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On Assignment: Diving with Dolphins

Surf photographer Zak Noyle on how he captured underwater images of these gorgeous aquatic creatures
Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 1
To me this is the moment I had wanted to capture, something I had seen in my dreams. The way the sun breaks the surface of the water and the dolphins have a very playful and friendly movement. This is why I capture images beneath the surface of the water, it is for these moments that bring everything together.

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how your favorite photographers capture the images they take? Digital Photo Pro’s monthly column “On Assignment” is where Canon Explorers of Light, past and present, share a backstage look at one of their favorite assignments and how they delivered the goods. This month we go On Assignment with extreme sports photographer Zach Noyle.

The Challenge

Swimming beneath the surface of the water is no easy task. Now throw in a camera, lens, and hundreds of spinner dolphins swimming around you and you have one heck of a challenge facing you!

The first step in capturing images of these incredibly intelligent mammals is to patiently wait for the right day, weather wise. It’s no surprise that bright sunlight is important for creating vibrant images, but it may be a surprise that having access to the sun, even at depths of 30 feet or greater, is critical for creating great photos at these depths.

But certainly, the biggest challenge with photographing dolphins is finding them!

These are wild mammals and extremely intelligent, so it is important to approach them calmly and with good energy. They will come to you if they are in a playful mood. If they don’t approach you, it’s game over. Chasing or harassing them is not advisable.

How I Prepared

To prepare for this shoot, I had to make sure my lungs were ready to handle the constant diving up and down and swimming to try and keep up alongside the dolphins. In order to prepare my lungs for this constant up and down it is important to remain calm before the dive. By breathing in and out slowly and oxygenating your body. This will allow you to warm up your lungs and to hold more oxygen when diving.

Next, I needed to find a boat (and captain) who knew the local waters and could take me to locations where the dolphins are typically found and put me in the best position to capture the images I needed to secure.

Shooting with a wide-angle lens would allow me to capture the large number of dolphins swimming together (called “pods”) so I decided on the Canon 11-24mm lens attached to a Canon EOS-1 DX Mark II, all wrapped inside an AquaTech EVO housing. Another necessary component to capture these underwater images is a good pair of fins and a weight belt. The belt I used was about six pounds which allowed me to remain neutral. That is, I was able to move about freely with my camera housing without having to struggle with buoyancy.

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 2
Behind the scenes of me capturing some of the dolphins. Composition is very important here in order to capture the dolphins how I envisioned.

Set Up

Obviously, shooting beneath the surface of the water requires a little extra help to properly expose my scene. I increase my ISO to around 400 in anticipation of this. With such a fast-moving creature you want to ensure that your shutter speed is fast and as a general rule of thumb you don’t want to set the shutter speed below 500-640. This will allow you to capture razor sharp photos of the dolphins as they race past you.

I use manual settings and maneuver myself to find that “sweet spot” for the light to be just right. I also make sure to set my camera to the highest frames per second (up to 14 fps with the 1 DX Mark II) so I can “shoot loose and edit tight.”

The Shoot

With weeks of preparation and planning we could not have asked for a better weather day or calmer seas (ideal when diving beneath the surface). We boarded the boat and were met by some of the most gorgeous deep blue seas. We cruised along the coastline keeping our eyes peeled for anything moving on the surface of the water. After about 90 minutes we spotted something in the distance – a massive pod of dolphins.

As we approached, we noticed they were very active and playful – a good sign when the goal is to enter the water to photograph them. We slowly slipped into the water and waited patiently for them to approach us. Minimizing any splashing and offering “good energy” eventually paid off. The first of many dolphins began to approach us. 

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 3


Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 4
Diving down deep, I am able to get eye to eye with these amazing creatures. The weight belt helps me to stay down in neutral buoyancy. This allows you to use less energy to stay down and capture your images.

I dove down to get my first glimpse of these dolphins. There were so many, and I was surrounded by them as they swam by. I checked my settings, adjusting to exactly what was needed for the lighting in this moment. The first shots I took were a bit “deep” and didn’t have the “look” I had envisioned creating in this moment. I dove a bit deeper and still wasn’t achieving the look I wanted.

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 5
Just a little further than I wanted to be from the pod of dolphins. It is important to remember to let the dolphins approach you rather than ever chasing them.

I came to the surface, took some breaths, adjusted my settings and dove back down, pushing deeper, always conscious of how I was composing the dolphins while navigating myself at 30 feet, and deeper. The number of dolphins swimming by was endless. This was a pod of several hundred spinner dolphins (sometimes called a “super pod”). It was quite a magical moment to be surrounded by such beautiful creatures moving about.

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 6
Showing the beauty of these creatures and capturing how fluid they are in the water was one of my goals when setting out to shoot dolphins. To me this image is close to capturing this, but I knew as I witnessed it I could do better in showing their true spirit in the water.

I dove down deeper and looked up towards the sun, and that’s when I saw it. The magic I was searching for. I came to the surface, took a few more breaths and reset my exposure to compensate for shooting directly into the sunlight, and made another dive. Just as a few more dolphins swam by almost dancing with the rays of light. This was the moment I had hoped to capture.

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 7
Shooting into the sun and having a slightly incorrect exposure. By testing the shots and shooting what I had visualized I adjusted my settings in order to capture my shot I wanted as seen below.

The Results

Just to be in the water and able to capture these moments is more than rewarding, but to come home with some images that to this day are able to evoke the emotions I felt that day, is priceless. It is also a reminder as to why I chose this line of work.  Please respect the marine life and our oceans, they are a magical place to be.

Photo of dolphins by Zak Noyle 1
To me this is the moment I had wanted to capture, something I had seen in my dreams. The way the sun breaks the surface of the water and the dolphins have a very playful and friendly movement. This is why I capture images beneath the surface of the water, it is for these moments that bring everything together.

Check out the feature story, “The Surfing Life” by Zak Noyle from our sister publication Outdoor Photographer.

About Zak Noyle

Zak Noyle isn’t your typical extreme sports athlete. Considered one of the best extreme surf photographers in the world, Zak lives his life on the edge. He is an avid outdoor photographer with a truly unique perspective on surf and sea. Based on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, Zak spends countless hours in the water, creating dramatic imagery and artful interpretations of the world’s most magnificent ocean environment. 

Surf and underwater photography requires a certain level of careful planning, hard work and a bit of sheer luck. When asked, Zak says “it’s all about being in the right place at the right time,” a sort of formula for finding the best waves of the day. He follows the wind and tide patterns throughout the week, notes changes in weather patterns or inconsistencies and any tips from fellow surfers are always welcome. For Zak, being in the water with his camera when the next big swell rolls through is a lifestyle; it’s an art, and it’s a passion. Zak is a Canon Explorer of Light.


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