The Shannon Dolphins: How To Photograph Ireland’s Celebrity Cetaceans
Dolphins are probably the last things that come to mind when thinking of Ireland. It might come as a surprise though that Irish coastal waters are home, both temporarily and permanently, to many species of cetaceans.
Among the residents are the Common Dolphin, the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Harbour Porpoise. Killer Whales, Humpback Whales and Minke Whales are among the regular visitors who come close to shore especially in the late summer and autumn months.
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The ‘Shannon’ Dolphins
The most famous of Ireland’s cetaceans are the Shannon Dolphins. The Shannon is Ireland’s longest river and opens into a wide estuary between the counties Kerry and Clare. At the end of the estuary, where the river mingles with the Atlantic Ocean, lives a group of Bottlenose Dolphins, locally known as the ‘Shannon Dolphins.’ The mouth of the Shannon, with its rapid tidal flows, provides excellent feeding ground for these animals and it is thought that around 100 animals are permanent residents in the estuary and are joined by traveling dolphins during the salmon season in late summer.
Dolphin watching has become an important part of local tourism and currently, there are tours available from Kilrush and Carrigaholt during Spring, Summer and Autumn. Seeing dolphins on these tours is almost guaranteed. I have been on countless trips over the years and only once the dolphins choose not to appear.
How to Photograph a Dolphin
Photographing the animals is a different story. The majority of dolphin images consist of a disappearing grey fin in equally grey water. It is Ireland after all. What everybody wants, however, is a portrait shot or even the infamous leaping dolphin.
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The first step to a successful dolphin shot is the equipment. I have tried many combinations over the years: a fast 70-200mm lens often combined with a 1.4 extender was my choice for some years, but since I got the Canon 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS, this has become my main lens for photographing wildlife from a boat. The 70-300mm handles much better than the heavy 70-200mm and the additional reach of this lens helps as well. Regarding the camera, faster is better. Dolphins are speedy animals, so a fast and reliable AF with a high frame rate is definitely helpful. Having said that, I have successfully worked with “only” 3.9 fps and 9 AF points on the Canon 5D Mark II and my success rate with the Canon 5D Mark III is only slightly better.
Autofocus and Exposure
I always set one AF point (or AF area) and try to match this one as close to the dolphin’s eye as possible. Letting the camera select where to focus results in perfectly in focus waves and a blurred dolphin most of the time.
As so often in wildlife photography, the key to a sharp exposure (apart from the reliability of the AF) is a fast exposure time, 1/500 or faster is my rule of thumb. To achieve that, I have several tools at my disposal: ISO, f-stop and exposure compensation. Depending on the weather conditions, I rarely go beyond ISO800, my f-stop of choice is 8. Then a slight to daring underexposure (-1/3 to –1) usually does the trick of getting a sharp and correctly exposed frame.
Weather Conditions and Timing
Speaking of weather, the best conditions to photograph dolphins at the Shannon Estuary are calm waters, a little sunlight and a weak tidal flow. The first obviously influences the water surface and movements of the boat, the latter, the visibility underwater. If you have a calm surface, some direct light and only a small amount of dust particles in the water, it is possible to track the movements of the dolphins underwater and anticipate when they will break the surface (and that’s the moment when you press the shutter, but I am sure you have figured that out yourself). Direct sunlight is a mixed blessing. It gives texture and depth to the images, but unfortunately, can also create unwanted reflection on both the water surface and the animals and can easily result in blown highlights.
Under less favorable weather conditions, which unfortunately, are more common in Ireland, it is a guessing game to where and when the animals will surface.
The dolphin watch boats stay with the animals for around 20 minutes (a longer stay could affect the dolphin’s general behavior in the long term and should be avoided). Dolphins are curious and playful, but also lose interest after a while. Therefore, the first 10 minutes are usually the best and most productive for the photographer. The dolphins stay very close to the boat and tend to show off – bow riding, frequent surfacing, leaping or fish tossing provide excellent photo opportunities. After the first 10 minutes or so, the animals usually make more scattered appearances.
Photographing from a bopping boat is difficult and taking unnecessary risks doesn’t help in getting good images. Don’t lean over the rail, always keep both feet on deck and wearing a life jacket isn’t a bad idea either. Secure the camera to your body in some way is also recommended. I have been using a wristband ever since I lost a camera in the depths of the Shannon Estuary.
And of course there are not only the Bottlenose dolphins. The Shannon Estuary is also blessed with a rich birdlife, seals, otters, feral goats and stunning scenery.
CREDITS: All photographs by Carsten Krieger are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.