Shane Keena has been in the field of fine arts for over twenty-five years. He was profoundly influenced by a childhood spent exploring the shallow tide pools of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, USA. For the last 10 years, Shane has focused on wildlife photography with an emphasis on marine mammals. Shane was the lead photographer for the Earth Watch project “Whales and Dolphins Under the California Sun” and Dana Wharf Whale Watch. Xpozer spoke with Shane about how he began photographing the world’s largest mammals and the adventures he’s had with them.

Nature is my muse

While my background is in studio arts, photography is a medium I’ve always been drawn to, even back to when I was a young child. I would create elaborate setups with my toys and photograph the scene with an old Polaroid camera. Years later, I did a lot of macro photography of intertidal and botanical nature to inform my sculptural work. Nature has always been my muse. About ten years ago I started doing marine mammal photography for my wife (who is a marine biologist) and her research. With the sea having always been a powerful influence for me, cetacean photography (shooting whales, dolphins and porpoises) was the next logical step.

Like a painter or a ceramist who has mastered the glazed surface, I want my photographs to have a sense of depth to them. When I edit my photos I really try to subvert flatness in the final image. I want my viewer to feel like they are experiencing what I shot, whatever the subject may be. While I try to do as much in-camera settings wise when shooting, in my editing process I look to tweak to create as much richness and depth that hopefully gives the viewer that sense of what I experienced being in that moment. I like to think that my photography style has a bit of a painterly feel to it because of my background in fine arts.

Amazing Photography by Xpozer Shane Keena Under the surface

Observing dive patterns

I always try to have a goal of walking (or swimming) away with a certain type of image. Of course, with wildlife, it almost never happens as you set it up mentally. I plan to the best of my ability given what the situation allows and all the variables at play. When photographing marine mammals, understanding their behavior is critical to a successful image. By watching their dive patterns I recognize when a whale is about to start a sound dive, which is when they descend for several minutes underwater. This also helps me get in position for something exciting like a breach or other surface activity. My underwater dive rig is a Canon 5D3 with a 16–35 mm lens tucked inside a Nauticam housing and a Zen glass dome port. I don’t use strobes when swimming with humpback whales at the surface as they create more drag resistance. When you have to swim 25–50 yards (22-45m) just to get to the animals, you need to minimize energy loss.

Humbling and thrilling

When you are flanking a 55-ton animal like an adult humpback whale you are pretty humbled by the sheer scale of such an amazing creature. Humpback whale calves are playfully awkward because they are trying to figure out their body. Sometimes they can be rather floppy and unpredictable, even giving swimmers a bump or pectoral fin “nudge.” That’s exactly what happened shortly before I shot the photo titled “Incoming!” The calf approached me head-on, dove slightly to raise his left pectoral fin upwards and gently thumped me, which of course left me with a sizable bruise and a memory I’ll never forget.

Amazing Photography by Xpozer Shane Keena Under the surface

Anthropomorphically, I like to think that the playful calf thought of me as the equivalent of a pool toy. I continued swimming next to the cow and calf pair, pretty much within arm’s reach. The mother humpback whale was lazily nudging the calf along then suddenly turned directly towards me, leaving me just enough time to focus and shoot before the calf was on top of me. That was a thrilling moment and a very real reminder of how quickly the action can change with wild animals.

When photographers and researchers collaborate

I strongly believe that wildlife photographers are critical to research and conservation. In the world of cetaceans, we have seen a synergy between photographers and researchers when it comes to documenting species for photo identification catalogs, migration patterns, and overall species numbers and population dynamics. I also train researchers and volunteers in techniques and animal behavior patterns for photographing fast-moving wildlife. Images and footage can also help change public attitudes towards issues such as animal captivity, as seen with the movie “Blackfish” about orcas in captivity. Earth Watch uses my images to endorse, promote and share their research as well as to generate enthusiasm and recruit citizen scientists to other research programs around the globe. See it in person I believe that experiencing an image on a screen is vastly different than seeing a print in person. As a professor of art, this is similar to what I tell my students. You can look at an image of a classic painting or photograph but it’s not the image or artwork itself. I strongly believe it is a must to experience that captured moment without the compression and image loss that we often view photos with these days on our mobile devices.

Amazing Photography by Xpozer Shane Keena Under the surface

“I want my viewer to feel like they are experiencing what I shot.” -Shane Keena

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  • The cover of Amazing PhotographyMore than 100 breathtaking photos by professional and hobby photographers
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  • Would you rather …? A hypothetical photography game for friends
  • The science behind how your photos can affect your happiness and well-being.

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