Photographing the seabirds of the Atlantic
There is no single definition of which bird species qualify as seabirds. A good guideline is that a bird should at least feed in saltwater and/or live part of the year on the ocean to qualify as a seabird. Most of the commonly accepted seabird species meet these criteria, although there are the usual exceptions.
Some of the more common, widespread and well-known species of the (Northern) Atlantic region include Gannet, Guillemot (Murre), Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Shearwater and several species of Gulls and Terns.
Almost all species of seabirds are colonial breeders, and their enormous colonies of sometimes over a million birds are a true wonder of nature and a real spectacle to witness. And more important to us nature photographers: they provide for a wealth of photographic opportunities. For every photo opportunity missed, there’s another dozen just around the corner!
Where and when to go
Seabird colonies of the species mentioned above can be found on numerous locations at the borders of the Atlantic. Basically, every island, rocky shore or cliff is a potential seabird hotspot. Some well known and much visited locations include Bonaventure Island in Canada, St. Paul Island in Alaska, the Farne Islands and Bass Rock in the UK, Helgoland in Germany and the island of Runde in Norway.
As said before, one of the characteristics of seabirds is that they spend much of their lives on the ocean. Many species only come to land to nest and breed, so obviously you should plan your visit to coincide with the breeding season. In our side of the world (western Europe), most species breed in the summer months of June and July, with the chicks fledging onto the ocean at the end of July.
If you plan a visit to a seabird colony, you might want to check with the locals from time to time, since year-to-year climate fluctuations may shift the breeding season several weeks in both directions.
Planning your shots
With dozens of photo opportunities around, it would be easy to get overly enthusiastic and just let the motordrive fill all flash cards within minutes. However, in order to get the shots you would like to get, it normally is better to employ some thinking before firing away.
First thing to take into account is the direction of the wind, since birds will always land against the wind. Therefore, if your goal is to make dynamic shots of landing birds, you’d better find a place where the wind blows towards the ocean, or you’ll end up with loads of shots of bird butt (trust me, I know).
The direction of the light is at least as important. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, but the sun comes from the other side, you will have many shots of landing silhouettes. Also, since the birds breed on steep cliffs at the edge of hilly and rocky terrain, take into account that the sun may be blocked by ridges or boulders for at least part of the day. You’ll soon find that only few spots meet your criteria and you’ll end up returning to these same spots day after day.
Another issue that needs some planning is bird behaviour. Birds are at their most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Luckily, this coincides with the best light conditions. But if you’re after a shot of a landing puffin, it helps to know that they normally only return to their nesting site at the end of day (unless they have chicks to feed), so setting up near their empty colony early morning makes no sense. Shearwaters are nocturnal and only visit their nesting sites during the night, which means you will only get (a chance) to see them in very early morning or very late afternoon light.
Finally, if you plan on shooting landing birds, don’t get lost in the mayhem and try to frantically shoot whatever bird comes your way. Most birds just make a quick flyby and continue to wherever their nesting site may be, leaving you your camera without a chance. It is better to watch a bird leave its nesting site and track it all the way to the sea and back. This hardly ever takes more than 30 seconds and this way you can be sure the bird will land and, even better, where it will do so.
The plumage of seabirds is less colourful than we normally see with land birds. Almost all seabirds only show variations and combinations of black, white and any shade of grey. It is thought that this serves as camouflage. A black and white bird is difficult to see by predators at open sea. And a white belly, which many species have, makes them difficult to locate from beneath the surface, both by prey and predator. Only the feet and/or bill can be colourful, as with the puffins.
If you have ever shot black and white birds (or even a wedding) before, you probably know that it can be difficult to set the correct exposure. You don’t want to burn the whites, but blocked blacks don’t look good as well.
My way of working is to photograph a white bird at close range and check the histogram. I then adjust the exposure until the whites start to burn and back off a third stop (expose to the right as much as possible). This way, you can be sure the whites in all of your shots don’t burn and still get as much detail in the blacks as possible.
With the soft early morning and late afternoon light in the summer months, I find enough detail is rendered in the blacks to provide a pleasing image. If not, one can always process the RAW file twice and combine the resulting images in Photoshop. I have only had to do this with images taken in late morning, where the light was getting really harsh. Another option is to use fill flash to lighten the shadows. Although I do not use fill flash much, I again would only use it in late morning when the light gets harsh.
Whilst I think the above already calls for the use of manual exposure mode, it does even more so when you consider the surroundings of the locations where the birds breed. There are light rocks, dark boulders, light blue sky, dark blue water, green grass or even a complete colony of mixed seabirds to choose from as backgrounds for your shots. Or even worse, a succession of all of these when tracking for a flight shot. This situation does not only call for the use of manual exposure, it screams for it!
Only by using manual exposure can you be sure your results will be consistent. Keep in mind that the light should be consistent too and adjust your exposure when the light changes or when you start shooting against the light for silhouettes. Something in particular I think of are landing birds: they fly towards the cliffs very low and then take a steep dive upwards to their nesting site. In many cases, sea level will be in the shade, so any shots taken early in the tracking process may render severely underexposed.
Seabirds can be photographed with almost every camera and lens. You will need to bring a tripod to make sharp images, a beanbag is rather useless. Of course, flight shots could be taken handheld. Take enough spare batteries, you will take so many shots that they drain very quickly!
For birds in flight, you will need a camera with a good AF system. Although I was afraid my 20D was not up to the task, it performed amazingly well. Whilst long lenses will provide you with smoother backgrounds and a more pleasant perspective, flight shots can also be made with e.g. a 70-200 zoom lens or even a wide angle lens! With a 70-200, it’s much easier to track a bird in the viewfinder and the risk of clipped wings is much less than with a 500mm lens.
Although you can usually get very close to the birds, frame filling portraits call for a long lens. If you get too close, the birds may leave their nests for some time which could mean the eggs cool off too much and the chicks will never hatch. As usual, the subjects welfare should be more important than you getting the shot. With seabirds, this is even more important since many colonies are very fragile and their wellbeing is of the utmost importance.
Don’t forget to take some shots of the colonies with a moderate zoom lens or a wide angle lens. Your audience will get bored when you only show them frame filling portraits!
Other photo subjects
With all these colonies of breeding birds (and thus eggs and chicks) around, it is not surprising that other bird species have settled in the same locations too. Depending on the location, birds of prey like peregrine, white-tailed eagle and falcons can be found near the colonies. Also keep an eye open for other resident birds such as possibly rock pipit, oystercatcher and chough. These provide for extra photo opportunities and some variety in your shots.
Most colonies are to be found on idyllic islands with great scenery and steep cliffs. Also, breeding season is in the summer months, which means long days with great light (although guarantees cannot be given!). Therefore, try to point your camera away from the birds for a moment and you might get away with some beautiful landscape and/or sunset shots!
And if there is still time and space on your flash cards left, you could devote some time to shooting other flora and fauna that might be around. Especially in late spring, many photogenic flowers can be found on the islands. And, depending on your location, you could also spot and capture the occasional seal, dolphin or whale.
Seabird colonies are an extraordinary sight to witness and visiting them provides you with a perfect chance for making great shots and practising your photographic skills. Because so many birds are present, the photographer gets many opportunities and missing one is not the end of the world. The only drawback I should mention are the thousands of shots you have to go through when back at home!
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