Dolphin Days

09th August 2013
Since the end of June I've been living near Carrigaholt, working on a dolphin and nature watching boat that operates at the mouth of the Shannon Estaury (Dolphinwatch Carrigaholt). It's been an absoulte pleasure so far, working with great people and getting out to see the superb wildlife on this stretch of coast. The good weather we've been getting this summer season has played no small part in making the good times either. The Loop Head peninsula is an incredibly scenic place and I've been enjoying the various photographic opportunities it's given me so far, especially the chance to get images of one of the most photogenic species in the country - the bottlnose dolphin.

Getting an interesting, well composed, sharp and original image of an animal that spends about 99% of its time underwater and can move at speeds of over 20mph isn't easy, especially not while on a moving boat. But if it was easy then it wouldn't be much fun! So far I've gotten one image I'm fairly pleased with (this one) but considering the amount of time I've been spending around dolphins it'd be nice to come away with a few more. Below are a few pictures I haven't decided if I like yet. Feedback is more than welcome!

I wish I hadn't been pointing at the sun for this one. The sky is totally washed out and the original of this image just looks too empty above the foreground. This edit is heavily cropped so image quality is starting to fade. Maybe not enough to totally forget about it though...

Though I like to try and keep shutter speed at 1/1000s or faster this image was taken at 1/800s and is still pin sharp. The shapes in the water are nearly more interesting than the dolphin in this one. The specular highlights are pretty sweet too - this might be a keeper!

Though this is sharp and potentially good there's something I don't quite like about it. I think if I'd taken it from lower down on the boat and gotten some sky/land in the background it'd be better. As it is I'm not sure it cuts it for me. Some background interest or another animal in the frame would make it I think.

Originally I didn't love this one. As with the first image it's a case of the light coming from the "wrong" place. But it's growing on me. This animal doesn't seem to have much trouble finding fish!

A classic bottlenose dolphin image with a twist. A lot of dolphins will surf the bow wave of big ships. The dolphins this day weren't settling for normal breaches either; most of the time they were twisting in the air and landing on their sides or back; risky business with a ship charging along behind you! I think I'd like this better if there was more direct sunlight and a blue sky. And if the ship was red. Am I too fussy?!

No points for guessing what's wrong with this one. I'd even be happy with the total greyness if it was sharp enough. It's not every day you see such a good view of a newborn calf. The closer animal is another juvenile, maybe in it's second year. The middle dolphin is the mother. Having them beside each other gives a good sense of just how small the newborn is too. It's not easy to get good images of such small animals; their tiny size means they're probably back undwerwater by the time you've seen them and pressed the shutter.

This is a less conventional image of the species. I like the shape of the displaced water behind the dorsal fin. Maybe a different crop would work better. It's not very striking here.

Probably the most impressive behaviour bottlenose dolphins exhibit is their spectacular breaches. Despite what you may expect from watching TV or trips to Sea World this kind of activity isn't going on 24/7. If you weighed a quarter of a ton you wouldn't waste energy throwing yourself into the air repeatedly either. When it does happen it's hard to predict where and when the dolphins will emerge. This photo gives some idea of the kind of power these dolphins have. But there's a but! It's not as sharp as could be. It's not absolutely critical since it's not a close up image where anything less than razor sharp detail would stand out a mile but I know this could be better. I think the scene is nearly impressive enough to forgive a little less than 100% image quality but I don't like to settle for less either... Good photos or not it was an amazing spectacle to see. It's a privelege to be able to watch such charismatic animals so regularly.

There's also the thousands of seabirds, stunning seacliffs and big open skies to go on about but I'll have to save all that for another day. If you've any interest in a trip see

If you've never photographed dolphins before then I recommend the following:

- a telephoto lens (70-200mm or equivalent). Anything bigger tends to narrow your field of view too much. Remember these are fast animals and you won't be on the steadiest platform.

- shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster if possible.

- aperture of f/6.3 to f/8. Wider apertures may mean there's less chance of the image focusing correctly, though if the light is low and you need to keep the shutter speed high it might be worth dropping down to a lower f stop.

- ISO 400. This will help keep your other two settings at an optimum but shouldn't be so high as to cause noise.

- underexpose 1/3 of a stop. It'll give you a faster shutter speed and it's easier to brighten images afterwards than decrease highlights.

- AF drive set to AI Focus or AI Servo (better), and the highest possible frames per second.

- a lens hood to help keep sea spray off the glass and a good cloth for when you can't.

- a sense of humour! Remember that dolphins in the wild are just that - wild! They may not always behave spectacularly or be easy to photograph. They may not even show up! Patience is the most necessary virtue when photographing wildlife.


Photo comment By Sue: I'm sure this isn't a com(pli)ment you will take but You're way too hard on yourself - these are brilliant! Thanks for sharing them, Richard.
Photo comment By Lin: Love the second one. Am sure you're having fun with the Magees!
Photo comment By martina: Brilliant photography...will we see them on postcards??
Photo comment By Richard Creagh: Thanks Martina. Dolphinwatch have used one of my images for their postcard (the one linked "this one" in the second paragraph). The rest might be some day but I've no immediate plans.

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