We’ve just finished a dive on the Carnatic, one of the popular wrecks of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas in the Northern 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 the most exciting encounters I had with these creatures and luckily I managed to get some good shots.
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.
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.
The wide-angle lens will allow you to fill the frame with your subject and get close to the action to 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 get a nice dolphin shot you need a fast shutter speed, something above 1/200 of a second. Anything slower and your shots may end up with motion blur.
If you are not very familiar shutting in Manual mode you can move to Shutter Priority. This mode is normally labelled TV or S. When selected will let you choose the shutter speed while the camera selects the adequate aperture.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Look for the eyes
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.
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.
Where to go
As I said earlier, The Egyptian Red Sea is one of the best destinations to encounter dolphins. Bottlenose are regularly seen in the Northern 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 these dolphins in the lagoon of Sataya reef in the Fury Shoal area. The dolphins use the lagoon as a 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.
Dive with Mario
Mario hosts a number of photography workshops throughout the year with Scuba Travel. From the Red Sea, Indonesia, Caribbean and more.
For UK 1:1 courses you can see more about Mario here