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Dolphin watch photography tips?

Discussion in 'Animal Photography' started by TheMightyOrca, 20 May 2015.

  1. TheMightyOrca

    TheMightyOrca Well-Known Member

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    I could use some tips for photographing dolphins. I don't really have much experience taking pictures from boats, and most dolphin watch tours offered in Texas coastal towns are very short, so there's not much time to get photos. Also, the water in Galveston (currently the only coastal place I can go to consistently, much to my dismay) is like liquid garbage so it's hard to see the dolphins coming up to the surface.

    Anyone have any good photography tips for dolphin watch tours? My newest camera has burst mode and I plan to make use of that next time. Anything else I should consider?
     
  2. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Moderator Staff Member

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    I tried photographing Orcas out of Seattle on a similar trip many years ago. Photographically, it was a disaster. Dolphins are equally difficult I would imagine. The problem was there was no indication of where they would surface next and once they did surface, not enough time to focus and get a good shot before they were already going back down. All I can say is leave it on burst mode as you said and just fire at will and hope one or two come out. It is really one of the most difficult forms of photography.
     
  3. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Once you've mastered cetaceans then you can try photographing flying fish!

    :p

    Hix
     
  4. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    Dolphins are difficult, especially if the water is murky. If the dolphins are leading the boat and you can be at the front you might be able to get some worthwhile photos though. Otherwise you pretty much have to guess where they are going to appear - and that ain't easy!

    Here are some of my photos, which will probably give a good idea of how difficult dolphin photography is!

    Short-beaked Common Dolphin - leading the boat in clear water, but still not good photos. I do like the water in this shot though.
    [​IMG]

    Hector's Dolphin - this is the best shot I have ever got of this species!
    [​IMG]

    Irrawaddy Dolphins - this is one of the best of literally hundreds of photos. The water was the colour of mud and it was impossible to tell where the dolphins would appear. The best technique turned out to be when one surfaced to either track the camera ahead of where it went down and hope it re-surfaced, or to keep the camera where it first appeared because sometimes a second one would come up straight after. Neither technique was very good though!
    [​IMG]

    Ganges Dolphin - again, simply pure luck as to whether you were pointing the camera in the right spot when one surfaced. This was the best of dozens of shots, and then I gave up and just watched them instead.
    [​IMG]

    IndoPacific Bottlenose Dolphin - taken from shore, which is even harder than from a boat it seems. This one was playing with what I thought was a small plastic ball, but in fact turned out to be a pufferfish!
    [​IMG]
     
  5. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    I have taken 4 day-long whale or dolphin watching trips, 2 off the west coast of Scotland and 2 in the English Channel. In that time I have managed one good photograph of a dolphin and I've never seen a whale at all.

    [​IMG]

    On the other hand, I have seen a lot of seabirds and got some decent photos of them. I have seen a tiny baby harbour porpoise and a breaching white-beaked dolphin, with the frustration of not getting a decent photo of either - but of course if I hadn't been on the trips I wouldn't have seen them at all.
    It's a lottery. The odds are against you because there are so many things that can go wrong - wind, sea state, position of the sun, no subjects, subjects too far away or too close (under the boat), subjects on the wrong side of the boat and even too many subjects!
    The last point needs an explanation: the photo above was taken while the boat was surrounded by a school of dolphins and I always seemed to pick the wrong dolphin, when I chose one which looked as if it was moving into a good position, as soon as it was in focus it would immediately dive or veer off course :( It was exciting and wonderful and terrible at the same time.
    I would recommend having good sunblock, binoculars and ideally two cameras one with a long lens (around 300mm) and one with a standard lens or short telephoto (zooms would be fine in either case).
    One other point occurs to me. The fact that the boats offer short trips indicates that the appearance of the dolphins must be fairly predictable and relatively close inshore - in which case, there may be a place on the coast which allows good views of the dolphins, which is actually much simpler for photography, although you still need patience and luck.

    Alan
     
  6. NigeW

    NigeW Well-Known Member

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    Just adding my own experience here, which has very much in common with everyone else.

    Th biggest challenge was that the dolphins didn't leap clear of the water as maybe I expected, rather they breach very briefly, and you can't see them coming.

    Persevere, and be prepared to wade through many missed shots afterwards. Go for a fast shutter speed, servo autofocus and high speed continuous shooting. I tried to keep my aperture narrow to get some depth of field as I wasn't particularly confident in the autofocus speed of the lens I was using on the day. That was probably a mistake.

    I was sailing on a lovely catamaran in Florida. In the end my 5 fps rattle was annoying me never mind everyone else on the boat. I just put the camera down and enjoyed the experience..!

