Photographing Puffins – Tips and Ideas

Photographing puffins is a fun experience.  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 including Iceland.  Each puffin has its own character and spending time in a colony will allow these personalities to emerge.

A puffin with yellow and pink flowers and blue sea

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Where to find puffins in the U.K.

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.  

Only 250 visitors are allowed to land on the island each day and tickets have to 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 and resident wildlife after the day visitors have left.

Other options are the Farne Islands in Northumberland or Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire 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.

When is the best time to photograph puffins

Puffins are seasonal visitors to the UK coastline. They start to arrive in late spring, usually in May.

As the season progresses they will show different behaviours. Early on they are nest building and courting.

By June they are sitting on eggs and feeding pufflings so the adult puffins will be busy arriving with bills stuffed full of sand eels. During the day they will come and go so it is worth spending time within the colony watching and waiting for individuals to return to their burrows.

In July the pufflings emerge from their burrows and by August the colony is silent as all the adults and young have headed off shore for the winter months.

How to Photograph Puffins

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.

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.

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!

Flying rugby balls – photographing puffins in flight

One of the other essential shots is a flying puffin, even better if they have a mouthful of sand eels.  This is my biggest frustration when photographing puffins.  

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 puffin 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 puffin 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!!

Photographing puffins in golden evening light

Staying close to a puffin colony 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.  High key images can be achieved with a dark background and having time to sit and experiment can lead to interesting results.

One Day or more for puffin photography

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.

By having more than one day with puffins you can capture them in different weather and light conditions as well as different times of the day.

During the day their behaviour changes and it is lovely to watch them pass the time.

Kit Bag Essentials

I am a bit of a light photographer when it comes to trips. Some take huge bags and tons of lenses, but I like what I have and use very little.  So here are the basics!

While I list DSLR lenses you can use these tips for any camera whether it is a point and shoot, bridge camera or phone camera.

  • Waterproof bag and clothing – the weather can be unpredictable
  • Range of lenses – my 150-600mm got used a lot but I found the lighter 70-200mm 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.