razors edge, so any harassment, even unintentional harassment, could cause them a great deal of stress. Not only is it unethical to disturb or harass sea otters during a photo shoot, it’s also illegal. Sea otters are protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and any disturbance could be a violation of these laws. Maintain a respectful distance at all times. If the otter is frequently looking at you, then you’re probably too close. If your actions or presence cause any noticeable change in behavior, back off. No photo is worth harassing even a single otter. Always remember to respect the nap!
All photographs in this article by Joe Tomoleoni. For more tips, tricks, and otter pics, as well as nature and wildlife photography, check out ecoexposurephotography.com or follow @ecoexposurephotography on Instagram and Facebook