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Dolphins and Ambient Light

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#1 chromatophore


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 12:35 AM

Hi everyone,
I've got an interesting hurdle and thought this was the most appropriate place to seek out some advice. I've been swimming with the same pod of dolphins for about a year now with a lot of success, but because the animals are in a resting phase when I see them near shore I'd prefer to have little or no impact while I'm there. If a strobe is out of the question, what configurations would you suggest to see optimal results? I've got a Nikon D7000 and have been fairly satisfied with an 18-55vr. The 10-17 is great for those fantastically close or enormous cetaceans, but these little spinners don't get much bigger than about 2m and although friendly, tend to be camera shy at times.

Now the D7000 features a whole host of focus options, but because the dolphins are quick and unpredictable I've had to experiment quite a bit. I know that this is compounded by my disinterest in additional light, but too small an aperature shows this 3.5 lens its limits, and (as I learned from a recent Alex Mustard seminar on port distortion) too large an aperture renders much of the pod a bit of a blur. Now I don't know how many of you feel about higher ISO levels, and I know the D7000 has a wide spectrum of capability, but I like to keep it as close to 100 as I can. Another issue that I've noticed is that when selecting the focus tracking feature and continuous servo the focus will end up on the surface and not the dolphin beneath it. I'm assuming that because of the motion of the animal the camera defaults to the largest and most accessible target which hasn't always proven to be the subject I'd prefer. Would you expect better results from the single-point AF or from the slightly larger 9-point dynamic area? Or is the 9-point the root of my water-subject dilemma?

My last question pertains to white balance. Now since you've made it this far into the thread try and apply all of the hurdles I've thrown at you towards effectively white balancing this scenario. If I'm shooting in sRGB raw, should I simply toggle the white balance to auto correct in post, or try and shoot a white slate on the fly?

I feel very fortunate to be in the situation that I'm in, and feel the least I could do is pull my weight in the photo dept. to share the marvelous spinners with those less able to see them with their own eyes.


#2 tdpriest


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 05:36 AM

Alex Mustard suggested to me that dolphins like 1/400 sec, and 1/600 is better. Everything else is subordinate to getting that shutter speed: using a higher ISO is better than motion blur, unless you are after that effect for a specific reason. Spinner dolphins are always going to be harder than other species, but shooting with ambient light at high shutter speeds is going to mean a wide-angle lens and getting close, just to achieve a technically worth-while exposure. I can't say that I've done terribly well with dolphins, but the advice struck me as valuable.


Shutter priority 1/500 (not quite fast enough), f4.5, ISO 200, with the focus point set to the right on the central axis, continuous AF in "focus" mode, Auto white-balance and Auto exposure. Tokina 10-17mm at 17mm on a Nikon D200.



Edited by tdpriest, 15 December 2011 - 05:44 AM.

#3 Alex_Mustard


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 09:29 AM

Article written by the afore-mentionned Mustard fellow on dolphin photography:



Alexander Mustard - www.amustard.com - www.magic-filters.com
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#4 chromatophore


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Posted 15 December 2011 - 01:08 PM

Wow guys! Thanks, and to think I second guessed myself with the original post...I'm going to head out and try a little fine tuning today. I'll repost my results but I'm anxious to see where this wealth of information takes me. I'm also going to test out the Nikkor 10-24mm. Hopefully coupled with your suggestions I'll come up with something worth reposting!

Happy Holidays,


#5 chromatophore


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Posted 23 December 2011 - 01:18 AM

Alright, well the verdict is in and predictably it's a good one! Thanks Alex and Tim for taking the time to instruct a novice. It seems that shooting at 1/640 really is a magic # for the dolphins, but I've also found that I can dial down the ISO a bit and still get nice results. I've been shooting at 1/800 with the ISO at 400 on shutter priority and I've been happy. My only concern is that the images can get blown out when the camera is left to its own devices at times, resulting in an unnecessarily overexposed image that seems wasteful of valuable aperture range. If the ISO is at 640 and the shutter at 1/640, wouldn't it seem logical that the camera would be fast enough to compensate for a spectrum of available light? If I'm under the dolphins shooting up it's as if the camera is overloaded. Either way I'm thrilled with the progress, thanks again!

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#6 Daphna130



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Posted 11 January 2012 - 04:36 PM

Beautiful images!
Any tips on shooting Humpback whales with ambient light ? I have D90 Nikon in Nexus housing, 16mm lens( do not want to get another lens as I am selling this system to downsize).

The last time I shot Humpbacks was with my Nikonos V and 15MM lens.

#7 nudibranch



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Posted 13 April 2013 - 11:26 AM

I use 360 iso, 250th shutter, mess with EV depending on time of day, and let the camera do the rest, but i'm shooting Sperm whales which lack the colour differences.( Ike, Sigma 10-20, D90)


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#8 Brian McHugh

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Posted 15 April 2013 - 09:04 PM

I would keep your aperture up around f8 to keep the image sharper around the corners and be more forgiving on the focus.  I shoot my D7000 at ISO 800 with minimal noise as long as you get the exposure decent.  I would not hesitate to push the ISO to 1600 if needed to keep the shutter speed up.

#9 E_viking


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Posted 16 April 2013 - 01:13 PM



Here are my 2 cents


I would optimally try for something like 1/600s and f8. Then I would see at what ISO I would land.

If I feel that the ISO is too high. Then I would start to compromise.



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