We’ve just finished a dive on the Carnatic, one of the popular wrecks of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in the Northen Red Sea, when suddenly a big dolphin breached next to our RIB. Our driver speeded up and started circling around, that did the trick and soon we had about 7 dolphins swimming around us. Masks and fins back on, I grabbed my camera and rolled back. The next 10 minutes were some of most exciting encounter I had with this creatures and luckily I managed to get some good shots.

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A bottlenose dolphins after a dive on the Carnatic.

Dolphins can be seen almost everywhere in the world but few places can come close to the Egyptian Red Sea. Encounters are relatively common in many areas and some reefs have been named after these animals.  But coming back onboard after swimming with dolphins and not have a good photo to share with your friends can be frustrating.

Here are my tips to get those wow shots on your next dolphin encounter.

Go Wide

Dolphins are big animals, and as it is the case with any other large subject, a wide angle lens is essential. On my last Red Sea trip, I had my macro lens when a dolphin showed up and swam around us for 10 minutes, my only option was to put my camera down and enjoy the experience.

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By using a fisheye lens I was able to capture not only the front dolphin but the whole pod behind

The wide angle lens will allow you to fill the frame with your subject and get close to the action and keep the image sharp and contrasted. Remember that the further away you are from your subject the poorer the image quality will be.

Speed is king

Have you ever tried to keep up with a dolphin? if so you know very well that it is a waste of effort. They are incredibly quick and agile.

If you want to have a vague chance to get a nice dolphin shot you need to use a very fast shutter speed, something above 1/200 of a second. Anything slower and your shots may end up with motion blur.

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A pod of dolphins swim by during a dive in Bluff Point. By selecting a fast shutter speed allowed me to freeze the movement.

If you are not very familiar shutting in Manual mode you can move to Shutter Priority, this mode is normally labelled TV or S and when selected will let you choose the shutter speed while the camera selects the adequate aperture.

Lighting

My best dolphin shots have been taken snorkelling and being so close to the surface strobes were not necessary and I use ambient light.

As mentioned before on previous blogs, when using ambient light try to keep the sun behind you so your subject gets the most of the light even if this is not always easy when dolphins are swimming all around you.

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By having the sun behind me I was able to get enough light on this spinner dolphins. Taken snorkelling early in the morning at Sataya Lagoon, Fury Shoals.

If you are using strobes, make sure they are wide apart and behind your dome to prevent backscatter. I tend to aim my flashguns slightly downwards as I do with when photographing sharks to avoid overexposing their pale underbelly.

Even if you are using strobes, try to keep the shutter speed high to avoid problems caused by the fast movement of the dolphin.

Noise or sharpness

If the light conditions are not optimal, you may not have an aperture wide enough to get a good exposure using a fast shutter speed. At this point you have two options, you end up with a blurry picture or you increase the camera ISO. This will generate additional noise but I rather have a slightly grainy dolphin picture than a grey blob.

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Increasing the ISO will allow you to use a faster shutter speed and maintain good exposure on your backgrounds

If you are in a situation such as the one I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, you can set the camera before you jump in the water, I normally have the AutoISO settings so the camera will select an ISO up to 2400 to avoid excessive noise caused by higher ISO values. That way I only have to change the mode to Shutter Priority  and the ISO to Auto. That way if the Dolphins do not hang around you will have a good chance to get a shot.

Composing

There are a few things to consider when shutting dolphins. Because they tend to hang around in shallow water, I try to use the surface as a compositional element, the texture of the waves works beautifully in the background and if you are right under the surface it is possible to archive very striking reflections.

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A Bottlenose dolphin at the surface, The reflection on the surface was archived by shutting just under the surface.

Sunbeams are another advantage of being close to the surface and I like the way they complement and balance the image and also can create leading lines to your subject.

As it is with any animal subject a great picture can be let down because of pour eye contact. When your subject is looking directly at the camera, the resulting image will create a strong connection between the viewer and in this case the dolphin.

Whatever you do, always pay attention to the edges of the frame making sure you don’t accidentally clip a fin or a fellow diver.

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To dolphins come to have a closer look while the pod stays deeper. I really like the light pattern on the dolphins and the sunbeams leading the eye to the depth. Because the dolphins were looking at my camera I got great eye contact.

When dolphins are in a good mood they will swim around you for several minutes. Try to predict where the dolphin will be so you can prepare the shot. And do not bother chasing them, they are way faster than you.

As I said earlier, The Egyptian Red Sea is one of the best destinations to encounter dolphins. Bottlenose are regularly seen in the Northen Red Sea around reefs such as Sha’ab El Erg, Abu Nuhas and Little Gubal island. These sites are normally visited on the Wrecks and Reefs itineraries. The Southern Red Sea offers more chances to swim with spinners. A very good site to spot big groups of this dolphins is the lagoon of Sataya reef in the Fury Shoal area. The dolphins use the lagoon as shelter during the evenings and in the morning is possible to swim with them before they go into the open sea for the day. You can visit Sataya on most of the deep south trips. I try to stop there on my Shark Quest Photography. 

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In the Red Sea, spinner dolphins are comun in the southern reefs and bottlenose are more often seen in the Northen areas

Dive with Mario

Mario hosts a number of photography workshops throughout the year with Scuba Travel. From the Red Sea, Indonesia, Caribbean and more… you can read more about Marios escorted trips here
For UK 1:1 courses you can see more about Mario here