orcas surfacing in the norwegian sea

Light in the Darkness

Chris Schmid

In the low Arctic Circle in late November, daylight lasts for less than an hour. The sun barely breaks over the horizon and thanks to the vertiginous banks of the fjords surrounding small towns like Skjervoy, even in clear weather you may not enjoy its face directly.

an orca breaking surface at dusk

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II | 1/800s @ f/3.2, ISO 2500

Sailing into this perpetual blue hour, Chris Schmid is undeterred. “I’d come to Northern Norway to photograph Orcas and humpbacks,” he explains, “and that time of year has the most amazing light. Following delicate blue, in the hours closer to traditional dawn and dusk, it can warm into magentas and purples. The snow and ice bounce these colours around, softening the whole landscape and lighting up the sea. It’s dark and cold, yet incredibly beautiful.”

chris schmid preparing to dive with his sony camera

But is twilight an ideal time to shoot orcas? “Not really!” he laughs, “but it’s inevitable in that place, at that time. This is where they migrate, following the herring. So if we want to see them in this habitat, we must follow, too. I’ve done underwater shoots many times,” Chris continues, “but this was the first time with Orcas. And normally I specialise in big cats in Africa, so it’s different in a lot of ways.”

Despite the environment and the subject, photographic techniques are always transferable. For one thing, getting close. “When we spotted a pod, we took a small rigid inflatable boat or ‘rib’ out to where they were feeding,” he explains. “This got us closer to the Orcas than the sailing boat, both in range and height. Just as with other animals, when I’m closer to the water I can frame more of the landscape in the background and give the subject some depth and context. If you’re high up on the deck of the ship, all you’ll see is water.”

tail of an orca as it prepares to dive under

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II + 1.4x Teleconverter | 1/800s @ f/4.0, ISO 1250

So, in the arctic twilight, how does Chris set up his camera? “It’s the same as usual, really,” he confesses. “My rule is shoot with a shutter speed that’s twice the inverse of the focal length. This is really important to keep shots sharp, especially when you’re photographing a moving subject from a small boat! So, for instance, if I’m using Sony’s FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II, I’ll use at least 1/400sec and probably more like 1/1000sec. Here in the polar night that means opening the aperture and using higher ISO settings for sure.”

an orca breaking surface in front of a dusky pink sky

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS II | 1/1000s @ f/3.5, ISO 1250

Thankfully, using the Alpha 7R V, with its Steady-Shot Inside image stabilisation along with a lens that has Optical Steady-Shot, means there’s technology adding a helping hand. “Sharpness is harder to achieve than with fewer pixels, but with the Alpha 7R V’s high-resolution sensor, this wasn’t an issue. I want to get all the detail I can out of an exposure, even cropping it if I need to, so sharpness is key. The stabilisation even let me shoot an image of the Northern Lights, handheld at 0.8 second!”

the northern lights high above a frozen lake

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 20mm f/1.8 G | 0.8s @ f/1.8, ISO 6400

So, challenging conditions above water. How about below? “Of course, it’s always darker under water but normally, you’d have some direct light or the ability to use flash. Not here with the Orcas though, as you can’t use flashes on them. Again, it means working wide open with high ISOs. Fortunately, these Orcas are friendly so you can shoot with wide-angle lenses like the 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, but I still keep the shutter up around 1/200sec and rely on ISOs like 6400. With a properly balanced underwater housing, Sony’s camera is very stable. If I let go, it won’t float up or down.”

an orca swims past the lens

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/3.5, ISO 6400

Fortunately,” he continues, “the Alpha 7R V’s ISO performance is very impressive. At 6400, it's very clean and I even used 12,800 on some occasions. When you combine that with the megapixels it offers, it’s incredible.”

Focusing, below water, or above in the twilight, could also have been an issue too, but not with the Alpha 7R V’s ground-breaking AF system. “There are lots of complexities,” Chris admits, “for instance shooting in low-light, against a textured background like water, only seeing a fin to lock onto, and the fact that the Orcas are mostly black! Below the surface, there’s even less light. But using the Flexible Spot mode I didn’t have any trouble.”

2 orcas gracefully swimming underwater

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/200s @ f/3.5, ISO 6400

sperm whale swimming underwater

© Chris Schmid | Sony α7R V + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/250s @ f/2.8, ISO 6400

So successful was his trip with the Orcas and humpbacks that Chris is planning to return in November 2023 to lead a tour. “When you see these animals up close in their environment, it’s genuinely life changing and with the Alpha 7R V, I didn’t miss a moment. These whales are curious, and they want to interact, but they’re gentle too, passing with their calves just a couple of metres from where you are, looking you in the eye, but making sure not to touch you. It’s respectful and I only wish humanity could always show them the same regard.”

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