Take off – puffins flying off the sea

Over the years at Foto-Buzz we’ve had quite a few puffin adventures together, so I know many of you have photographed them at different locations. The last two years I have travelled down to Skomer in South Wales, a hellishly long trip but one I think is worth it. Last year I wrote about my experiences here, so what new things can I bring to the story this year? 2023’s adventure was all carried out from a small dinghy, which meant being able to concentrate on a puffin shot that previously I’d only tried once, (on the way back from Greenland to Iceland) relatively unsuccessfully! I’m talking puffins taking off from water.

Most of my puffin action shots and probably yours are from high on the cliffs where they’re flying into burrows after being out at sea. This time I was going to be down on the water with them and my main aim was getting them lifting off the water. Sounds easy, right? It’s not. I was in the company of wildlife artist Richard Symonds who some of you will know from Arctic/Antarctica and the zoom he did with us during the lockdown, and travel guru Kate Waite. With three of us on the 3.2 metre dinghy, plus camera equipment and Rich’s dive gear, there wasn’t room to swing the proverbial cat.

I restricted my gear to one camera and two lenses, my Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L telezoom, and a wide-angle. To be honest the wide was just for behind the scenes, so I knew the zoom would do all the work. It was very tempting to take my 300mm prime as it’s the fastest focusing lens I have, but since its fixed focal length doesn’t make it so flexible and it is a lot larger and heavier than the zoom, I opted to leave it at home.

We set to sea from the harbour at Dale and had a 45-minute at full pelt journey with the outboard pushing through benign water before Skomer started to loom large. I didn’t spot a puffin for the first 15 minutes but started to see the occasional one bobbing on the surface or small groups flying low across the waves like mini missiles long before we reached the island. Once in the waters around Skomer, it was clear there were a lot of birds on the water, not everywhere but in patches. Rich eased off the throttle and we slowly cruised around taking it all in. What an experience to be at sea-level among all the birds, and not just puffin either but razorbill, guillemot, and oystercatchers too. In the main, I only had eyes for puffin. Yes, puffin fever always takes over. They are such engaging little birds, it’s hard not to fall in love with them.

The puffin were incredibly chilled. With engine off, and just gently drifting they’d keep a steady and respectable distance but carried on doing what puffins do when enjoying the sunshine. Watching them this way, rather than when they are hurtling through the air at breakneck speed avoiding black-headed gulls stealing the sand eels they’ve caught by flying erratically like a side-stepping winger in a rugby match, reminded me of how much they’re like ducks! Ducks at your local duckpond paddle about and dip their heads in the water and chatter to each other, and that’s exactly what puffins do when chilling out. It was beautiful to see. I wasn’t that aware of puffin ‘sounds’ but what I heard were high pitched and barely audible to my dodgy ears! Here’s a shot leaning towards High Key that I took in the ‘chilling’ zone. 

I’ve wandered well off track here and hopefully you’re still with me, but I wanted to paint a vivid picture of what’s happening at sea level, well below Skomer’s imposing cliffs, especially as we were able to go where the passenger ferries can’t. Further away from the cliffs the puffins seemed more active. I think a 100 metres or more was a sort of gathering place for groups of them before heading off to fish. I saw very few with sand eels in beaks on the water, but lots heading into the high cliffs with their catch. As we slowly approached these birds, they’d do one of three things.

1 Nothing. 2 Dive. 3 Take off.

They weren’t bothered by us, but when the time was right, off they’d fly. A puffin taking off from water is a slightly embarrassing spectacle. Remember, a puffin can dive to depths of 60 metres and fly at up to 55mph, so watching them splash about in a rather pathetic way in the bit between those two worlds, shows there has to be a compromise somewhere. They only have small wings, which they flap in a maniacal fashion to try to get lift off. It doesn’t happen easily. They thrash across the surface of the water, staying semi-submerged until they can get enough upward trajectory to bring their feet into play. With wings beating rapidly, and feet running like a sprinter late for a bus, plus water spraying everywhere, finally the puffin gets airborne. It’s at this precise point you want to get your shots. But how?
Let’s take a quick look at stage one of take off mode – this is where the body is still in the water and the wings are just thrashing the water to a foam!

To get a critically sharp shot we we have to go back to the Birds in Flight 101 because the processes aren’t that dissimilar. Let’s break it down:

1 Shutter speed
Nothing is too fast. At times I was photographing at 1/5000sec thanks to the bright conditions and cranking up ISO to 800.

2 Focus
You need continuous AF (Ai Servo) activated. Nothing else will do. Every camera is different in how many active AF points you can have, but in my case of the 1DX Mk II, I used the setting that activated ALL my 61 AF points. These are situated in a large central zone, so not at every point within the frame, and that worked well. Yes, it risked occasionally focusing on the sea and missing the puffin, but luckily the black and white of the puffin’s markings make a perfect contrast for the AF to lock onto. Whatever options you have, look for a large central and horizontal group of active AF points Working this way, if I locked onto the puffin in its early thrashing the water stage, then panned through with it, it was possible to keep the puffin in focus right through its taking off process. I have several sequences where I have 10 to 15 shots with a sharp puffin right through them. I have others where I didn’t lock on early enough that aren’t sharp at all. I’ve deleted them!

3 High speed continuous shooting
Many cameras now have different high-speed modes. Always set the fastest!

4 Get the angle right
This was critical. If the bird was moving away, after a few shots all I’d get were tail feather shots. I wanted them to take off directly across me for it to look right. That’s quite a lot of sharp but pointless pictures I’ve had to delete as you can’t always predict which way they go.

5 Being smooth with camera movement
This is another important element. Waving the camera up and down as you try to follow the movement will ruin every shot. You’ve got to keep your movement fast but controlled.

6 Luck!
Yep, we all need it

Putting all the above elements together and getting a puffin taking off at the right angle (that’s the luck bit), it was possible to shoot some really fabulous take-off images. As a rule I stuck with f/8 as my aperture, just to give me that extra bit of sharpness and since I was generally at 400mm and as low as I could be to the water while still panning the camera as the puffin splashed across the surface, the sea surface blurred sufficiently behind the subject. Let’s have a look at a couple of successful shots to finish off, but expect some seal action from Skomer in another Foto-Buzz article in the future.

This shot is the point the puffin is initially free from the water. The wings are just millimetres off the surface but the feet are still running on it. There’s something Machiavellian about this pose!

On this frame we’re legs free, but the trailing foot has created that lovely little back-splash!

This shot was from the second day I went out, so the lighting is different as the sun was more diffuse. I love the balletic pose!

Here we’re clear of the water, a lovely swell on the sea’s surface and a good v-shape to the wings. Less dramatic than actual take-off but great to catch it so close the waves.

Finally, this is possibly my favourite shot. The side-on angle is good, the splash is awesome as it leads to the back foot. The puffin’s wings are up and the body is clear of the surface. It looks like it’s on a mission!

Published in Camera Skills
1 Comment
  1. I saw Richard’s drone shots on Facebook and wondered when we’d see yours. What a great experience and some lovely pics.

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