A week ago I sneaked off to Skomer Island, Wales, for a quick session photographing puffins. Skomer is much larger than any of the Farne Islands where we’ve run Foto-Buzz workshops, writes Andrew James. In fact, a full walk around it will take you several hours, but as I was there to reacquaint myself with puffins, I could at least target the areas they were most likely to be so I didn’t traverse the whole island.
The boat hadn’t been running for two days leading up to my visit, so I was happy the wind had eased and the short hop across was almost tropical! While lack of wind was great from a travelling point of view, I was wondering how it might affect my attempts to photograph them in flight. Well, I can tell you now – it made it 100 times harder!
Once on the island and in position, there was no shortage of puffins, both on the ground and in the air. The trouble was, without a strong wind to dictate the best place to stand and slow the puffins down when they came into land, it was something of a puffin aerial free-for-all.
As those of you who have photographed puffins will know, they’re relatively erratic flyers, smaller than you expect, and fast. When they come at you from all directions, often without being seen, it makes it incredibly difficult to lock focus on them.
I’ve written before about bird-in-flight photography (you can read it here), yet standing on the cliffs on Skomer, trying to track puffins that were coming up from below, hugging the cliffs for cover, and almost flying directly into their burrows to escape the gulls and jackdaws who wanted to steal their sandeels, was another level of difficult. I’ll be honest, I was scratching my head!
After a few unsuccessful attempts, I decided to forget about puffins in flight for a bit and concentrate on some simple portraits, just to get me into the groove of photography. There were plenty of birds on the cliffs, and they were popping in and out of burrows among some lovely vegetation. Not that many had sandeels and if they did, they were quickly disappearing out of range of the marauding seabirds and this photographer!
Using a 300mm, I simply shot my portraits from a low angle through the vegetation to create some pleasing foreground blur, making sure I was positioning a single AF point on the eye. I used an aperture of f/8 to get enough sharpness in both the eye and the beak too.
Puffins rarely seem to just sit still; they’re often stretching their wings and having a good flap so I used the same technique but slowed the shutter speed down to around 1/400sec to get some wing movement but with a sharp head.
I also looked for different backdrops and poses among the birds in front of me. The sea was quite blue, and in places I could use this as a clean but diffused background for the puffin to stand out from. There was some interaction around the burrows too – although here there was less vegetation – but at least I was beginning to build up a variety of shots by including some different behaviour.
But of course, the lack of flying shots was still niggling me! It felt like a challenge I needed to conquer. Most of the birds I could see were landing in areas where the backdrop was large cliffs, and this made focus really hard because even a small group of AF points wanted to focus on the background and not the fast-moving ball of feathers that were occasionally landing. I simply couldn’t track them coming from the cliff areas because I couldn’t see them early enough. I managed a couple of ‘lucky’ shots, but there was no consistency and nine times out of 10, I couldn’t react fast enough. I’m showing you this lucky shot purely from an interest point of view, as this puffin had a mangled right foot – though it’s clearly not hampering it too much as it appears to be healthy.
I looked at the map of Skomer, and the one area that looked like it might give me a bit more of an open-sea background was near to where the boat arrived, so I headed that way to try my luck. Actually, there wasn’t much open-sea area there either, but the few puffins I could see flying across (at breakneck speed) did spend a short period flying slightly below me over the bay, and I figured this might work better. I still had a nano-second to identify a bird in flight and try to lock focus. The only way I was going to do this successfully was to make all my AF points active. As you know, the trouble with this is it’s much less accurate so I also needed to shoot at f/8 to give myself a little more leeway with depth of field, as I was just hoping to lock focus ‘somewhere’ on the bird. Despite the bright conditions, this meant shooting at ISO 1600, as I still needed a fast shutter speed of 1/1000sec as a minimum.
This method worked, but I wouldn’t say it was easy because the lack of wind still meant I couldn’t predict where the birds would fly from, but it did mean that if I spotted one suddenly and could point my telephoto lens in the right direction fast enough, I had half a chance to get the shot. The first shot I was happy with was this one – the puffin came up from below, but crucially the majority of the background was the sea, so the focus locked on the bird. Result!
For this shot the puffin flew across the bay at speed but I had just enough time to pick it up and pan with it. The dark area above is simply the reflection of the cliff in the water.
The moral of this story is… don’t give up! Wildlife and weather are rarely going to perform exactly as you want, so you have to adapt the type of images you shoot or your technique to the conditions faced. I’d have got many, many more sharp puffin-in-flight shots from the Farnes, but actually the few I managed on this day in Skomer were hard won, and there’s some satisfaction in that.
If anyone is thinking of going to Skomer, it’s worth noting I stayed at West Hook Campsite, which is just a short walk from where the boat leaves for the island. Visit the website at: http://westhookfarm-camping.co.uk/
Boat tickets for Skomer can be booked from: https://www.pembrokeshire-islands.co.uk/
It is possible to stay on the island itself, although accommodation is often booked up long in advance. If you can do this, then that’s when you’ll have a great chance of photographing puffins in the best light early and late. For more information on this visit: www.welshwildlife.org/skomer-island-overnight-stays