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  • Writer's pictureJefferson Graham

Whale Watch near Pismo Beach with an iPhone

I’ve just returned from the green and so full of poppies Central California Coast filming several new episodes of PhotowalksTV.

First up for you: a whale watch boat ride off the coast of lovely Avila Beach, a tiny town of just 200 full-time residents near Pismo Beach.

Unlike any of the whale watch boat rides that I’ve been on before, from British Columbia to Hawaii and Dana Point, California, this one actually produced the goods. One big, giant whale flew in the air, wagged his tail often and swam by the boat as we made our way through the waters. It’s worth watching!

While you may not have heard of Avila, it’s “like an all you can eat buffet for the whales.” said Captain Michael Brink, who takes people out on the water with his SLO Tours. “There’s so much eating available for them here.” (You don’t know about whales and Avila, he added, because the size of the dock is tiny, compared to places like Monterey and Dana Point, which have the infrastructure to handle the crowds.)

As I always do on Photowalks, I shot the entire episode on an iPhone. I didn’t have to worry about getting the camera wet (the iPhone is water resistant) or carrying expensive camera gear with me on the boat. I could use the improved telephoto on the iPhone 14 Pro Max to get decent stills and videos at 77mm focal length. I shoot the show on the iPhone because I want to use the same technology my viewers use and show them what’s possible.

Shooting on mobile phone is how the captain told me 90% of his passengers do it, and he also noted that most folks end up with crappy results. They either get hours of video footage they never get around to looking at or so-so stills.

Myself, I got exceptional video (I edit) and some great stills.

But my friend Amy Joseph, a local Pismo Beach photographer, got extra awesome, amazing photos with her Nikon and 28mm-300mm lens. If there was ever a case for bringing a camera with a great lens, this was it. The iPhone was decent; what Amy got with her Nikon was incredible.

What did I learn from the experience?

—If I had to do it over again, I would take the cruise twice, to better acquaint myself with what to expect.

—Amy and Lisa, another photographer on the boat, had the rapid fire shutter going non-stop on their Nikon and Sony cameras. I regularly tell people to use Burst Mode on the iPhone for stopping the action, but I didn’t use it, for two good reasons.

—I missed the “breach” when the whale jumps into the air because I was inside the cabin interviewing the captain on video, and Amy and Lisa were in the outside section of the boat, cameras ready to bounce. So I missed the key highlight. DRAT!

—My gameplan was to let the video roll as much as I could, to ensure that I didn’t miss anything, which I generally find works even better than burst mode. Perfect for fireworks. This method was indeed great for all the tail waving, which the whale did by the boat. And instead of Burst Mode, I used one of my favorite iPhone tricks: shooting video and stills at the same time. (It’s not hard. When you press the red record button for video, a white shutter button appears to the right. You can click on that one non-stop, and get good, high resolution stills along with the video.) I still think that was the wise choice.

—Remember that the whales usually perform for the camera far away from the boat, which is why you need a good telephoto lens to capture the action. Lisa happened to have my favorite camera for times like this, the Sony RX10IV, which has a built-in 24mm to 600mm lens and it does an amazing job in picking up shots from far away. Because I do the episodes on an iPhone, I left the RX10 at home. (Bad move!)

—Photogs like me really want to see a better telephoto on their iPhones. The Samsung Galaxy series has featured a “10x” zoom for the last 3 iterations of their top of the line phones, and many expect Apple to match it when the new edition of the iPhone comes out in September. (I can’t wait!) I don’t know that the 10x zoom would have produced results as stellar as Amy’s, but it couldn’t have hurt! It would have been way better than the current 3x.

And yes, readers might remember that I bought a Galaxy, and yes, I had it in my backpack. But I didn’t pull it out. Woulda, shoulda, coulda!

More on the Central California Coast

One of the most beautiful places in the world!

I ended up there last week when a camera club in Nipomo invited me up to teach my iPhone Photography #101 course for them—all four hours worth. (I take the show on the road—let me know if you’d like me to come to your town!)

I’ve loved Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Avila Beach, Shell Beach, San Luis Obispo, Cambria and Morro Bay for years, and try to visit at least twice a year.

A big difference this year: those brown hills I see in the spring this year were green and full of amazing poppies.

I’ll have more to report in the coming weeks, with more editions of Photowalks from the Central Coast. So please stay tuned!

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