How to Photograph Puffins - Tips and Ideas

Photographing puffins is a fun experience.  I have been lucky enough to have spent three days with them during the short period of time that they are on land.  Adapted to life on the open sea, the puffins only come onshore in the UK from May to late July to lay their single egg for the year.  As well as the UK coast the Atlantic puffin is found on the Canadian and northern European coastlines.  Each puffin has it's own character and spending time in a colony will allow these personalities to emerge.

Where to find puffins

In the UK puffins are found in a number of places.  My favourite place is Skomer Island, where a short boat ride in the right conditions can take you to this isolated island.  This island is just off the coast of West Wales and is beautiful even without the presence of puffins.  Currently only 250 visitors are allowed to land on the island each day and tickets can't be bought in advance.  Staying on the island is an option and this gives you magical light.  It also gives you time alone with the puffins after the day visitors have left.

Other options are the Farne Islands in Northumberland, not as pretty as Skomer Island, but with less limits on visitor numbers and easy access.   Islands such as Isle of May, Orkney, Shetland or St Kilda also host puffins, but getting to these islands is an adventure in its own right.

Getting Started

With limited time with the puffins there are a number of shots that need to be in mind when visiting their  islands.  I found that having a list in my mind helped to stop focussing on one thing and going home with a disappointing selection of images.  The weather on the islands can be temperamental but rain can be used to our advantage to give atmosphere to an image.  Longer exposure times can show the rain in the background and raindrops on feathers can add to a portrait.

 Photographing puffins in the rain is not a problem and can add to their character or the atmosphere of the location

Getting a soft background is achieved by altering the aperture and the distance of the puffin from the background.  A soft bokeh is beautiful with puffins and gives an intensity to their colours.

 A puffin portrait can be enhanced with a soft background or bokeh created by using a small aperture and a distance between the puffin and the background

The puffins spend a lot of time out at sea fishing and come in to land with beaks full of sand eels.  They then make a mad dash for their burrows.  It is worth sitting within the colony for a while and figure out where the puffin will land and where it's burrow is located.  They will usually land in one spot and make a dash for their burrow!

 Puffins spend a large part of their lives fishing for sand eels.  spend time to see where they are heading with their catch to get a shot of them with their eels

Flying Rugby Balls

One of the other essential shots is a flying puffin, even better if they have a mouthful of sand eels.  This was my biggest frustration of my stay on Skomer.  The puffins really are like flying rugby balls and finding them mid flight, following them on their approach and capturing them proved to be impossible most of the time.  A fast shutter speed is essential to prevent movement blur and this can be helped by opening the aperture fully (f1.4) if possible.  Having the puffin landing into the wind is perfect as it slows them down and gives time to attempt a shot.  This really is an exercise in reject production, lots and lots of shots for maybe one acceptable attempt.

 Capturing a puffin in flight can be hard.  Capturing them as they come in to land against the wind slows them down a little and makes it easy to get a good image

Behaviour

Living in such close proximity to each other the puffins really do have neighbour issues.  It is great to watch them bickering with each other, being mugged by the seagulls for their catch and tending to their burrows with gifts for their mates.  Looking down into burrows (from a distance) can also give an insight into how they spend their time on land.  We were fortunate to see a puffin with a puffling at the end of it's short life.  Not something we planned to see but it showed how the puffins care for their young.

Quirky Shots

Puffins are fun to be around and once the classic shots have been achieved time can be taken to watch them and photograph what they get up to.   They spend a lot of time grooming which gives different behaviour patterns.  It is also fun to focus on small parts of the puffin - their eyes, bills or feet are good places to start.  Showing the overall environment is also worth considering.  A lot of the time the puffin is seen in profile, but the bigger picture of how they live side by side is missed.  Using a longer shutter speed and panning as the puffin flies can give an impression of speed, although getting this right proved impossible!!

Evening Light

Staying on Skomer Island gives the opportunity to play with settings and explore the magical light that the evening brings.  Without other visitors around it is possible to take time, moving around the colony to get the perfect light.  Back lighting allows the feathers to glow and enhances the puffin in the golden light.  Low key images can be achieved more by luck than anything else but having time to sit and experiment can lead to interesting results.

One Day

Most people only get a day with the puffins and so planning and focus is needed.  To make it a better experience I would highly recommend staying on the island and having more time, better light and quieter times with these fantastic little birds.

Kit Bag Essentials

On my visit to Skomer Island I took very little compared to others and came home with images that I was happy with.  So here are the basics!

  • Waterproof bag and clothing - the weather can be unpredictable
  • Range of lenses - my 150-600mm got used a lot but I found the lighter 70-300mm more manageable.  Look at the aperture size as well.  In low light f1.4 or f2.8 will help a lot.  I also used my 17-55mm lens for night shots and environment shots.
  • Polarising filter - really useful for landscape photography
  • Tripod - essential for night photography if you are staying on the island.  We were lucky and managed to capture the northern lights.
  • Kneeler - lots of time spent sitting and kneeling  within the colony.  A set of knee pads or a waterproof cushion are essential for comfort
  • Batteries - there is limited power on Skomer Island so if you are visiting for any period of time make sure you have plenty of power.  This is the same for any of the puffin locations.
  • Memory - lots and lots of memory.  Better to have too much than have to spend time deleting images to make space on memory cards.
  • Patience - this isn't a quick snap and capture, time is needed to get the shots you want.