    (all that said, I've seen shots taken on a snapshot/bridge camera from the same boat and the dolphins were leaping clear of the water behind the boat. That would've been a doddle to photograph!)

    http://www.zoochat.com/729/dolphin-boca-ciega-bay-fl-201815/

    http://www.zoochat.com/729/dolphin-boca-ciega-bay-fl-201812/
     
  7. TheMightyOrca

    TheMightyOrca Well-Known Member

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    Whoa, you got a photo of a Ganges dolphin! I'm so jealous! And it is really hard to find good photos of living ones, yours is one of the better ones I've seen.
     
  8. TheMightyOrca

    TheMightyOrca Well-Known Member

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    Yeah, one time we missed the last boat, but I insisted on staying on the dock for a while in hopes of seeing some. And I did, there was one swimming around, though I wasn't able to get a good photo.

    My mom said she might take me to South Padre Island this summer, and I'm hoping there will be better photo opportunities than Galveston. I do recall seeing more dolphins there as a kid, plus the water isn't as murky. (and as a bonus, the dolphins in SPI aren't radioactive) SPI also offers some longer dolphin tours than Galveston does. I also might go to some touristy part of Mexico next year, hopefully the water will be clear and dolphin photography will be fairly easy. (I also plan on snorkeling, and my camera takes photos underwater)

    I guess I'll try photographing dolphins the same way I photograph lightning: have burst mode on and take pictures in random directions and hope I get lucky, ha ha.
     
  9. azcheetah2

    azcheetah2 Well-Known Member

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    If your naturalist and captain are worth anything, they will keep a constant eye out for the dolphins. Some areas also have a network of spotters who tell them where to look. I have been whale watching in Washington and San Diego. The orca, in spite of how big they are, can be difficult to spot. Id they are in traveling mode, which mine were, you're better off just enjoying the experience. Sometimes you can "time" when they come up for air and get pictures at that time, but mostly you just get pictures of their dorsal fins. Even when "my whales" stopped traveling and just kind of hung out for awhile breaching and tail lobbing, it was still difficult to get pictures. 2 of my favorite shots I got weren't even my best, but they were pretty neat...2 different females swam slightly under the boat, on their sides and they were looking at us as they went by. As many times as I've seen the whales at Sea World, nothing beats seeing them in the wild.

    Interesting story...a few months ago I found a picture online of a small pod of orca. Also in the picture was a boat called the Island Explorer II. I saved the picture to my computer because that was the one I was on and they don't use it anymore. Anyway, after having the picture on my computer for a couple of weeks I had decided to delete it. Something told me, though to take a good look at it. So I did. And wouldn't you know...I found myself in the picture! I mean, what are the odds that someone would take a picture and post it online and then I find it? Crazy. Needless to say, I didn't delete the picture.

    I know this thread is about photographing wild dolphins and I did that while on one of the San Diego whale watching trips. My advice is to keep your camera ready and if you end up encountering them, likely the best place to be would be the stem of the boat because dolphins enjoy bow riding.
     
  10. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    Don't you mean the best place would be the bow?

    :p

    Hix
     
  11. azcheetah2

    azcheetah2 Well-Known Member

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    No.
    STEM - The part of the bow that extends the most forward

    And since they basically form an inverted V, they're at the steam as well. :p
     
  12. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    In my limited experience, the stem can be particularly frustrating, because you can see the dolphins underwater - which is lovely, but useless for photography and when they breach you have a fine view of their flukes. If there is a school of dolphins around the boat, the ideal place is either the port or starboard bow so that the sun is behind you. Unfortunately this is usually the place chosen by the tallest, fattest person on the boat, so you have to find a way to work around that problem :D
    While our local tern has far more dolphin photography experience than I have, I rather disagree with my learned friend; shooting from the shore is actually much easier than from a boat. The shore doesn't move around, you know more or less the direction from which the dolphins will be coming and if you can watch from a little above sea level you can see them coming more easily - a folding chair and a good book can be useful while you wait. In addition you don't generally get wet, although the first time I tried I was having so much fun that I ignored the rising tide for rather too long and my shoes were ruined. You do need a longer lens, but you can put it on a tripod if you wish. The big problem is finding the right place where the dolphins come close inshore. In the UK, nowhere beats Chanonry Point on the Black Isle.

    [​IMG]

    Alan
     
  13. Chlidonias

    Chlidonias Moderator Staff Member

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    ah, but the only time I have tried photographing dolphins from shore (one photo shown earlier) they were moving quite fast up-river, close to shore but hunting so most of their time was underwater and just popping up to grab a gasp of air. I was following them on a bicycle and getting photos whenever an opportunity arose. So more difficult than from a boat :p
     
  14. gentle lemur

    gentle lemur Well-Known Member

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    Because you didn't find the right place ;)

    Alan
     
  15. Hix

    Hix Wildlife Enthusiast and Lover of Islands Premium Member

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    My apologies - I thought you had typed 'STERN', which didn't make sense when talking about bow-riding.

    :p

    Hix