Wild Dolphin Photography

dolphin photography

“Quite early in the dolphin research, around 1955, I had realized that the dolphins have a very large brain, larger than ours, and that they were far more developed than we.”

   -John Lily, Dolphin Researcher

Unquestionably, dolphins are clever marine mammals. This becomes ever more apparent when photographing wild dolphins. The experience is a joyful one. Part of this joy is seeing them look directly at us. Also, they communicate continually, using whistles from 0.2-30 kHz. Dolphins possess what might be understood as  three-dimensional GPS, using a range of echolocation clicks from 40-150 kHz. Often called a killer whale, in fact the orca is a member of the dolphin family. Dolphins have to be conscious to decide when to breathe. If a dolphin went into a deep sleep, it would stop breathing and suffocate or drown

Dolphin Photography Tips

Over the years, making pictures of pods of Bottlenose, Atlantic Spotted and Spinner dolphins in the Bahamas and Gulf Stream, two main photographic ideas become clear:

First, having bright sunlit conditions, especially in the morning, makes for better pictures. Use a combination of an angled light direction and fast shutter speeds to create depth and sharpness.

photo of dolphin
A spotted dolphin surfs the bow of a sailboat as it is underway in the Gulf Stream.

Second, using a Auto-ISO setting in the camera allows both shutter speed and aperture to remain the same for consistent exposures across changing marine conditions.

Having a good vantage point is also a key to compelling dolphin photography. The photos featured here were taken from the bow of a catamaran sailboat. In brightly-lit marine conditions under sail, a hand-held digital camera and several prime lenses comprised the gear, so now let’s discuss 3 specifics for better camera and lens techniques.

dolphin picture
A bottlenose dolphin takes a breath directly under the catamaran trampoline near the bow.

BEST LENSES: Your Choice

Short focal length lenses like 50 mm work quite well. These lenses auto-focus quickly. Their modern designs are lightweight. They are easily replaced if they get salt water damage. Most enthusiast 50mm F/1.8 AF lenses are not expensive.

Wide angle (20 mm) and telephoto lenses in the range of 70 mm to 400 mm are also effective tools for photographing the graceful behavior of wild dolphins.

Prime lenses with maximum apertures (F-stops) between f/1.2 and f/2.8 let us choose faster shutter speeds. These fast speeds prevent blurred photographs. If a longer telephoto lens is used, unless the light is quite bright, apertures will be in the range of f/5.6 or f/4 when the shutter speed is about 1/8000th of a second.

CAMERA SETTINGS: Shutter Priority

Surfing the bow of a sailboat, dolphins at play swim at leisurely speeds in contrast to their bursts of speed when they are hunting. To attempt to focus accurately, set set the camera’s exposure mode to Shutter Priority. Dial in 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second. This stops motion and solidifies the splashes of water as dolphins breathe and play. 

dolphin photography settings

The camera settings for these dolphin images were in this range:

APERTURE: Most often f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4, or f/5.6 . These are also called F-Stops.

SHUTTER: 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second. A fast shutter speed of 1/8000th second solidifies water splashed that form when a swimming dolphin exhales through its blowhole.

FLOATING AUTO ISO: Auto ISO is a valuable camera dial setting because it lets the ISO “float.” In sunny conditions, Auto ISO varies the nominal ISO in sunlight from about 1000 ISO to 5000 ISO and keeps shutter and aperture settings constant when they are dialed in manually. With Auto ISO, as lighting changes, only the ISO will change.

This is important since Auto ISO ensures that aperture stays constant, giving enough depth of field to get a dolphin in focus from nose to tail (f/4 and f/5.6). It also keeps the shutter speed consistently fast even when shadows and waves change the brightness of the scene.

dolphin photography
A fast shutter of 1/4000th or 1/8000th of a second needs bright light. All photos Copyright 2018 Jimages.com.


The “blow” of dolphins exhaling is the focus of my body of work here in this series.  It is that exciting moment when a dolphin exhales through its blow hole. Since there can be several days between dolphin sightings, to try to be ready for the blow, I keep a camera nearby with the settings dialed in and ready.

Nature photography requires a set of skills. Patience is one of the most important. Repeated repeated attempts over many encounters make for better images. To get a novel photograph of nature subjects takes patience. With each attempt, we can try to improve, slowly and incrementally.


Noise is a factor in photography. Digital sensors produce noise when using high Auto ISO settings. To compensate, the dolphin images were processed with Lightroom’s Noise Reduction in Lightroom. Noise Ninja filters were also employed in the noise reduction workflow.

Color and contrast were adjusted in Lightroom and NIK Color Efex Pro helped to bring out the ocean’s blue hues. The NIK Pro Contrast filter in the NIK collection by DxO is handy for getting detail in shadows and for boosting the contrast range before final printing. 


The lives of dolphins are woven tightly into the health of the ocean. Our survival is tied to theirs. We are learning to appreciate their uniqueness even beyond their appearance and fun-loving nature. Some believe it’s a biological necessity to protect dolphins; the Yangtze Rive dolphin, or baiji, went extinct due to the impact of humans using the river for transportation, electricity and industry. This extinction was the first documented global extinction of a large vertebrate for over 50 years. Our own survival is synchronous with the well-being of the dolphin.

Ansel Adams said: “you do not play ping pong in a cathedral, rustle popcorn at a string quartet concert or hang billboards on the face of Half Dome.” With comparable ethics and mindfulness, we must keep our plastic and pollution out of the ocean and take steps to protect the dolphin’s living space and its future. 

Before you go, I invite you to enjoy the music and beauty of this short film, taken from the bow of Salty Paws, of 20 wild spotted dolphins in the open ocean:


All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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