How to Photograph Dolphins
It’s a rare event in wildlife photography to find a location that can be classed as ‘extremely reliable’, but Chanonry point on the Black Isle is just that and is as close to guaranteed to deliver as is possible when it comes to photographing truly wild dolphins. In recent years the popularity of this world class location has really ballooned and finding a parking space can now be the most challenging aspect of a visit!
I first started photographing the dolphins at this location back in 1988. Back then we were using 35mm transparency film, and this taught me how to be sparing with my shutter activations and only to take pictures when I was fairly sure I would capture a decent image. I was of limited funds back then, and all I could afford was a couple of rolls of film per week: that’s just seventy two images a week. With the camera I use today I could take that number of images in less than eight seconds!
The best time of the year to visit Chanonry is between May and September. This coincides with the annual run of Atlantic Salmon, and this is when most of the close-to-shore action takes place. I find any time on a rising tide is best; an hour and a half after low tide is the optimum time, but it is possible for the dolphins to break that rule. Don’t be surprised if you arrive just after the dolphins have put on a show and a “helpful” stranger gleefully says to you that “you should have been here half an hour ago, the dolphins were going ballistic; they were doing back flips and everything!” I normally nod in appreciation and thank them for the information.
The dolphins gather close to the shore at this point for very good reason: tasty and protein rich salmon. The salmon returning to the Beauly and Ness rivers have to navigate through the deep water channel which lies just a few metres off Chanonry Point, and it’s here where they face danger of an ambush by the waiting dolphins.
If you happen to be in position before the dolphins appear, it can be a surprise as the first you’ll know of their arrival is a sudden exploding whoosh of air as one surfaces just a few metres from the beach. Normally they will appear in a small pod and will hold station in the strong tidal flow, rising to the surface to breathe at regular intervals. This presents a perfect an opportunity to capture detailed images of their faces. For this, a technique I often use is to lie on the beach at almost water level, creating a much more intimate feel in your photograph.
The main action can take a while to reach its crescendo, but when it does happen it comes thick and fast. The main triggers for this behaviour are the arrival of additional dolphins or the passing of a shoal of salmon. The chase is explosive and fast, (don’t worry if you miss any breaching at this stage) and it’s immediately after a kill has been made that your best photographic opportunities will occur. Some dolphins play with their catch in a game of cat and mouse, whilst others will breach and throw the salmon clean out of the water. This is the time you need to be prepared to capture the classic breaching images. After feeding is the time to have some fun, and breaching may occur with multiple animals or individuals. This is when your reflex reactions will be tested to the limit! I find that a monopod really helps, and I keep the camera pointing in the general direction of where the action is occurring. A tell-tale sign that something good is about to happen is when there’s a disturbance in the water. The dolphins will often roll about under the surface just before a breach, and often there is a second breach in quick succession. If you’re very lucky there may be even more, so don’t take your eye off the scene!
When Is the Best Time?
It is best to take images during a rising tide. You can check tide times on this helpful website. In the morning, you will be shooting into the rising sun, which at times can be challenging because of the glare from the water, so why not try for a backlit image?
By midday the light has moved to the right hand side of the peninsular, and for the remainder of the day is favourable for over the shoulder lighting. The most prized tides for dolphin photographers are the evening rising tides – the evening light can be stunning!
Full-frame camera bodies will give you a better resolution of image, and will therefore allow you to take a wider shot and crop in at the processing stage. This is probably one of the only wildlife photography locations where there is no real advantage of a crop sensor camera, as the action is often super close; sometimes even too close!
When the dolphins are leaping a long way off shore, a 500/600mm lens will come in very handy. Don’t worry if you don’t own a piece of long and expensive glass – a 100-400mm is the perfect lens as the flexibility to zoom in and out as the fast moving action happens from left to right makes this a perfect choice. Personally, I only use prime lenses, so for me a 300mm on a full-frame body works well. If the action is really close to shore, I’ll switch to a 70-200mm f2.8 with a 1.4 converter.
Further Reading: “The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography on a Budget“
Tripods are, in my opinion, too cumbersome and fiddly, so my preference is a monopod. Of course, don’t forget a bean bag if you’re going to try the low perspective shot.
Don’t forget to wrap up warm! It can get very cold on the exposed peninsular – even on a summer day with the wind-chill temperatures it can be as low as single figures. Gloves and a hat in addition to a warm jacket won’t go a miss either.
Single-point servo focus works best for me, as if you use multi point focus points it can sometimes focus on the water spray and not the dolphin. It goes without saying that you should use the highest speed of your drive setting – taking rapid fire bursts is essential. Don’t forget that if you see the action through the viewfinder, then you’ve missed the shot.
I tend to shoot on manual exposure, and will take a light reading in the way of a test shot of the beach or my camera bag (it’s grey and a very similar colour to a dolphin). On a day when the light is changing quickly, I’ll switch to aperture priority (AV) and set the exposure compensation by again taking a test shot of the beach or my bag.
Lastly, watching wild and free bottlenose dolphins behaving totally naturally in their true environment is a moment to be treasured. Enjoy the experience of seeing them at such close quarters and don’t get upset if you don’t capture award-winning images on your first visit. There has to be a reason to return again!