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Birds of a feather

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Northern gannet Northern gannet Zzsulc
13 Jul
2015
Seagulls may not be everyone’s idea of photogenic wildlife, but Britain is awash with picturesque seabirds of all varieties from canoodling gannets to swooping kittiwakes

You know it’s summer when you’re enjoying a walk along the beach or a seaside boulevard, eating a portion of chips. The sun is bright and warm, the sky brilliant blue and the only sound is the rhythmic rush of waves onto shore. Until the raucous squawk of a mob of seagulls descends around you, ready to pounce on your food!

To most people seagulls are a pervasive nuisance, as common as pigeons and regarded with a similar level of contempt. But seagulls deserve more respect: they are one of the world’s most widely distributed birds, known to breed on every continent, including the fringes of Antarctica and the high Arctic. They have adapted to the relentless growth of the human population along the world’s coastlines with greater ease than any other species of bird.

Despite being ever present, they are not high on photographers’ lists of favoured seabird subjects. And yet, these large and fearless birds are as attractive as many of the other, more exotic species that populate our shores.

The British Isles are a haven for the world’s seabirds and during the summer months many species nest in their thousands on the coastal cliffs, sea stacks and islets of our archipelago. For example, the British Isles are home to around ten per cent of the world’s puffins – 600,000 pairs according to the RSPB, with the largest populations found in the Shetland and Orkney Isles, while Bass Rock in the Firth of the Forth, is the largest single rock gannetry in the world.

In fact, around 220,000 gannets – two thirds of the world’s population – nest in the UK each summer. Other prominent UK seabird colonies include Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, the Scilly Isles and the Welsh islands of Skomer, Grassholm and Skokholm.

 

TYNESIDE KITTIWAKES

Such a proliferation of locations and the summer nesting season means July is regarded as the peak month for photographing seabirds, attracting wildlife photographers from all over the world to UK shores. As well as puffins and gannets, other commonly encountered species include Arctic terns, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars and kittiwakes.

While seagulls are renowned for their adaptability to the human environment, special mention must be given to the diminutive kittiwakes of Tyneside. Every summer, kittiwakes return to nest along the Tyne Bridge, Baltic Arts Centre and other buildings along the Newcastle and Gateshead quayside. With around 600 nesting pairs, Tyneside is widely recognised as the world’s most inland kittiwake colony.

Of course, you can find kittiwake colonies elsewhere – around 380,000 pairs nest throughout the UK – but the Tyneside colony has become a tourist attraction since the birds began nesting there in the 1960s. Webcams have been positioned on the bridges and buildings for birdwatchers to get a closer look at kittiwakes nesting and raising their chicks.

These urban rookeries also provide a unique and distinctive photo opportunity, with photographers able to make the most of conspicuous urban landmarks to the backgrounds of their images – the Tyne Bridge, the Baltic Arts Centre and Newcastle’s busy streets below.

But it is the more natural settings of notable seabird colonies such as the nearby Farne Islands or Bass Rock that most photographers head to for a day’s shoot. These sites are accessible from shore and regular boat services operate to ferry photographers and birdwatchers back and forth during the day. Boats sail daily from the Northumberland fishing village of Seahouses to the Farne Islands between April and October. The islands may be small but the paths leading up from the jetties of Inner Farne and Staple Island are packed with birds, particularly Arctic terns, which lay their eggs right next to the boardwalks.

 

STABILITY AND SUPPORT

One of the big attractions of photographing seabird colonies is the close proximity of the subject to the camera. For this reason, wide-angle lenses and standard zooms are more likely to be used than long telephotos.

A tripod is rarely needed, nor is it recommended as a crowded seabird colony is unlikely to provide enough free space for a tripod’s splayed legs.

Fortunately, more and more lenses are including vibration reduction or optical stabilisation systems in their construction, even in shorter focal length lenses. These are designed to reduce the vibration that results from handholding the camera, thereby allowing slower shutter speeds to be deployed.

However, with so much light around in July, even on an overcast day, it’s unlikely to be an issue. Also, the much improved image quality at higher ISO settings in modern cameras means it is better to increase the ISO rating in order to maintain a fast shutter speed than try a longer exposure with image stabilisation switched on.

A monopod makes a good substitute to a tripod as it provides a quick and easy means of providing steady camera support in a confined space – perfect for a crowded gannet colony or when you’re restricted to a narrow boardwalk.

Monopods also double up as a walking pole – much needed when getting around the rocky and often steep terrain of many seabird colonies. Your speed and ease of movement will also be helped if you limit lens changes to a minimum, so a compact standard zoom lens covering wide-angle to short telephoto is ideal.

gannetNorthern gannets (Image: Zzsulc)

 

FLIGHT AND PANNING

While wide-angle close-ups of nesting terns and the like are highly popular, many photographers also attempt to photograph seabirds in flight, usually from a high vantage point.

