Wildlife in October - the practical photographer's guide

Surrounded by water, our little island is an amazing location for marine life and one species that’s doing so well in UK waters is the grey seal. Ahead of the pupping season, October is a great time to catch up with these wonderful mammals around our shores for some top wildlife photography opportunities.

In October, grey seals are starting to haul out along the coast at a number of sites ahead of the pupping season. With this happening it’s a great time to get some images, but also one where they can be vulnerable, so an added amount of care needs to be taken in order to ensure their welfare. As some of the females may give birth early, even though most don’t have young, it’s very important to be ethical and respectful when photographing the seals. Never get between a mother and its young and always move slowly and carefully when shooting images so as not to spook the seals, as this can cause distress.

Find a location near you
Around the UK there are numerous locations where seals can be viewed, including popular spots such as Donna Nook (Lincolnshire), The Farne Islands (Northumberland) or Blakeney Point (Norfolk). At these sites work has been done by the local conservation charities to ensure that the seals are protected from too much disturbance during the season, while still offering great opportunities for images. Signage is up to both exclude people and educate them about the animals, and often the seals can be viewed from regulated boats or from behind fences to limit the impact on the seals. At these locations, due to the volume of people, it’s important to restrict access, while at smaller sites it’s possible to get a less controlled and wild experience. This, however, requires photographers to have great ethical conduct to ensure minimal disturbance.

If you do head to one of the more well known sites its easy to come away with some good shots, but to make the most of your time, there are a few techniques that will help you get images that are a little different from the standard.

Get low to the ground
When working from behind fences, I’ve often seen photographers shooting over the top, however for a much more flattering image, shoot through them instead. Getting low down and putting your lens close to the fence, it’s easy to ensure you get a clear eye-level view of the seals (that are often very close to the barriers). Dropping down will give you far more flattering backgrounds and foregrounds than shooting over, as the eye-level approach makes the images far more visually pleasing. Be sure to check that you aren’t getting the fence into the edge of frame. With practice, it’ll be hard to notice there was ever anything in front of you.

A similar technique is also useful when working from boats. Often people stand up to get a better view, but if you get down low and shoot from the edge of the boat, resting your camera on the side, you’ll get far more pleasing results due to being closer to the eye-level of your subjects.

Use the right gear
Gear wise, a mid-telephoto can be perfect, however a longer lens of 400mm will be handy when the seals aren’t as close to the fence line. Having a range of options is key to getting the most from a day. Don’t forget the wide-angle, as often the seals will be right up to the fence giving the chance for some super cute wide shots of the seals in their landscape.

For the brave, and if you really want a great experience, think about heading out to the Farnes where you can snorkel with the seals. Once you venture into their playground (aka the sea) they’re far bolder, often swimming up to divers and snorkelers for a closer look. It’s a magical wildlife experience and underwater compact cameras, GoPros and housed DSLRs can make some truly awesome shots. A word of warning however – you need to be a competent swimmer and it’s very cold, even in two wetsuits.

With grey seals all around the UK, they’re a great subject to head out in search of. Remember to be highly respectful to ensure their safety and always follow the advice given by wardens or signs. At some of the locations it’s also possible to donate towards the conservation effort, so if you have a cracking day, be sure to leave a few pounds to help the work that’s keeping them safe and boosting the populations along our shores.

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here