Technology Helps Whale Photographer Capture Life-Size Images

Superior cameras, lenses and hard drives help Bryant Austin take high-resolution close-ups and create one-to-one composites.

In 2006, Bryant Austin was an aspiring nature photographer, shooting humpback whales off the coast of California with a 600-millimeter super telephoto lens.

He’d spent his life savings on camera equipment, yet he didn’t feel like his pictures were any different from the wildlife spreads in most magazines.

Until a surreal experience, upgraded cameras and improved processing power changed his life — and his life’s work.

When Austin traveled to Tonga, the South Pacific island kingdom, he thought it would be his last trip as a whale photographer. But while snorkeling, a mother and calf humpback whale approached him.

Afraid of being squashed, he lowered his camera. The calf’s belly button went past him, inches from his eyes.

Austin felt a tap on his shoulder. The mother’s 15-foot pectoral fin was inches from him. Their eyes locked. “We just studied each other,” he said.

The detail, the tonal range, and the colors he saw inspired his future work: to make life-size, one-to-one photo composites of the creatures.

Bryant Austin - whale photographer

Putting in the Time

Using a medium-format 50-megapixel Hasselblad H3DII-50 DSLR camera with an 80-millimeter portrait lens, Austin took ultrahigh-resolution close-ups. Because they are so detailed, these photos help realistically convey the experience of interacting with a whale. Traditional wide-angle whale photographs fail to do this, Austin said.

To get his portraits, Austin regularly spends months at a time with single pods of whales — days with some, minutes with others.

He gets to know them individually and waits for them to approach. When a whale is less than six feet from him, he starts photographing it from the surface of the water.

If every person could encounter a giant whale eye to eye, Austin said, “I think it would give us pause in how we define consciousness and intelligence.”

Jeremy Goldbogen, a marine biologist at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, Calif., also noted that Austin’s photo composites are important contributions to science.

whale photographer

“Despite being the largest animals of all-time, whales still remain one of the mostly poorly understood groups of animals,” he said.

“One aspect in particular is anatomy, and these life-size photos bring to light the amazing anatomical specializations that whales need to survive in a physically challenging aquatic environment.”

Ella, a dwarf minke Austin encountered at the Great Barrier Reef, stayed with him and his boat for five days, allowing him to capture 300 photographs of her.

In the eastern Caribbean, Austin had an encounter with a 26-foot sperm whale that lasted just four minutes. Nonetheless, he managed to take enough photographs to create a life-size composite.

Austin then spent two years piecing the images together on his computer, stitching together the many smaller photos he took and retouching the water so it looks cohesive.

whale photographer

The Tech of Taking Photos

The composite’s digital images are huge.

Even with 12 solid-state hard drives daisy-chained together to serve as virtual RAM, Austin’s computer takes 20 minutes to save changes to the 60-gigabyte Adobe Photoshop file.

Austin printed the sperm whale image composite in sections measuring 6 feet by 8 feet, then mounted it in a custom aluminum frame measuring 8 feet by 36 feet.

He coated it with resin and a UV protectant to prepare it for the touches that inevitably followed at museums.

Despite Austin’s involved process, new technology is making it easier to take and alter digital images in less time. There are options for Mac and PC users alike.

Matthew Vaughan from Intel’s Client Computing Group says photographers with a Mac Pro workstation should use three high-speed PCle SSD drives to attach three Thunderbolt controllers in a redundant array of independent disks (RAID) setup.

Mac users can expect speeds above 3 GBps.

Vaughan also gave the example of someone working on an HP Z820 workstation. By connecting equally fast internal PCle SSD drives, PC users can achieve similar speeds. Improvement is on the horizon with Thunderbolt 3’s launch on the horizon.

“Thunderbolt 3 is twice the speed of the current Thunderbolt 2, which will enable a new class of PCIe SSDs,” Vaughan explained. “It’s interesting to note that what takes two hours to do with USB3 only takes 10 minutes with Thunderbolt 2.”

On a recent trip to Alaska, Vaughan used a Dell mobile workstation with an external PCle SSD to transfer and back up hundreds of photos and Go Pro videos. Lexar multi-bay readers also allowed him to download multiple SD and CF camera cards at the same time.

“All of this worked flawlessly to back up more than 5,000 files and 110 GBs of data,” he said.

Photos for Thought

In 2009, Austin exhibited at a gallery in Norway, where commercial whaling is still legal. He’d been told to prepare for hostility.

A TV news station brought a group of former whalers to his exhibit in the hopes of creating drama. Instead, they were met with silence.

Some whalers were moved to tears. “They probably thought I was crazy,” Austin said. “They just couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”

Austin is preparing for his next project: making life-size photographs and full-body photo-mosaics of blue whales off the California coast.

Austin doesn’t plan to get in the water with these creatures, which can reach about 100 feet in length and weigh 200 tons. Instead, he plans to lower an array of digital cameras into the water.

They will act like scanners, photographing a whale as it swims by. He foresees the resulting composite measuring 12 feet by 90 feet.

“If I don’t do this, it’s never going to happen,” Austin said. “I’ve been sharing my photos with people for over 12 years now, and no one else has picked up a camera and tried to do this.”


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