Anatomy of a photo #82: Let sleeping seals lie

Lost in sleep and shadow this Harbor Seal made a wonderful subject

Most of my Harbor Seals portraits have been taken while kayaking, in fact I’ve written posts discussing techniques on photographing them from kayaks, but that is not the only way to capture images of them, even if it is my preferred method.

I often shy away from photographing Harbor Seals while hiking, although I will make exceptions, as I did on this day. Seals can be difficult to approach on land without spooking them back into the water (around some city piers it is not so difficult to approach Sea Lions and the like, as they are now fairly used to our presence, but Harbor Seals, especially in quieter waters are another matter). They need that time out of the water, that time to rest and relax, to warm up a little without the fear of predators. It can be key to their survival having a little down time, that they may face the world refreshed. That, and it is a federal offense to disturb marine mammals.

When I photograph them on land I wait for opportunities where I can approach them while staying undercover, hidden from view. Often if there is a group of them sleeping or relaxing on a beach, there is at least one or two seals that will scan the area from time to time for predators. Once one of them sees something, they all will bolt into the water, losing that precious land time. So I move slowly, out of site as much as possible as I search for a place where I can peak out with my camera and capture them while at rest.

This image of a sleeping Harbor Seal worked out especially well, as it was entirely in shadow. This let me capture great detail without losing anything to blocked up shadows or blown out highlights as would have happened in full sunlight. Shadows and cloudy days can be our friends when capturing images of wildlife.

I used a 300mm lens for this shot, with a 1.4x converter attached. I rested the hand holding the lens of the camera on a rock (no tripod used) to help steady the camera as I peaked out to shoot this brief image before fading away and back to my hike. I needed the extra stability of the rock, as I was shooting at 1/320 of a second and did not want to bump the ISO any higher (for noise reasons) just to get a faster shutter speed. Aperture was open wide at f/5.6

I came across this Harbor Seal while hiking in California’s Salt Point State Park. I had been photographing some of the history of the area and the interesting sandstone formations for a magazine when I came across this chance of an image that was too good to pass up.

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, nature photography, seals, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #82: Let sleeping seals lie

  1. I enjoyed your peaceful capture. Harbor seals are the cutest of the bunch and one sleeping is delightful.

  2. ehpem says:

    Here in British Columbia the seals usually haul out low rocks off shore. It is very rare to see them on an accessible beach, except sometimes when they are moulting. Perhaps having lots of bears in all but the more urbanised areas modifies their behaviour. One of the things I most appreciate about harbour seals is their curiousity – they will often follow a hiker along the shoreline for hours, at least in places that people rarely walk.

    • Around here seals usually haul out on sand bars in the middle of open water (which usually means at the lower end of the tide) and upon and among rocks that are harder to access. If they haul out on beaches, usually the beach is surrounded by cliffs and has a somewhat more restricted access. People have created easier access to some of these areas than what they were in the past, back when California still had larger bears (now we only have the smaller black bears). So historically, many of the places where we can see seals at rest down here, were once very hard to access.

      I’ve noticed that seals are especially curious of walkers and hikers if they have a dog with them. (They are plenty curious otherwise and will still follow, but there is something about them and dogs)

  3. That looks like one peaceful and happy seal! I love the way you make it a priority to protect the animals when you’re approaching them. Having photographs of nature is so important for our education and awareness, yet it’s critical to protect their habitat, too. Great work all the way around.

    • It’s best to keep the wildlife “wild” It’s part of the magic and beauty of it all, part of what makes nature so wonderful to share. The more people see that nature isn’t just gulls scrabbling over their scraps on the beach, the more likely they will be to protect it

  4. This seal is lost in his dreams, and smiling. Wonderful shot.

  5. ljr3 says:

    It does practically smile, doesn’t it. What a happy contented seal. You have captured a piece of its personality.

  6. What a wonderful, happy shot! I love the “smile” you captured during his moment of peace~

  7. Wonderful! Made me smile!

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