LAST MONTH WE COVERED one of the classic big animal subjects, one that came with a golden photographic rule: “See a turtle, turn down your strobes.”
This month the take-home message is: “See a dolphin, turn up your shutter speed.” But we will come back to that.
Dolphins are the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Does any subject impress your non-diving friends more? But is any subject less co-operative?
Dolphins usually turn up when you’re not expecting them, and even when you set out to see them they are not renowned for staying still and posing.
Any picture of dolphins is likely to get “oohs!”, but producing special shots that capture their grace and athleticism from such ephemeral and unpredictable encounters is far from easy. This month’s Be The Champ! is here to help.

DOLPHIN PICTURES almost always look stunning on the back of the camera, but time and again I have seen photographers’ disappointment when they download them.
The main frustration is that they are all just a bit soft. Dolphins move much faster than most other subjects we photograph under water, and the shots are blurred from their movement.
Using flash rarely suits dolphin photography because they race about so much, constantly changing the camera-to-subject distance and making it very difficult to gauge flash exposures. Also, dolphins are usually encountered close to the surface, and they don’t really have much colour to reveal, anyway.
Finally, strobes are a big drag when it comes to panning the camera around after the fast-moving dolphins, jumping in and out of boats, or pursuing these speedy subjects under water.
Dolphin photography is usually best with just available light, so we have to use a much faster shutter speed than we’re used to.
I consider 1/320th an absolute minimum for dolphins. We should ideally be at 1/500th or more. I was up at 1/640th for the pair on the right.
The golden rule for dolphin photography is shutter speed, shutter speed, shutter speed.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE, or fieldcraft as land wildlife photographers call it, is invaluable for getting lasting encounters with dolphins. Intelligent animals, they often have complex daily routines.
For example, in the Bahamas Atlantic spotted dolphins tend to feed in the Gulf Stream at night. In the mornings they are usually sleeping and not in the mood for encounters. But by mid-afternoon they want to play. It’s known as dolphin happy hour by the local operators!
In the Red Sea, by contrast, the spinner dolphins in Fury Shoal are most playful in mid-morning, while bottlenoses further north seem to be in the mood for encounters in late afternoon. Each area has a prime time, in which encounters are likely to last, rather than just being fleeting fly-bys.
Lone dolphins are the exception. Many of the best photos, particularly around the British Isles, come from these outcasts, almost always young males that have been booted out from their normal pods and seek out human company.
Some lone dolphins just seem curious or lonely, but others clearly have sex on their minds, and can be quite forceful.
Google “dolphin encounter Hepps” to see me on the receiving end (my friend Michael Maes, who took the video, was kind enough to keep my surname out of it). It looks comical now, but at the time it was potentially dangerous, as the powerful dolphin could easily have knocked off my mask or regulator, or forced a rapid ascent.
Lone males are best left alone (I was shooting macro on the dive in the video and hadn’t gone in looking for the dolphin), although I realise that most of us would find it hard to resist swimming with a friendly dolphin.
But the more lone dolphins interact with people, the greater the chances of their bad behaviour escalating, and the less their chances of being reintegrated into a pod.

PODS OF DOLPHINS throw up the opposite challenge. The main constraint on getting great images is the quality of the encounter. The more passes we get, the more chances we’ll have for a great formation that really makes the shot.
As photographers, we tend to spend our time under water moving as slowly as possible, manoeuvring into position without disturbing our subject.
Dolphin photography is the opposite. Even in their lowest gear, dolphins move along briskly. I usually find myself swimming as fast as I can just to keep up, and ideally I want to be ahead.
The big factor that slows us down is drag. First, we should ditch our scuba gear. However fast you can swim in it, you can always swim faster without it. Also dolphins tend to go up and down too much for scuba.
Then we need to streamline our camera gear: the smaller the better. We should immediately take off our strobes and strobe arms.
If you have fibre-optic synch cords this can be done even in a RIB. With electronic strobes it is still worth taking the arms off to save drag.
I know it sounds trivial, but when we are chasing after dolphins every little makes a difference between great images and being left snapping at their tails.
Standard practice is to watch in which direction the pod is moving and get ahead of them in the boat.
Some skippers like to get the bow riding before letting anyone jump, which helps to get them in a playful mood. Then we drop in ahead of the pod and the game is on. The aim is to get them interested in us, rather than just fly past.
Dolphins are much more interested in swimmers who move quickly and who dive down and twist and somersault in the water. The more we pique their curiosity, the more likely it is that we will get close passes.
If you have the option, wear bright colours and make noises. Your buddies will soon stop laughing when they see your photos!LAST MONTH WE COVERED one of the classic big animal subjects, one that came with a golden photographic rule: “See a turtle, turn down your strobes.”
This month the take-home message is: “See a dolphin, turn up your shutter speed.” But we will come back to that.
Dolphins are the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Does any subject impress your non-diving friends more? But is any subject less co-operative?
Dolphins usually turn up when you’re not expecting them, and even when you set out to see them they are not renowned for staying still and posing.
Any picture of dolphins is likely to get “oohs!”, but producing special shots that capture their grace and athleticism from such ephemeral and unpredictable encounters is far from easy. This month’s Be The Champ! is here to help.

