It's well-known that Donna Nook National Nature Reserve is probably one of, if not the best place to photograph Grey Seals in the UK. For site member Edgar Steward, the unlimited access (tide and weather permitting) Donna Nook offers makes it a must-go location every year.
For those who don't know, from November to the end of December a high number of Seals make their way onto the sandbanks to give birth and there are plenty of opportunities to photograph pups, females and bull Seals.
Where to go
When you leave the car park, follow a public path along a fence that separates you from the Seals. This path does get crowded and if a Seal's near to the fence, you could be fighting for elbow room but persistence and patience can get you some great pictures.
“I get to Donna nook for Friday afternoon. I spend that afternoon photographing the Seals from the public path. You can get some nice shots there, without having to do the 30 minute walk,
” explained Edgar Steward.
You can, if you wish, still do the long walk on the sand, however, there are signs that say it can disturb the Seals and with the large number of people who visit Donna Nook, it's not something everyone advises.
“Like with everything, there will always be people who will not follow ‘the rules’, but for the main part most photographers do behave correctly
,” explained Edgar.
Respecting the Seals
Behaving correctly means respecting the animal – no photograph is worth stressing the animal. You should never walk between a mother and its pup, always approach Seals slowly, keep low (Edgar shuffles on his knees a bit at a time), if the Seal starts to move, stop and do not get any closer and do not over crowd them i.e. lots of photographers round one Seal and allow the Seal an escape route if it wants to leave.
When moving away after taking photos, move backwards the way you came and keep quiet - do not hold conversations etc. near to Seals and most importantly, if a pup moves towards you, move away.
“The young can be curious and can attach themselves to you. This could cause the pup to lose its mother
,” explained Edgar. “ NEVER touch a young seal: One, you should not interact, and two, you are far too close if you can touch. Seals will bite, but normally they will not come to you unless you are threatening the pup. You'll see they move towards you a short distance and this lets you know you're close enough. Just be aware that all Seals are different, some do not mind if you are say 15 yards away while others want more space. But if the seal moves, or calls to you, YOU are too close.
When to visit
Like any wildlife photography, early morning or last light is the best time for taking photographs. If the skies are clear Edgar says you can get some great light and the surf has great colour. However, dull days can still be rewarding as the light can be quite unusual.
“You are at the will of the tides as really you need to go when the tide is out (if you want to walk out to the surf). Plus if you want to go out to the surf you are limited to after midday Friday and Saturday/Sunday or Bank Holidays as it is a bombing range for the MOD during other times.
Don't forget Donna Nook's on the East Coast of England with the North Sea and often strong, cold winds blowing in, so you need to protect you and your equipment accordingly.
“The weather at Donna Nook ranges from bright clear days to heavy rain and strong winds. You can also get snow, and all these can occur in a few hours of each other. It can be very cold indeed. There's no protection from the bad weather when you are out on the sand. The car park is some 30 minutes walk away. The weather can change very quickly, so you need to have the right clothing and footwear. You can get very cold and wet otherwise
Ensure you have a good waterproof bag, cover all your kit, even inside the bag, so when you open it, all your kit is protected. If it's wet, Edgar uses a waterproof cover for his camera and lenses. He also has a hand towel to wipe his hands before handling his camera as sand can be a problem. Edgar carries all of his gear in a back pack but others use one or even two trolleys with wheels but these can become sluggish and stuck in the sand. Edgar also carries a tripod or monopod, spare batteries and memory cards.
“A tripod is a good idea although I prefer a monopod as it gives me more mobility and less messing with legs when changing height. I like to keep any disruption down to a minimum in front of the Seals I do not use a beanbag as it attracts a lot of sand. A tripod/monopod that allows you to take shots at low level is important. I take two lenses: Fixed 300mm f/2.8 and a 70-200 zoom. I also use a 1.4x converter. The longer lens allows me to get full frame shots without getting too close to the Seals. I suggest 300mm minimum. The 70-200mm is good for shots with more environments in them, plus I can use the 1.4x converter should I need closer shots
As most of the Seals are still, you can get away with a slow shutter speed and this is why it's a good idea to have a tripod/monopod to hand. If you're photographing a lone seal, a good depth of field is needed and if the light is not an issue, Edgar Steward starts at f/5.6 to do this. ISO wise, try starting at ISO100 and work your way up.
Get down and dirty
When photographing Seals either on the sand or in the water, getting low-down is a good idea. But if you're wanting to show the expanse of sand then Edgar recommends you look for a higher angle with a large depth of field.
“For most part backgrounds are either endless sand or the sea but be careful of cluttered backgrounds - other Seals and at times photographers can get in the way. Also, be aware of horizons. Try to avoid the horizon cutting through the middle of the subject as it can mess up the exposure.”
- Be aware of the tide times. Take a mobile phone incase of any emergency.
- Try not to change lenses if the weather is wet or windy (sand issues). If you need to, use a plastic bag to put the camera and lens in when changing. Do not put your gear onto the sand as it will attract sand which can get into your camera. Do not put light gear such as gloves, hats or camera covers etc on the ground, as an unexpected gust will blow it away. A lost glove or camera cover can be dangerous to inquisitive seal pups.
- The cold weather drains batteries very quickly so take enough to cope.
- Remember, animal welfare is very important - DO NOT DISTURB the Seals.
All photos by Edgar Steward