Summer means seabirds, and June is the perfect time to get thinking about photographing these wonderful summer residents. In the UK we are spoiled for choice – from auks to gannets, kittiwakes to fulmars, the British Isles has a stunning array of species to get to grips with. Found all around our coastline, there are numerous sites to head to in search of your subjects and produce some stunning images.
With June being the start of the breeding season, our rocky shores and the small islands that surround the UK come alive with hundreds of thousands of seabirds, many of which have made their way back from migration or wintering grounds to breed. With large numbers of the birds congregating in small areas of the coast, they provide fantastic opportunities for wildlife photography. A day or two spent with seabirds will pass like the blink of an eye with a camera in hand!
Where to go?
With such an array of seabirds around the British Isles there are numerous locations that will provide excellent opportunities for the wildlife photographer. Some top locations around the UK to head out in search of seabirds include…
Skomer Island, South Wales
The Farne Islands, Northumberland
The Isle of May, Firth of Forth
The Shetland Islands
Bass rock, Firth of Forth
Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire
South stack, North Wales
Lundy Islands, Bristol Channel
With many of these locations being accessed by small boats and very popular in the spring/summer season, be sure to pre-book to avoid disappointment on the day. Remember also that crossings to some areas will be cancelled in poor weather, due to landing on the islands in rough seas being difficult.
What to take
With many of the locations being remote it’s important to be prepared for a long day, not only photographically but with your personal items too. Dress appropriately, bring a set of layers and wear some comfortable and sturdy shoes. It’s worth packing a waterproof (whatever the weather), as conditions can change quickly and you won’t want to be caught out. With very little in the way of services on the Islands you will need a packed lunch, with a bottle of water or two. And don’t forget your sun cream - with the islands being exposed with very little cover it’s very easy to become burnt if you’re not careful.
One of the best things about working with seabirds as a wildlife photographer is that long lenses aren’t a necessity. With the islands often having no land-based predators, the birds have a far greater tolerance of humans, and will come very close indeed if you sit still and wait. A good mix of lenses will give you the best opportunities. I’ll often take everything from 20mm to 400mm with me, allowing for close-up headshots to wide-angle images of the birds in the landscape.
What to shoot
As soon as you land on the islands the birds and the possible opportunities for images will overwhelm you. Be sure to take your time and identify the types of images you want before you head out, as this will allow you to come away with far better results at the end of the day.
Portrait images are a great starting point. For a simple style, get low to the ground and use a shallow depth-of-field to render both the foreground and background out of focus. Be sure to focus on the bird’s eye and work with the rule-of-thirds for a simple and pleasing composition. A beanbag can provide the perfect support for your camera on the rough rocky ground. Working with this style you can quickly and effectively build a nice portfolio with a number of species in a single area.
With so many birds flying into and off of the islands it’s worth spending some time working on flight shots. Working with a longer lens, identify birds at a distance and then follow them in while panning the camera, keeping them locked in focus through the viewfinder. Work on gauging the rough speeds of the birds, as this will allow you to be more accurate with your panning.
In most cases I work with single-point AF, but if you’re struggling to get your subjects in sharp focus with any consistency, think about using 3D tracking as this will lock on to your subject and hold it for you, even if it moves outside your intended focal point. With practise and persistence you will hopefully get some flight shots to be proud of.
You don’t always have to be zoomed in for a great wildlife image. Pulling back with a wider-angle lens is a great way to show more about the habitat and environment your subjects are found within. Be sure to put on your wide-angle to display your subjects in the epic scenery that’s found along our coasts, for a different perspective to your wildlife photography.
With so many opportunities, working with seabirds is simply fantastic for the wildlife photographer. With numerous species to work with, locations to visit and images to create, you certainly won't be lacking subjects or inspiration this summer. Be sure to prepare well and have great fun shooting. Oh, and be sure to take a fair number of spare memory cards and batteries, because you will certainly want them.
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.