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Delightful dancing dolphins: getting the shot

After a series of not-so-successful dolphin photography expeditions, Andy Belcher talks about his lucky day out on the water

4 January 2016


After a series of not-so-successful dolphin photography expeditions, Andy Belcher talks about his lucky day out on the water

Making really good dolphin photos has always been a huge challenge for me. You either get in the water and try to attract the dolphins, or you photograph the dolphins from the bow of the boat. For some reason, neither of these situations has ever really worked well for me.
Mark Tucker recently invited me out on his Orca Wild Adventures boat to Mayor Island. We left the harbour entrance, and it seemed like the wind was picking up. As we reached the halfway mark the opposite happened. Could I really be this lucky? The wind dropped away to nothing, the water surface was now calm, glassy-smooth, and very clear. All we needed was a pod of dolphins. 

Ten minutes later my dream came true. Fifty-odd dolphins darted at high speed towards the boat. Human nature being what it is, the passengers all moved to the bow to watch the amazing antics of the dolphins. I quickly grabbed my camera and did the same. Unfortunately I was now at the back of the queue and couldn’t really see very much, let alone photograph it. On a commercial photo shoot I would usually get bossy and control the situation. On this occasion I couldn’t do that. Everyone else had just as much right to be there as I did. I consoled myself with the thought that maybe some people would move back, and I would find a good vantage point. 

The boat’s speaker system boomed out a loud message from the skipper. 

“If you would like to swim with the dolphins please move now to the back of the boat and start putting on your wetsuits.”

The third part of my dream was evolving. Everyone disappeared, and I had the whole bow rail to myself. 

All I needed now was a few good technical skills to make it happen. I couldn’t get a clear view around the protruding anchor post into fresh air beyond the bow rail. My last-resort solution was to wrap the camera strap around my wrist, lean out over the rail, and extend my arm as low as possible. It’s a bit of a hit and miss method, but with the camera on motor drive, and your finger on the button, the chances are one of those images will be a good one. The big risk is a rogue wave splashing and drowning the camera. By being vigilant I managed to keep it dry.

So what settings were used? After switching to manual mode I selected an aperture of f/8, a shutter speed of 1/1500s, and left the Nikon’s auto-ISO function to give the right exposure. I wasn’t thinking straight when I fitted a circular-polarizing filter to the front of my UV filter — it sat further forward, and quite a bit of vignetting occurred. I always leave some negative space around the edges of the subject and therefore managed to crop out the vignetting in Lightroom. So after spending a glorious hour on the bow, while everyone else was splashing around in the water, I managed to take over 400 frames. 

Was I pleased with any of them? The simple answer is yes, especially the one you see here with me reflected on the water surface. If it weren’t for the few water splashes at the bottom left you could almost swear the dolphins were floating in space. After many years of trying I finally finished up with eight images that I really liked. 

I regret to tell you that I’m not showing you my very best image here. Why not? Because I’m hoping it could have competition potential, and therefore I’m keeping it aside with high hopes of success. Fingers crossed.

This article was originally published in D-Photo 66. Missing this issue from your collection? Pick up the print copy or the digital copy of the magazine below: