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Wildlife Photography for Beginners: Dolphins

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Hello, hello and welcome to my blog! I'm Erica of Erica Caldwell Art. I am new to blogging, so please be kind and bear with me. Alright, let's get to the subject at hand: photographing dolphins!

A. Getting the Opportunity

How was I able to photograph dolphins? Great question! I recently traveled to San Diego, California. (I am fully vaccinated against COVID and still take precautions.) When I travel, I usually plan two or three activities before my trip. The rest of the time I keep things more spontaneous. I knew I definitely wanted to see a game at Petco Park and to see the wild sea lions at La Jolla, blog post on that to follow. I also knew that blue whale migration season off the coast of California happens this time of year. So I researched whale watching cruises in San Diego. I landed on San Diego Whale Watch. I found a deal on Groupon, then booked my cruise. With the deal, it was only $23!

Now, simply booking a whale watching cruise doesn't automatically mean you will get to see anything. For that you will need a little luck. As much as I wanted to see whales, dolphins, and sharks, realistically I knew that seeing just one would be awesome. Luckily for me, dolphins were out in full swing the afternoon of my cruise! I saw multiple pods of long-beaked common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins.

B. Being Amongst the Dolphins

You have been on a ship for an hour and a half with only seeing sea birds. Even though sky dinosaurs are cool, you're hoping to see ocean mammals. Just then, in the distance, you think you see splashing. Excitement starts racing through your veins. You look through your camera lens to get a better look. At first you see nothing and the excitement starts to fade. Then you see it: a silhouetted figuring jumping out of the water. A DOLPHIN!! All at once you see dozens of other jumping silhouettes and the excitement builds again. You start involuntarily bouncing up and down with a giant smile on your face because you can't contain the pure joy washing over your entire body!

As the ship continues to move, the dolphins appear closer and closer and closer. Suddenly, you look down. They're right beside the ship! So close that you can almost touch them! (You shouldn't because they are wild animals and you should give wild animals their space.) You watch in amazement as the dolphins weave in and out of the water, swimming alongside the ship. In that moment, you feel so in tune and at one with the dolphins. It's an absolutely amazing feeling!

As much as I wanted photographs, most of my time with the dolphins was spent without using technology. I was just in the moment. It was so pure.

C. Movement

Dolphins move super fast and it is incredibly hard to predict their movements. They do not swim in straight lines. They are constantly changing positions while swimming in the water. The ship is also moving and is very bumpy. Keeping your balance without holding onto the ship is tough, especially if your inner ear never fully developed. All of this movement can make it quite difficult to photograph dolphins.

Going into it, I knew following the movements of the dolphins would be challenging. However, I failed to take into account the ship movements. I was incredibly naive. I'm going to blame it on my lack of being on boats/ships during my lifetime. In reality, more research into the subject would have helped and better prepared me.

I also think positioning myself on different parts of the ship may have helped. I spent the entire cruise exclusively at the bow. I wanted to be as close to the dolphins as possible. However, the bow is the bumpiest part of the ship. I actually don't regret that decision, though. Being that close to wild dolphins was absolutely incredible!

All of the movement made for a lot of unfocused photographs. More on that in a bit.

D. Lenses and Camera

For all of my photographs, I use a refurbished Canon 7d body. Don't be afraid to buy refurbished from a reputable source. I have been using this same camera body since 2016 with no issues. The main lenses I use are as follows: Canon 24mm f/2.8, Canon 55-250mm f/4-5.6, and Canon 75-300mm f/4-5.6. For this photography outing, I exclusively used the 55-250mm. I had anticipated the dolphins getting close to the ship, so the 75-300mm wouldn't have zoomed out enough in that scenario. The 55-250mm is my workhorse. It's what I use 95% of the time when photographing wildlife. Don't get me wrong, I would love a Canon 100-400mm telephoto lens, but money is a big consideration. For your money, the 55-250mm lens is a fantastic choice for wildlife photography.

E. Camera Settings

One word: Manual. Now, some wildlife photographers will tell you to use aperture priority mode or shutter priority mode. Honestly, all work great. It depends on the situation and personal preference. Personally, I like to have as much control over my camera settings as possible, which is why I use manual. I got lucky on the day of my cruise because it was overcast. That meant I didn't have to combat the sun, which is very helpful. It meant I could just set my ISO and forget about it. In manual mode, your aperture changes as you zoom in and out, so I focused on my shutter speed to get clear shots. If you're photographing wildlife and want to freeze the action, you don't want the shutter speed to go below 1/1000th. However, I aim for at least 1/1250th or higher.

Three more words: Back Button Focus. This is a must when photographing any moving object. Instead of using the shutter release to focus, you'll use a button, AF-ON for Canon cameras, on the back of the camera. Using my thumb to focus just feels more natural than using my index finger. It also allows you to continually focus with the AF-ON button while simultaneously taking photographs using the shutter release. This allows you to take more in-focus photographs of moving objects.

F. Getting the Shot

I'm going to be brutally honest here: it was very difficult. The movement of the ship of which I spoke earlier is the main reason why. I kept losing my balance and almost falling over. This led to many, many, many blurry photographs. Honestly, I just starting shooting and hoping I got something good. That is definitely not ideal, but it was the best I could do at the time. I left the ship thinking I had maybe one in-focus dolphin photograph. Even though I just had this amazing experience, I was really upset because I so badly wanted good photographs of the dolphins. I felt like a failure. Obviously I was wrong. Once I looked through my photographs, I realized I need to ease up on myself sometimes. My experience with action and wildlife photography helped me a lot, so it's not like it was just luck that I had some good shots. Luck was part of it, but experience was an even bigger part.

If you're still with me, thank you so much for reading!

Please check out more of my wildlife photographs here.

Please visit my shop to purchase any wildlife photography prints, landscape photography prints, and/or acrylic paintings!

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