top of page

Tips for photographing whales & dolphins

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

As with all wildlife photography, whales and dolphin can be challenging to capture effectively. They are a both a fast moving subject, and very unpredictable with their behaviour.

I have been photographing these animals for at least 10 years now, and would like to share some tips and advice on what I find important in how to photograph these magnificent creatures from a boat.

Protect your gear

When heading out on a boat to see whales or dolphins on the ocean, there will always be a chance that there might a bit of sea spray. It’s common-sense that salt water and electronics do not go well together. My advice is to come prepared with: a bag (to keep the camera safe when unused), waterproof covering, a towel, cleaning solution and a cloth (for wiping down the lens). Sea spray is unavoidable and will happen regardless of how calm or rough the conditions are. Thankfully some camera models do have a protective weather seal built in, but I would still advise avoiding spray on any camera gear where possible.

Be prepared

Before heading out to do any type of photography, it is important to be prepared and always make sure batteries are fully changed beforehand, and ensuring you bring

a spare just in case. Make sure SD cards are fully empty to allow for plenty of room for photos and bring spares because they can and will fill up quickly. This is largely dependent on how active the whales and dolphins are at the time and especially if you are shooting in RAW. I also recommend using a high-speed SD card; a slower SD will cause image processing delays when using continuous shooting mode.

Camera Settings

Most importantly, you need to consider that Cetaceans are fast moving subjects which will require for your camera to be set for high-speed continuous shooting and a fast shutter speed. There are, however, many other factors to consider. Here is a run down based on the setting techniques I use for my canon 80D and Canon 90D when photographing whales and dolphins:

  • Because you are shooting fast moving subjects, I do recommend having the shutter speed set to 1/2000 or above. I always have mine set to 1/2500 but this can depend on lighting and time of day.

  • I have my ISO set to auto and with my range usually set between 200-3200. When I use the auto ISO, it will generally choose an ISO speed best suited for the daylight conditions which is why I like to use it rather than setting it manually. I’ve never had a problem with noise in my photos, usually because of the nature of shooting in vast open oceans with the ever-present daylight. There are noise reduction settings on most DSLR cameras, which have different levels of noise reduction you can have it set at.

  • I use the single auto-focus point. This gives a better chance that the focus is on my subject, and it doesn’t try to focus on surrounding objects and backgrounds, etc. I sometimes adjust the auto-focus point lower depending on the backdrops behind the animals.

  • I have the camera’s Autofocus operation set on Al-servo - This operation on Canon camera's is best suited for fast moving subjects as it will continuously track whatever subject is under your selected focus point at the time.

  • Most days I generally set my f-stop between 6.3-8.0, it can give more depth of field in my photos especially when shooting much larger animals, such as whales, especially if they are at a closer range. This is also dependent on the lighting - on more overcast days or late afternoons, I will go as low as 5.6 to let in more light.

  • I like to adjust my exposure compensation dial to be a little bit darker - this is because I use auto ISO and it helps to keep the exposure in my photos balanced. If you manually set your ISO, the exposure compensation dial will set itself automatically.

  • I like to set my white balance to either cloudy or shady. I’ve found that they bring out nice tones depending on the daylight conditions.

  • I always make sure I do some test shots beforehand. I don’t want to get out there and have an amazing encounter, then find that all of my shots are ruined because my settings aren’t correct.

  • If Manual isn’t for you, shutter speed priority (on canon cameras, this mode is called TV) might be better suited. I occasionally use this mode in more overcast or lower light situations, this is just so that I don’t need to worry about adjusting my aperture if there is a lot of action happening at the time. I don’t really recommend using full auto mode, just because you can’t set the shutter speed to where you want it but that’s entirely up to the individual photographer and their personal preferences.

Remember, this is all based on the settings I use from day to day. If you have any other questions or even suggestions on the settings etc, feel free to shoot me a message.

Be ready for action

One of the most amazing things about whales is they can display many kinds of behaviours. Many photographers go out to specifically get that ‘mighty breach’ photo. At the best of times, whales can be very unpredictable, and they have the tendency to randomly launch themselves out of the water. My advice, is to always be ready with the camera by keeping it upright, the viewfinder close to your face, and your finger ready to press the shutter release button. This is because you never know when this type of action may occur - it can happen so quickly that you may not have time to react if you put your camera down for a single second. A whale may only breach once, they may breach several times, or they may not breach at all - always be ready in any case!

Photographing dolphins

Dolphins are very fast and energetic animals. They are fun creatures to watch, whether they are playing on the bow of a boat, or surfing some waves - either in the boats wake or at the beach. For me to get nice crisp photos without getting a bit of motion blur, I always like to make sure that my camera is set on high-speed continuous shooting with a fast shutter speed. I generally don’t go lower than 1/2500 shutter speed when shooting dolphins as they are always moving, along with myself on the boat that’s always moving too.

I have usually found the best way to capture these challenging moments is to choose an individual animal, monitor it's behaviour and the track it with my eye on the viewfinder, and have my finger ready to release the shutter. Sometimes, you can even read the dolphin’s behaviour e.g. if you see one animal is jumping, it will most likely do it more than once - in this case, I will keep tracking that animal for a while to see if it does continue to jump, etc.


There are many wa