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Photographing puffins

Photographing puffins - Pick some puffin photography tips up from site member Cheryl Surry.

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Animals / Wildlife

Tips and image by Cheryl Surry.

In the UK we don’t have a lot of charismatic birds, in fact so many are known as LBJs (little brown jobs) that when we do have a colourful one to photograph we tend to get a little carried away.

Show a picture of a puffin to even the most devoted townie and most will know what it is. The soulful, but clown like face makes it popular with birders, photographers and casual viewers alike.

There are many locations to see puffins, from the Farnes with some 60,000 breeding pairs, to Skomer with 6,000 and many islands in between in whichever coastal direction you choose to make your journey between the two.

Photographing puffins
Image by Cheryl Surry.

Photographing puffins generally presents you with two main problems. Contrast and predictability.

The puffin is pretty much a black and white bird and capturing detail in both can be a difficult task, particularly as the bird is often seen in the brightest of conditions on an island affording little respite from the harshness of the sun. I find that the best solution to this is to take a meter reading from a patch of grass and then using manual mode centre the settings for aperture and shutter speed. You should now be able to photograph the puffin in flight or on the ground with the best exposure possible for such a contrasty subject. Obviously you need to chose an ISO that will afford you a fast enough shutter speed to capture the action you are intending to shoot, either portraits or in flight.

The predictability of the puffin refers to the flight patterns. Personally I have only been to the Farnes and so can give guidance for there, but the general guidelines still apply.

Find a spot where a lot of birds are coming in to land. Watch the birds for a while, say 20-30 mins. You should start to see some patterns and be able to predict which way a bird will go when it reaches a known point. On Staple Island one of the best places for this is just at the top of the boardwalk when you leave the boat. Here you will be able to watch many of the birds coming in to their burrows and most of the other visitors to the island will initially head further inland, which gives you a chance to find a good spot.

Wherever you go to photograph puffins, if you use a tripod or monopod be careful where you plant the support as many puffins nest close to the public walkways.

Main places to see puffins, though there are others:
  • Bempton Cliffs
  • Farne Islands
  • Skomer and Skokholm
  • St Kilda
  • Bass Rock
  • Isle of May
  • Lundy Island

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