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Marine animals and sea bird photography

Marine animals and sea bird photography - Rosanna Milligan gives us some tips and tells us why she loves the Scottish sea so much.

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Aerial acrobatics
© Rosanna Milligan
 "This is an image of a northern gannet, just before it dived at the fishing nets, and is probably one of my favourite photos."
Rosanna Milligan is a marine biologist and SCUBA diver, based in Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland. She loves being at sea, and this, combined with her love photography, has shaped a rather interesting second career. She photographs life both above and below the waters surrounding the Scottish coast. Partly because once she's bought her photography kit she can't afford to go further afield, but also because it's an area varied in the diversity of life and a place not explored by many.
Thanks to her father, her love for photography developed while she was still quite young and now, she combines this love with her full-time job as a marine biologist.
My job gives me time to get out on boats more and I have a lot better access. I started taking photographs not for work but because the work I do gave me chance to.
Rosanna believes keeping things simple is key and by sticking to what she knows and taking advantage of the position her job puts her in means she finds coastal wildlife pretty easy to find. Research and, of course, having access to fishing boats all help with the quest to find the perfect picture. Birds tend to be Rosanna's focus above water. It took some time to perfect how to track a bird in flight but through a lot of practise she got there. Rosanna takes a lot of pictures of marine scavengers as when she's on fishing boats they're in close and easy to photograph. When she's out on boats, or even on shore, Rosanna spends ten to fifteen minutes just watching the birds as that way, she can learn what the bird's flight paths are.
Eider flock
 © Rosanna Milligan
"This is a flock of eider ducks, taken in Girvan harbour."
I find they tend to be predictable and tend to follow the same flight paths and patterns over and over again. So if you spend a little while watching them, I think, you'll get better results.
As far as using the camera goes, Rosanna suggests you should keep speeds as high as possible. Until, that is, you get underwater when much lower speeds are needed. Most of Rosanna's underwater work is shot at 1/50sec, even with the flash on, and she uses sensitivity settings of around ISO400-1600.
You need lower speeds just because there's very little light. In UK waters, getting to the point where you can take a picture is quite difficult because it is very dark and silty – it's quite challenging really. When you're balancing a torch, a camera and keeping your balance, something simple like focusing becomes quite difficult.”
Plovers in flight
 © Rosanna Milligan
Plovers in flight.
When you're underwater the closer you are to the subject the better as the less water you have between you and your subject the better the photograph will be. For this reason, Rosanna tends to use a Canon 60mm F2.8 macro lens but if visibility is a little better, like it is around Orkney, then she'll switch to a wider angled lens. She also uses a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens and three lenses when above the water: A Canon 300mm f/4 with image stabilisation, a Canon 70-200 f/4 IS and a Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 which are used on a Canon 40D. When underwater, she switches to her Canon 400D with an Ikelite housing.
When it comes to the perfect time of day for coastal photography, if you're above water then the usual early morning or evening times are best. Whereas, if you're underwater the time doesn't matter as much, although the middle of the day will give you a little more ambient light.
Boat's calll sign
© Rosanna Milligan
Fishing boat by the harbour.
If you find a beach facing east to west you can get some beautiful shots in the evening light. But when you're underwater you have to use so much artificial light anyway then you can usually get away with taking photographs at any time of day. I'm using a single strobe at the moment and if it's particularly dark, I'll also use my dive torch to illuminate the subject.
Rosanne isn't the most patient wildlife photographer and instead of waiting for the subject to come to her, she goes looking for them. Unlike some underwater photographers, Rosanna will swim around until she finds a place where she can frame the subject well. This is unless it's something rare, then she'll wait but most of the time she'll keeping moving around until she sees a subject in a good location.
A good location/background is vitally important. If you start with a good background it's always easier to get a good photograph. This is especially true when underwater as your perspective, when diving, is from lying horizontal and looking down but to get a good picture, you want to get as close to the ground as possible and look up so you have the light behind the subject. You'll also have a nice clean background rather than an ugly rock.
peacock fan worm
 © Rosanna Milligan
a Peacock Fan Worm taken underwater in loch Creran.
As Rosanne takes photographs of animals in their natural habitat she likes her shots to be as natural as possible and keeps post production down to a minimum. Only adjusting levels, curve adjustments contrast and sharpening. When she's finished with the images they all go on her website where she promotes her work and highlights the importance of our seas as a sustainable resource.
I've sold a few prints and sold work to a few commercial companies. I have to say, even with the current climate, what was a hobby is paying for itself quite nicely!

Visit Wild Ocean Photography for more information.

Fishing nets
 © Rosanna Milligan
Close up of a fishing net.

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22 Aug 2009 9:03PM

Some pictorial observations include the Grey seal, very much a feature of coastal waters around Scotland.

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