A few days ago I found myself standing by a Norfolk beach before sunrise, trying to work out whether I could see any shapes of grey seals along the shoreline in the darkness, writes Andrew James. Were those vague blobs in the far distance animal or mineral? In my hand was a mirrorless camera with a telephoto zoom attached. The weather forecast was decidedly dodgy.
For really dull reasons I can’t tell you the actual lens I was using but it’s not especially relevant here. I was also there with a small video crew, so if the pressure of using a camera combo I’d only used once before wasn’t enough, the fact that I felt I needed to come up with something half-decent in potentially poor conditions for the cameraman added to the day’s jeopardy.
I’m going to be honest though – I quite like the pressure. It stops you from being lazy. I’d have cancelled the attempt to even take pictures if I was just doing it for myself, so having to be there at such an ungodly hour regardless of conditions meant I was already winning! My brief for the day was simple – get some photos!
I know that some of you guys have headed to the Norfolk coastline in the past, and I was also aware that because it’s pupping season for grey seals, there would be restrictions on access. I actually think this makes sense and it’s important to remember that it’s not specifically aimed at photographers. While I am sure some photographers can be unthinking, it’s the general public who perhaps understand less the sensitivities of disturbing both the mothers and young at this critical time of the year.
Grey seals numbers have increased along the Norfolk coast, which may or may not be to do with the greater restrictions along the beach. But if it is, then it’s a price we have to pay for tougher shooting options. In the past I’ve shot pups from beach level and obviously in an ideal world I’d always want to be as low as possible – literally nose-deep in the sand.
As the light transitioned from dark to slightly-less-dark, I headed up into the sand dunes and looked down on a beach littered with pups and females. I found myself a little spot as low as it was possible to be but still raised from the beach and stared out at the seals, trying to work out where to start. In this case, a wider shot just looked messy, so I pushed the telephoto out to its longer end (600mm) and started trying to work out some compositions.
The light was still awful, so I did the thing we’re always advising – crank up the ISO. I settled at ISO 3200 which wasn’t ideal, but you know the motto – better noisy than spoiled by camera or subject movement. Even at this ISO the corresponding shutter speeds were only around 1/500sec and, as I was handholding, I made sure the image stabilisation was switched on.
If your shutter speed is slow and you are shooting a subject that moves a bit you will still suffer from a blurred subject regardless of the image stabilisation offered, but at times it will be the difference between a sharp and a blurred photo. It’s easy to assume you have it on, but it’s always worth a double-check.
From the higher angle, the background was always going to be sand, so I just tried to shoot a bit of behaviour as a cub suckled, stretched out on the sand looking cute, or occasionally raised a flipper. For the most part, the seals seemed totally unaware of me shooting them from my prone position. In fact, on the few occasions when they seemed to glance in my direction, I looked back to see a fellow seal spotter standing fully upright behind me. To be fair, even then there was no real sense of them looking uncertain.
As you can see in the shot above, most of the pups were no more than a few days old and the umbilical cords were still clearly visible.
I love a cute cub, but it’s not the only shot worth getting. I noticed a few adults arriving from the sea and as they sledged their way up from the area of sloping wet sand, looking clean and as sleek as a seal can look on land, the fairly hefty surf behind them provided a perfect backdrop to make them stand out, resulting in a few images like this next shot.
It looks like I am level with the seal here but I’m not. It was just the highest point of the beach and the seal was positioned slightly below. I deliberately included more of the dramatic wave behind, leaving just a sliver of sand at the base of the image.
The video crew wanted a different location so we shot off to a different beach, away from the mothers and their pups. This meant we had better access to the beach but the big question was, would there be any adult males lounging about? As it turned out, not many! But I could see one or two a long way off, so staying well back from the beach itself we made our way along the edge of some dunes until we came to where I thought they were. The trouble was, with the way the beach sloped, I couldn’t see them. This involved a slow, low crawl to be able to peer over the ‘hump’. As I looked, I almost stared directly into the face of a large adult male who was fast asleep. The males are a bit more tolerant, but too much movement or noise would certainly wake him up, so I continued to crawl into position. It’s always at this point that I feel every year of my ‘almost’ 58 years on planet earth. I grabbed a few shots of the leviathan snoring peacefully away.
It’s at moments like these you start thinking, what the hell am I lying here for? He showed no sign of waking up and there are only so many shots of sleeping seals anyone can take. But I’d spent ages crawling into position and, if I was going to shift out, I’d have to crawl backwards for a while until I was out of sight. I was just thinking of exiting stage right when he woke up and glanced down the beach. Naturally I took a few shots, which then alerted him to my presence. He looked surprised but not alarmed. He watched me for a while, as I took some more shots, but with another glance to his left, he shifted his bulk backwards and away from me. I rolled over and looked down the beach and about 200 metres away I could see someone walking a dog. I decided I’d had enough anyway, so wriggled backwards a while until I figured I could half stand and walk towards the dune without alarming him. As I looked back over my shoulder I could see his eyes watching my retreat.
For the final part of the day’s filming we headed to Morston Quay to catch a late afternoon boat to see the seals from the opposite direction near Blakeney Point. I wasn’t sure whether I’d get any shots but the film crew wanted a different look so I was happy to go along for the ride. Although the light was marginally improved compared to the early morning session, I left the ISO on 3200 as I knew the combination of subject and boat movement meant I needed all the help I could get for a fast-enough shutter speed. On the journey out among the sandbanks and creeks, the sea was calm, but as soon as we headed out into the North Sea a little more to where the seals were, the water started getting choppy. Very choppy. This was definitely going to be a photographic challenge. The first shot I took on the same zoom lens was a wide frame, showing the seals on the beach beneath a brooding sky.
There was a greater mix of female and male adults on this area of beach, although here and there I could pick out the bright white-yellow of pups too. I decided, probably foolishly, to concentrate on the adults that were bobbing about in the water. They were slightly curious about us, but cautious too. It seemed that every time I pointed my lens in the direction of a seal, it ducked under the water. Seals are definitely more at home in the wet stuff than I am on it! I’ve shot enough from zodiacs to know the key is to be patient and not try to rush from subject to subject. With the up and down movement of the boat on the chop, the unpredictable nature of the subject, and forward-and-back motion of both boat and subject, it’s an autofocus nightmare! But, using Continuous Focus, and a single or small group of focus points to avoid locking onto random waves, I persevered, knowing there would probably be a lot of deleting later. I was right – there was – but every so often, AF would lock on to the right point and I managed a few shots I am happy with. For me, they are the most interesting shots because it’s where a seal really comes to life. It’s a creature of the water and waves, not the land. I’ll leave you with a few of my boat-taken images with a reminder that the seals and their pups will be on the beaches in Norfolk and Lincolnshire for the next month or two.
I always have a favourite from a day’s shoot – not necessarily because it’s the best shot but perhaps because it was the hardest to get or just has a certain something over the rest. On this shoot, it was this final image of a seal riding the surf and ending up with a water moustache!