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Photographing Puffins

Few will not have wanted at some time to photograph a Puffin, also known as the "clown of the ocean" and "sea parrot". It spends much of the year, mostly from August to April,  far out at sea, coming onto land to breed. We have a full article or factsheet within our wildlife section on the puffin ,  and a list of places where they are found in Britain. This also connects up to location guides of some of the best places to photograph them.

Puffins can be found  both sides of the Atlantic ocean. For part of the year they grow an extended bill, allowing them to hold a large number of sand eels and sometimes fish. They can go considerable distances in a day, routinely travelling in a day up to 100km to feed and up to 50km away to collect food for their young, although in most places they breed in Britain the  locations have been chosen because the food is far closer, often nearby.

They mate for life, and share most duties, although the male cleans out the old nest or rabbit burrow and sets it up for the female. They lay a single egg that hatches 40 days later. They then are both involved in feeding the chick for a period after which they just stop, and after the chick has been hungry for a few days it ventures out and looks for its own food. Most people photograph them in the second half of June, through July, and maybe the early part of August when they are bringing food back to their young as this is the period we both find them on land and they can be seen with their bright orange beaks full of sand eels or fish. Generally earlier in the season you may see a lot one day but none the next, and towards the end most will have left. The best period for photography is mid June to mid July most years, but it can slide a little.

The Farne islands off the Northumberland coast has around 60,000 pairs of puffins most years, and is the best known place to see them, with Skomer off the South Wales Pembrokeshire coast, the second best known with a population of  6,000 pairs.  There are some places you can see them without going on a boat trip including Bempton cliffs Yorkshire. There are a range of other places as well, see the list we have of locations you can see Puffins.

Skomer is serviced by one small boat, and is on a first come basis, so arrive early, as a long queue can develop. In popular times, there is also a maximum number allowed on the island. It is also possible to stay on Skomer.

Puffins are not frightened of people and will allow you to get very close, and being the size of a small duck, you don't need any special lenses to photograph them although if you want to photograph them flying, landing or with food in their beaks a moderate telephoto, perhaps a 200mm or 300mm, will make the task far easier as you can cover a larger area. When they land they move quickly to their burrows with the food, before gulls can steal the sand eels or fish from them.

Other than landing and rushing into their burrows you will see them resting or interacting with other puffins. You may see pairs knocking their large beaks together or a ritual they play out where one will present the other with a stick or other token.

Puffins are not aggressive, although if you get too close they may open their large beak and squawk at you. Most however are used to people that they run between your feet. On the Farne islands there are of course many other birds nesting and some of these are not so keen on visitors, so its wise to wear a hat, so that pecks and being bombed with poo, is not so bad. On Skomer you don't have the same system quite, in that other birds tend to be further from the Puffins and I haven't had any problem with them.

Clicking on the smaller images on this page will show larger versions

In most places were there are puffins you will find roped off walk ways, partly to allow the puffins burrows to be unaffected but also for our safety so you don't take a dive over a cliff or put your foot down a burrow. If when you arrive you spend a few minutes just watching you will find there is often one or several landing areas that many puffins come into,  and you will see the general pattern of running to their burrows. As puffins have small wings in proportion to their body, as well as avoiding the flying fish thieves they fly generally fast, and often you will see them doing fast fly pasts before landing,  but when landing need to slow down and do this in a surprisingly short distance. Many of the images you see of puffins flying are in this braking phase. Many people find photographing landing puffins very difficult, often because they are not in the ideal position and often because they are expecting the autofocus on their camera to react faster than it does. In most cases the most successful approach is to pre-focus on the position the puffin will be at when you take the image and switch off the autofocus and wait for the Puffin to be in the right place. If your reactions are fast enough you may be able to then get the ideal shot, otherwise switch the camera to motor drive, multi shot mode and push the trigger slightly early. If the Puffin is not landing straight at you then panning with the bird coming in should allow you to operate a slower shutter speed and catch the bird within your frame. A common problem that many have is that they are too high in relation to the bird coming in and you may benefit from taking a far lower position, perhaps even with the camera on or near the ground and using a right angle viewfinder.

