What Shot Is Your Photography White Whale?

What Shot Is Your Photography White Whale?

We all have shots we want to capture, and usually, we can orchestrate the image into life. But sometimes, a shot becomes so evasive you get a little obsessed with capturing it. What is yours?

This isn't an article about belugas. It is instead about the obsessive and relentless chasing of a particular shot, in spite of — and often because of — how unlikely it is to get. This doesn't necessarily mean the shot itself is incredibly difficult or the circumstances needed for the image to come together are rare, though that is sometimes the case. It can also just be a shot you've always wanted but that has eluded you, which is the case with me. But first, let's look at one of my favorite photography white whale instances I've seen.

Alan McFadyen: The Splashless Kingfisher Dive

A few years back, wildlife photographer Alan McFadyen captured a shot he'd been chasing for some time. In fact, he estimates it took 6 years and 720,000 shots before he got his white whale. The image he had in his head was of a diving kingfisher which was just about to breach the still water, but hadn't yet made a splash, resulting in the beautiful symmetry you see above. McFadyen said: "The photo I was going for of the perfect dive, flawlessly straight, with no splash required not only me to be in the right place and get a fortunate shot but also for the bird itself to get it perfect."

If you look at McFadyen's portfolio, that shot wouldn't make it into his top 10 for me; he's a brilliant photographer who got a brainworm of a shot stuck in his head and had to get it out — something we all get. Don't get me wrong, the shot is stunning, but how great the final shot is isn't really the point.

Mithun H: The Panther Shadow

Some white whales are quicker than others, but still require inordinate dedication. Mithun H. is a wildlife photographer who specializes in big cats, and like McFadyen, his Instagram is a joy to scroll through. Mithun had a shot in mind, however, in which two big cats that were a pair, would line up perfectly: the leopard in front, the black panther behind like a shadow. Mithun told Petapixel that it took nearly six days of waiting for this moment to materialize.

My White Whale: The Dragonfly

My white whale isn't necessarily difficult, insofar as it's not a rare insect, even here in the U.K. We have a number of species and several places near where I live are hotbeds for them. However, how-bloody-ever, I can't for the life of me photograph one. I have spent more hours than I'm willing to admit, wandering around bogs, ponds, and other bodies of water with a wealth of wildlife, most of these places well known for their dragonfly populations. I've tried dawn, dusk, mid-afternoon — no dice. Despite seeing many flying around, I have never managed to get near enough to take a macro image of one or even just a normal close-up shot!

In my head, the shot isn't particularly specific. I just have a fascination with dragonflies and want to spend some time photographing them. I have photographed a wealth of damselflies, which are of the same family, but now that I've photographed them, I don't really care about doing it more. That's not to say I don't, though; every chance I get, I'll photograph them, but I don't yearn to. Dragonflies are just right at the top of my list, and still, they evade me.

The prompt for this article was after yet another failed excursion at a nature reserve yesterday evening. It's a reserve which boasts about how many dragonflies they get, the weather was perfect for them with almost no wind, I went at peak time, and yet again, they eluded my lens! If you have any tips on dragonfly behavior that might help me get the shot I want, feel free to share.

What Is Your White Whale?

The three examples in this article are all wildlife, but that's far from the only category of white whale shots. Many landscape photographers dream of the perfect weather conditions from the perfect vantage point. Many astrophotographers dream of capturing rare occurrences like NEOWISE or lining up the Milky Way with a landmark. Many street photographers are hunting for that perfect moment where subject and light marry for that dreamy, angular scene. No matter what you photograph, there'll always be a sort of aspirational shot that you want to capture. At first, it might just be a distant desire — another image you can tick off that vague list — but if it escapes you long enough, it's only natural you'll become obsessed. That's when it's your white whale.

What photo are you chasing, and if you can explain it, why are you chasing it?

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10 Comments

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Milky Way rising above the 7th green at Pebble Beach.

Trey Mortensen's picture

Just the Aurora Borealis. It might be cliche, but that's the shot. I have a tracker app on my phone but the warnings are never in my area (within reason). One day...

Robert K Baggs's picture

Ah yes, that's one for me too. I've been to Iceland and Norway and got zilch on both trips!

Gerald Bertram's picture

My cat being nice....to anything.

Dan Grayum's picture

I think my white whale changes as I develop as a photographer.. It started with like a clean detailed shot of the moon, then the Milky Way, then birds of prey, and most recently comet NEOWISE .. every time i get that whale i set my eyes on another.

Tom Reichner's picture

As a wildlife and bird photographer, I have several "white wales".

- Steller's Eiders standing on ice (a pair, male and female, close-up)

- Gunnison Sage Grouse

- Ili Pika

- Whitetail Deer, buck actively shedding velvet

- All 9 of Arizona's Rattlesnake species (I know that's not a single image, but it is still a targeted pursuit)

Sadly, I don't believe that the Gunnison Sage Grouse or the Ili Pika are attainable. The odds of ever having an opportunity to photograph either species are darn near zero.

James Friesen's picture

What about instead of natural phenomenon, a conceptual piece that would be nearly impossible to set up and orchestrate? I do mainly landscape and architectural work, but I've dabbled in some conceptual stuff. And I've had this idea in my head of a surreal image of a girl on a tricycle photographed underwater in a lake at night with a single bright spotlight. Weird and dark, I know. But I don't know where ideas come from...

Tom Reichner's picture

Weird and dark. Hmmmm ..... sounds just like something that Brooke Shaden would do. And somehow she would pull it off with flare and excellence, like she always does!

Expert Photographer's picture

The Aurora/Northern Lights are at the top of my list now

Greg Milunich's picture

For me its a milky way shot over a waterfall. My two favorite subjects but I have nave had the chance to combine them.