How to Photograph Bottlenose Dolphins

First Step: Know your Subject

Bottlenose dolphins typically hold their breath for about 2 to 7 minutes but they are able to dive for as long as 20 minutes. They usually surface to breathe 2 to 3 times per minute, offering a few opportunities to photograph them. However, bottlenose dolphins are fast and unpredictable; they can change direction very quickly and disappear from sight within seconds. Once you spot them, keep your camera ready and not miss a chance.

Second Step: Capture Valuable Photographs of Dolphins for Research

Bottlenose dolphin photo-ID uses the dorsal fin as the main area of the body with features we can use to distinguish one dolphin from another. Capturing the dorsal fin from a good angle is of utmost importance for our research purposes.

How to take a good photograph of a dolphin’s dorsal fin for identification:

  1. Focus on one dolphin. Target one individual, particularly those with well-marked fins, as they are easier to identify. Focusing on one dolphin at a time enables better anticipation of their movements and behaviors.
  2. Capture the photo from a good angle. The most important thing to consider when taking a photograph of a dolphin for ID is to capture the dorsal fin from the best angle. Ideally, you need to take pictures perpendicular to the body of the dolphin, at a 90° angle, showing the dolphin’s right or left side. Both sides show a clear image of the dorsal fin shape, the nicks, notches and marks that it might have. Avoid capturing images from above, from the front, and from the back. As we use the dorsal fin for identification, it is very hard to distinguish the dorsal fin features from these angles.
  3. When possible photograph both sides of the dorsal fin. Some dolphins might have distinctive markings on one side that can be used for identification. When comparing the pictures to our catalogues, having pictures of both sides helps to cross-verify the identity of the dolphin.
  4. Consider the lighting conditions. The angle and direction of sunlight significantly impact the clarity and quality of the photographs. Ideally, having the sun behind the you ensures that the light falls onto the dolphins, illuminating their features and reducing shadows.
  5. When possible take close-up shots. Having a closer look of the dorsal fin can reveal smaller marks, enhancing the accuracy of identification. Always maintaining a safe distance if you are on a boat.

Other considerations:

  • If you are on a boat, move to a position with optimal lighting where glare or shadows are minimised.
  • If you are going to do a watch from land choose a time of the day with better lightning conditions such as during the morning or late afternoon.
  • When possible photograph mother with calves: mothers and young calves tend to surface very close together; knowing who the mother is also help us to understand the ecology and well-being of the Shannon dolphins population.
  • If you encounter a group of dolphins, remember to focus on those positioned at a better angle.
  • Be patient, dolphins can be unpredictable so be ready to capture images quickly, try to anticipate their movements.

Photograph Dolphins with your Phone

This are our recommendations on how to capture dolphin encounters with your phone:

  1. Take a video over a picture. Dolphins are fast and unpredictable, you are more likely to capture them if you record a video. A video will also create a bigger image of their behaviour during the encounter.
  2. Use landscape and not portrait orientation.
  3. Focus the dolphins and hold the phone on to them.

Photograph Dolphins with a Camera

If you don’t want to deal with the manual settings, you can always use the sports/action mode on your camera. In this mode, your camera will adjust the aperture, shutter speed and ISO automatically on its own optimal exposure and prioritize the shutter speed. You can also select manual settings for the ISO.

With a little bit of practice you will be able to take great images of dolphins.

Photograph Dolphins with DSLR or Mirrorless Cameras

The best equipment for photographing wildlife is either a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. While phone cameras have significantly improved in quality over the last few years, nothing surpasses the image quality produced by these cameras. These cameras can also be paired with zoomable and telephoto lenses, which are necessary for capturing images of dolphins when they are far away.

Opt for zoomable lenses capable of reaching a minimum focal length of 200 mm. The IWDG team uses lenses ranging from 400-600 mm. These telephoto lenses enable close-up shots without approaching the dolphins and disturbing their activities.

Key settings to consider when photographing dolphins include aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. By setting the camera to manual mode, you can customize each of these settings to meet the specific requirements of the shot.

Aperture (f-stop):

The aperture refers to the opening in a camera lens through which light passes to enter the camera body. It is expressed as an f-number, also known as the f-stop. The f-number is represented as f/x (e.g., f/2.8, f/4, f/8, etc.). The aperture controls the depth of field. Here’s how aperture works:

Large Aperture (Small f-number, e.g., f/1 – f/7): when you use a large aperture, the opening is wide, allowing more light to enter the camera. This results in a shallow depth of field. In other words, only a narrow range of the scene, around the subject you focus on, will be in sharp focus. The background will appear blurred or out of focus, creating a pleasing bokeh effect. Large apertures are often used in portrait photography or when you want to isolate a subject from its surroundings, emphasizing the main subject while blurring the background. See how the butterfly is focus and the background is blurry:

Small Aperture (Large f-number, e.g., f/8 – f/22): on the other hand, a small aperture means a narrow opening, allowing less light to enter the camera. This results in a deeper depth of field. In this case, more of the scene, from the foreground to the background, will be in focus. Small apertures are commonly used in landscape photography or situations where you want to capture a scene with maximum sharpness throughout the frame.

When photographing dolphins we recommend to use a large aperture (small f-number). We normally use a f-number of f/5-f/6. Remember that smaller apertures will reduce the light resulting in darker images, take a few test shoots to see which aperture is better depending on your current lighting conditions.

Shutter Speed:

The shutter speed controls how quickly the camera snaps an image. Fast shutter speeds (e.g., 1/1000, 1/1500) are effective for freezing fast-moving subjects, capturing sharp images of action or sports, and preventing motion blur. Like small aperture, when you use a fast shutter speed, the shutter opens and closes very quickly. This allows only a brief moment of exposure to light, causing darker images. Try to increase your shutter speed as much as possible without compromising your exposure which is the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor.

Use a fast shutter speed to freeze the fast movements of dolphins. A minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 is recommended. If lighting conditions allow, even faster shutter speeds can be beneficial.


In photography, the ISO determines how sensitive the camera is to light and plays a crucial role in achieving proper exposure. Increasing the ISO can compensate the darkening effect of small apertures and fast shutter speeds. However, a high ISO produces ‘’noisy’’ or grainy images, reducing the quality of the photos.

Start with a low ISO setting to maintain image quality. As dolphins are often active in well-lit environments, you can keep the ISO low and rely on the aperture and shutter speed settings to adjust exposure. We try to use an ISO no higher than 400-500.

Main Steps to Remember:

  • Get the correct angle for identification
  • Photograph/record the dorsal fin from one or even better from both sides 
  • Photograph/record mother with calves
  • Photograph/record distinctive features such as marks or skin pigmentation
  • If you are using a phone take a video with landscape orientation
  • Use a large aperture, small f-number (f/5-f/6)
  • Use a fast shutter speed (1/1000-1/1500)
  • Keep your ISO as low as possible (300-500)
  • Keep a safe distance from the dolphins

Photo-identification (photo-ID) is the primary method that the Shannon Dolphin Project employs to monitor the Shannon Dolphins. We use images to identify unique and permanent marks, which can be used to recognise individuals in the population.

If you want to know more about how we identify individual dolphins through photo-id visit the full article on the link below:


Here we will explain you step by step how to take valuable photographs of dolphins for identification.

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