Another approach is to put the camera on a mini tripod or bean bag and operate it with a remote cable or radio remote, this allows you to have the camera far closer to where the Puffin will land, not only getting a really good angle but also allowing you to use a wider angle lens that has far more depth of field. I prefer to use a far longer than normal release cable and put a piece of camouflage material, over the camera, both to keep the dust out and so the birds ignore it, and keep it one side slightly of the landing area, making catching the birds with the frame easier. Firing a motor drive series you will find its not as difficult as you might have expected.

In many ways catching them on the ground while they are moving rapidly to their burrows with a large beak full of sand eels is often more tricky, and rather than use a motor drive sequence I prefer to try to get the best angles as they appear, but its very fast. As there are so many, you will have a lot of opportunities.

Watching people, the most common fault I have seen is in moving each time to where the last bird landed, rather than in deciding where to catch the bird and waiting for one to arrive. I suppose its a little like a motorway queue, were other lanes always seem to move faster to the one you are in, that is until you change lanes. You can however with the puffins work out a logical solution in that landing places that have many burrows around them, are likely to be busier.

The other common problem is one of depth of field, especially where people are photographing groups of puffins, and using a longer lens. The problem is made worse by being quite close. For example if I look in my depth of field tables and looked at a 400mm lens at 20feet, then I find the depth of field on a DX sensor (Nikon except D3)  at f16 is only about 2 inches in front and behind the point I am focusing at. Compare this to using a 150mm at 20ft where at f16, I would have about 1ft 8 inches (around half a metre)  in front and behind in sharp focus. You can see its far easier to get a group within a yard or metre than it is within 4 inches. In practice I can have some just slightly out of focus and then use CaptureNX or Photoshop to selectively focus just a single bird or section of the image, just before sharpening the total shot.

If you decode to use a far longer lens, or a teleconvertor to get the same effect, you may find its a greater challenge than with waders and the like that move slowly. In most cases you won't need it when photographing Puffins as you can get close to them,  but of course there are many more birds around, as well as other opportunities that you may benefit from having a longer lens available. With a  longer lens of course you can select other opportunities and locations that the path is not as close too.

Other points to consider are
  • Make sure you have enough cards with you, you will take far more than you expect.

  • Take a drink, bottle of water etc, as there is unlikely to be much about.

  • Have something that you can lay on, if you want to get low angles.

  • Have a hat.

  • Take some wet wipes (baby section of chemists and supermarkets) to cleanup any nasties.

  • Arrive well in time if you are going by boat, there can be queues at popular times of the year, and at other times, if you miss the boat there may not be another. Allow plenty of time to get back to the boat, and if the weather turns bad, get back to the boat pick up point earlier.

  • Consider carefully what you take, take too much and its more to struggle with and not enough and you loose opportunities.

  • Spend more time rather then less, it takes time to move around areas with restricted walk ways, burrows and other people in the way, and if you are not very fit, take your time with rests if you have to climb a lot.

  • In each case there is a lot more to photograph so be aware of what is likely and where. For example on Skomer there are seals.


List of places in the UK where you can see Puffins

Puffins species  factsheet

Wildlife index - Birds - Auks including Puffins

External reference links on Puffins

Location Guides

Farne Islands, Northumberland

Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire

Skokholm, Pembrokeshire

Location guides continued..

Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire

South Stack, Anglesey

Sumburgh Head, Shetland

Isle of Noss, Shetland

Fetlar, Shetland

Hermaness, Shetland

Uyea, Shetland

Foula, Shetland

Fair Isle, Shetland

St Kilda, Inverness-shire

Fidra, East Lothian


By: Keith Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: puffins_photographing Topic: Wildlife Last Updated: 05/2016

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