DOLPHIN PICTURES almost always look stunning on the back of the camera, but time and again I have seen photographers’ disappointment when they download them.
The main frustration is that they are all just a bit soft. Dolphins move much faster than most other subjects we photograph under water, and the shots are blurred from their movement.
Using flash rarely suits dolphin photography because they race about so much, constantly changing the camera-to-subject distance and making it very difficult to gauge flash exposures. Also, dolphins are usually encountered close to the surface, and they don’t really have much colour to reveal, anyway.
Finally, strobes are a big drag when it comes to panning the camera around after the fast-moving dolphins, jumping in and out of boats, or pursuing these speedy subjects under water.
Dolphin photography is usually best with just available light, so we have to use a much faster shutter speed than we’re used to.
I consider 1/320th an absolute minimum for dolphins. We should ideally be at 1/500th or more. I was up at 1/640th for the pair on the right.
The golden rule for dolphin photography is shutter speed, shutter speed, shutter speed.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE, or fieldcraft as land wildlife photographers call it, is invaluable for getting lasting encounters with dolphins. Intelligent animals, they often have complex daily routines.
For example, in the Bahamas Atlantic spotted dolphins tend to feed in the Gulf Stream at night. In the mornings they are usually sleeping and not in the mood for encounters. But by mid-afternoon they want to play. It’s known as dolphin happy hour by the local operators!
In the Red Sea, by contrast, the spinner dolphins in Fury Shoal are most playful in mid-morning, while bottlenoses further north seem to be in the mood for encounters in late afternoon. Each area has a prime time, in which encounters are likely to last, rather than just being fleeting fly-bys.
Lone dolphins are the exception. Many of the best photos, particularly around the British Isles, come from these outcasts, almost always young males that have been booted out from their normal pods and seek out human company.
Some lone dolphins just seem curious or lonely, but others clearly have sex on their minds, and can be quite forceful.
Google “dolphin encounter Hepps” to see me on the receiving end (my friend Michael Maes, who took the video, was kind enough to keep my surname out of it). It looks comical now, but at the time it was potentially dangerous, as the powerful dolphin could easily have knocked off my mask or regulator, or forced a rapid ascent.
Lone males are best left alone (I was shooting macro on the dive in the video and hadn’t gone in looking for the dolphin), although I realise that most of us would find it hard to resist swimming with a friendly dolphin.
But the more lone dolphins interact with people, the greater the chances of their bad behaviour escalating, and the less their chances of being reintegrated into a pod.

PODS OF DOLPHINS throw up the opposite challenge. The main constraint on getting great images is the quality of the encounter. The more passes we get, the more chances we’ll have for a great formation that really makes the shot.
As photographers, we tend to spend our time under water moving as slowly as possible, manoeuvring into position without disturbing our subject.
Dolphin photography is the opposite. Even in their lowest gear, dolphins move along briskly. I usually find myself swimming as fast as I can just to keep up, and ideally I want to be ahead.
The big factor that slows us down is drag. First, we should ditch our scuba gear. However fast you can swim in it, you can always swim faster without it. Also dolphins tend to go up and down too much for scuba.
Then we need to streamline our camera gear: the smaller the better. We should immediately take off our strobes and strobe arms.
If you have fibre-optic synch cords this can be done even in a RIB. With electronic strobes it is still worth taking the arms off to save drag.
I know it sounds trivial, but when we are chasing after dolphins every little makes a difference between great images and being left snapping at their tails.
Standard practice is to watch in which direction the pod is moving and get ahead of them in the boat.
Some skippers like to get the bow riding before letting anyone jump, which helps to get them in a playful mood. Then we drop in ahead of the pod and the game is on. The aim is to get them interested in us, rather than just fly past.
Dolphins are much more interested in swimmers who move quickly and who dive down and twist and somersault in the water. The more we pique their curiosity, the more likely it is that we will get close passes.
If you have the option, wear bright colours and make noises. Your buddies will soon stop laughing when they see your photos!

STARTER TIP
Strobes are generally a hindrance when shooting dolphins, so if you spot dolphins travelling to or from a dive-site, think about taking them off.
Many people use fibre-optic synch cords, so it takes only seconds to unplug them. You’ll appreciate how much easier it is to push the rig through the water.
Also bump up the ISO, so that you can use a fast shutter speed.

MID-WATER TIP
The best exposure mode for dolphins is shutter priority. This automatic mode lets us set the shutter speed and the camera, then selects an appropriate aperture to create a good exposure.
We will usually have to dial in a bit of under-exposure to get a rich blue water colour, but once set we can just shoot, shoot, shoot.

ADVANCED TIP
I like to engage continuous shooting for dolphins, although I favour about 2-3 frames per second, rather than full speed 5-10!
Most cameras allow you to specify the frame rate in the custom settings. This allows me to keep my finger on the trigger during each pass, producing a pleasing selection of frames, without unnecessary duplicates.