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Photographing Chaotic Seabirds


 

The northeast coastal region of the United Kingdom is home to some of the largest and most intriguing seabird colonies in the world. Migrating species arrive on small islands in the Spring to nest, breed and nurture their young, departing again with their fledglings in early autumn.

I first visited the Farne Islands in 2015. I returned to Northumberland, with great anticipation, in June 2016 intending also to travel onwards to Bass Rock, home to one of the largest colonies of Northern Gannets in the world.

The Farnes are home to 150,000 breeding pairs of various seabirds, including Puffins; Guillemots; Shags; Razorbills; Arctic Terns, Common Eider and numerous other species in smaller numbers.

The Islands are owned by the National trust and access is gained by boat from the small harbour at nearby Seahouses. Tourist boats generally only permit a one-hour stay. A full day or afternoon stay can, however be booked with the boat operators, a facility utilised almost exclusively by photographers.

I was in Northumberland for a week, and my entire trip was threatened by foul weather; the UK summer at its best! There were four consecutive days of cancellations. By the fifth day, when the weather picked up enough to permit a safe crossing, the harbour area was packed with a backlog of people wanting to travel. Eventually I managed to board one of several packed boats to Inner Farne.

A roped boardwalk restricts movement around the island but does not prevent visitors from getting within a few feet of many birds although some nest further afield. Hundreds of birds are in the air at any one time. Many thousands are on the ground. It really is possible, therefore, to achieve amazing photographs with just about any camera and lens combination including macro, extreme wide-angle or telephoto and anything in-between.

On my previous visit, I took a mirrorless camera and lens combination and although I got some sensational shots, overall I had a disappointing ‘keeper’ rate. If taking pictures of birds in flight, which I was, a DSLR provides more consistent results, where the focus acquisition of moving subjects currently leaves the mirrorless counterpart struggling. On this occasion, I took a Nikon D810 with battery grip; a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8, a 500mm f4 and a monopod.

Whether a photographer or not, the scene is quite overwhelming.

There are huge volumes of seabirds flying around, some at high speed and low level. There is a cacophony of birdcalls. Puffins run the gauntlet of ‘robber-gulls’ as they return to their burrows clutching a precious cargo of sandeels in their brightly coloured beaks. Guillemots and razorbills fly in to cliff-edge sites with bounty for their hungry chicks. Gulls engage in mid-air squabbles. Arctic terns, feeling threatened by the proximity of humans to their young chicks, fly high, shriek loudly and peck passers-by hard on the head. They have pin-sharp beaks and I advise padded headgear for protection. Furthermore, in the visual feast, it is quite easy to miss the hundreds of young chicks in their midst as they huddle close to or underneath their mothers.

The photographic opportunities are quite simply endless. I set out to improve on last years images of puffins in flight; get some close-up portraits of nesting cliff-top birds with their young chicks and to capture the action around the puffin burrows.

I used both the 70-200mm and monopod-mounted 500mm lens to capture the dramatic action of the puffin chases and achieved success with both. The puffins fly very quickly and arrive back at the burrows, often unnoticed by the gulls. The trick, therefore to capturing these shots is to observe the behaviour of the larger gulls instead. When a commotion occurs, swing the camera towards the action, try to pick out the puffin, focus quickly and shoot with as high a frame rate as the camera allows.

The 500mm lens was particularly useful for infiltrating the crowds of guillemots and gulls nesting on the cliffs. Even then, most images required cropping in post-processing.

For birds in flight, unless they are a long way off, the reach of the 500mm is unnecessary. The puffins often fly very close and directly towards the camera, occasionally having to deviate at the last second to avoid a collision. The 70-200mm lens zoomed out, was adequate for most shots. Some time spent observing the flight paths of the puffins, especially those carrying sandeels, will be rewarded with some fantastic pictures.

 
 

If the onslaught of their pecking can be withstood, there is also an excellent opportunity for dramatic photographs of angry terns. I could easily have made good use of a wide-angle lens for these pictures, but the 70-200mm had to suffice.

For all these shots, I used the D810 in manual mode with auto ISO selected. For the ‘posed’ shots, I set the shutter speed to a minimum of 1/500 sec and the aperture to f5.6, allowing the ISO to take care of prevailing lighting conditions. For shots of birds in flight, I increased shutter speed to a minimum of 1/2000 sec. I set the white-balance to ‘cloud’ regardless of the conditions, to slightly warm the final image. This approach accepts an occasional compromise with high ISO values and consequent increases in noise.

I used matrix metering and set exposure compensation to achieve the maximum possible detail in the feathers. Where the bird was against a dark or neutral background I decreased exposure by about 2/3 stop. Where I took photographs against a bright background, such as the sky, I increased exposure by at least the same amount. I confirmed my settings on the rear panel and utilised the histogram to ensure no image detail had been lost. As a consequence, where the sky was the background, the highlights were generally blown, whereas where there was a darker background, there was increased effort in post-processing to bring the exposure into balance. I was prepared to accept this compromise.

I confess that in the heat of the moment, I occasionally forgot to switch the exposure compensation and ended up with a sequence of useless images. This would not have happened with a mirrorless camera where any failings in exposure settings are immediately apparent in the LCD viewfinder.

The following day, I visited Bass Rock, an imposing rocky island rising 150m sheer from the Firth of Forth. It is with good reason that naturalists describe this as a ‘wildlife wonder of the world.’ It is estimated to host about 165,000 Northern Gannets nesting in close proximity on the cliffs, of which several thousand are in the air and circling in the same direction, at any one time. The sea swell often precludes a safe landing. I was one of the lucky few this year that have been able to get ashore and spend some time with these amazing creatures.

On this occasion, I left the 500mm lens at home and brought my Nikkor 24-70 f2.8; 70-200mm f2.8 and 300mm f4. The birds were again at really close quarters although my feet were about three inches deep in mud, droppings and discarded feathers. Occasionally I was bombarded with droppings from above. Suffice to say, my bag was kept inside a bin-liner and I perfected a technique for rapid lens changing.

Like the Farnes, the scene is awe-inspiring and again, it is worth pausing to observe the birds in flight and on the ground. Gannets fly more slowly and more predictably than puffins, allowing for slower shutter speeds and decreased ISO values. The birds return to their partners with seaweed for nest-building and engage in a greeting ritual, raising their beaks towards each other. Fights and squabbles break out between neighbours. I used all three lenses in equal measure, to vary the angle and perspective of these oft-repeated events.

If allowed, casting dead fish from the rear of the boat on the return journey presents the opportunity to photograph gannets diving at close quarters. Using the 24-70mm lens at a wide setting avoided accidentally clipping the wings from the frame and ensured I captured all the confusion of the scene. I used shutter speeds ranging between 1/2000 and 1/4000.

 
 

In conclusion, having the patience to observe what is happening before raising the camera and having done so, checking the background, massively increased my ‘keeper’ rate on this occasion.