For this situation, a longer lens is needed, but it has to be one that can be comfortably held while panning the bird’s flight path. In this instance, it makes sense to switch on the image stabilisation mode and set the camera’s autofocus to continuous (AF-C) mode. Use spot metering and select a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the bird’s flight.

Maximum shutter speed can be ensured whatever the changing light levels by setting your camera to aperture priority and opening up the lens to its maximum aperture – say f/4: the camera will then set the corresponding shutter speed (the fastest) for the metered exposure reading.

When panning, keep the subject in the frame while tracking its path as it flies in front of you. Keep the panning movement going for a second or two after you have stopped pressing the shutter button. By examining the images on the monitor, you can judge the level of background blur and subject sharpness and make adjustments to your shutter speed in time for the next fly past.

A slower shutter speed will lead to increased blur and a greater sense of movement. This technique can be applied to any seabird species regardless of its size or the speed of its wing beats. Depth of field almost becomes an irrelevance when panning a moving subject, so feel free to alter your shutter speeds by using aperture priority mode and adjusting the aperture setting for each fly past.

 

METER MATTERS

A bright day is preferable to wet and windy conditions for clambering over the steep rocky terrain of a seabird colony, but the high contrast typical of this time of year demands more precise metering for an accurate exposure. Most seabirds are predominantly white or black, or a mixture of the two. With bright overhead sun, highlights are likely to burn out and shadows will be too dark in some places to record detail, so keep checking the histogram. Also, make regular spot meter readings of the lightest and darkest areas of your subject, and set an average of the two values for your exposure.

Try bracketing your exposures (under and over-exposing this value for additional images), and compare the results on the camera monitor. With the sun high in the sky for most of the day, adding a half stop or more of negative exposure compensation will help avoid loss of detail in the white plumage.

Even before you step onto the boat to make the crossing to an offshore colony, you can save time once ashore by presetting your camera functions to suit the type of images in mind.

Also remember to wear a hat, not only to protect your head from the sun, but also from the guano that will be deposited by an enraged Arctic tern, guillemot or dive-bombing skua! It is the price to pay for gaining such close access to birds raising their young, but also serves to remind the photographer that there is a limit to how far you can approach without risking the subject’s welfare, as well as your own.

 

DO

Set aperture priority mode and alter your ISO rating in order to maintain a fast shutter speed when photographing seabirds that are in flight.

Use fill-in flash and a wide-angle lens to photograph low-flying Arctic terns. Flash will light the underside that will be in shadow and prevent the bird being rendered a silhouette.

Use a monopod for added stability, particularly when using telephoto lenses, or in breezy conditions. Alternatively, if your lens has an image stabilisation or vibration reduction mode, then switch it on.

 

DON’T

Venture beyond any roped walkways. They are there to protect the nesting seabirds and to keep you at a safe distance from them as well as any cliff edges.

Shoot directly into the sun. Check the position of the sun in relation to your subject and always meter off a mid-tone such as surrounding grass or rock and lock that exposure reading before re-composing the shot.

Leave your hat at home. Arctic terns and other seabirds are notorious for attacking people close to their nests and hitting them with guano! Also pack food and plenty of water, plus memory cards, as there is unlikely to be anywhere at your location for such provisions.

 

RECOMMENDED READING

RSPB Seabirds by Marianne Taylor, Bloomsbury Natural History, £19.99, hardback

Photographing Birds by Mark Sisson, Crowood Press, £16.99, softback

Seabirds: An Identification Guide by Peter Harrison, Houghton Mifflin, £16.23, softback

 

EQUIPMENT SELECTIONS

Accessory option: Hard-wearing camera bag

Domke bags are among the best-known and the new Chronicle (£254) is the brainchild of an extensive review by photographers who field-tested the prototypes. Features include top access with double zipper, expandable side and front pockets, rear slide pocket, three internal dividers, a padded zippered tablet sleeve and grab straps.

www.domkebags.co.uk.

Accessory option: Monopod

Few camera support systems are handier than a monopod. They’re easy to set up and work well in confined spaces. While not able to keep your camera completely still, the Gitzo GM2561T Carbon Traveller (£190) will help counter any movement or camera shake. It extends to a maximum height of 143cm and has a load capacity of 4.5kg. It’s remarkably light, weighing just 233 grams and collapsing down to just 36cm.

www.gitzo.co.uk.

Lens option: Ultra wide-angle zoom

An ultra wide-angle is a specialist lens that requires very precise placement to make the greatest impact on close-up subjects. Canon calls its new EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens (£2,799) ‘the ultimate in wide-angle photography’. The headline facts bear this out: it is the widest zoom lens Canon has ever made. The expansive range of 11-24mm is ideal for unique perspectives on subjects close and far, including from the safety of remote-firing positions.

www.canon.co.uk.

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