Roadtrip to Photograph Seals and Sea Lions

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Tomorrow my son Shawn and I are planning to photograph the Seals and Sea Lions in La Jolla (San Diego), CA. How to See the Seals and Sea Lions in La Jolla is a great blog tutorial on how to see and photograph the Seals and Sea Lions at that location. Sunset will occur at 7:27 P.M. so we will probably arrive on site about 4:30 to 5:00 P.M. to catch the Golden Light as the sun slips closer to the horizon (but we can’t let it slip too low).

I’ve photographed the Seals and Sea Lions there before in the early morning hours (just after sunrise) but the sun is in the east and the Cove and Children’s Pool is in deep shade (usually necessitating a Speedlite). I hate shooting flash (especially with wildlife) so we will try the late afternoon/early evening hours instead. The sun will be coming in from the west at that time and if we shoot early enough the Cove and Children’s Pool should be well-lit.

I’m taking my new Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM camera & lens combination. I would prefer to shoot with my new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV but I expect pups on the beach which means that it will probably be roped off. Using the 7D Mark II with its APS-C 1.6x crop factor will give me 60% more EFOV (Effective Field of View). That means my 100-400mm lens will behave more like a 160-640mm lens (more reach is always good). Pre-planning the shoot I have programmed my user-defined C1 Mode with the following settings:

Shutter Speed – 1/800s

Aperture – f/5.6

ISO – Auto ISO (with a preset limit of 6,400)

Picture Style – Neutral

White Balance – Auto White Balance

File – CameraRAW

Focus – Autofocus One Shot

Metering – Evaluative

Shooting – Single Shot

These settings can be changed and further refined once I start shooting but they’re a good baseline to start with. If a more dynamic (fast-moving) subject presents itself I can quickly spin my mode dial to C2 Mode which is programmed with: a 1/2000s shutter speed, Autofocus AI Servo (for fast tracking) and Continuous Shooting at 10 fps. All other settings are the same as my C1 settings. When photographing wildlife you don’t want to be fussing with camera settings at the last-minute—you want to stay focused on the subject. I’m hoping that the beach will be accessible and that we’ll be blessed with the beautiful golden light that the early evening hours often provides.

I photographed the two Sea Lions above in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador (November 2015). The one on the left is just a pup (about one or two weeks old) and the one on the right is more mature. How can you tell the difference between Sea Lions and Seals? It’s really pretty easy: Sea Lions (like the ones pictured above) have little ears whereas Seals just have holes in their head (like someone shot an arrow through their skull). Sea Lions are also very agile on land where Seals kind of flounder—I will refer you back to the blog tutorial I linked to earlier in the post for more information. Seals and Sea Lions have been very controversial in La Jolla for quite a few years—and they still are.

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4 responses to “Roadtrip to Photograph Seals and Sea Lions

  1. Hi Stephen, I’m a big fan of the Children’s Pool, I don’t mind the rope barrier as it tends to keep people (mainly kids) from running at them.

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