How to Plan a Wildlife Photography Trip to the Shetland Islands

The Shetland Islands are a collection of islands located just under 300 miles north of the Scottish mainland. They are closer to Bergen in Norway than London with a culture and landscape providing a beautiful fusion of their past history with the current.

The sub-arctic archipelago is composed of over 100 islands and has the most diverse and unique wildlife in the whole of the United Kingdom making it the perfect location for wildlife photography. Over a million sea birds make the cliffs their home in the summer months, drawn by the abundant fishing and relatively human free landscape. The islands are also home to the highest density of otters in Europe who can be seen all along the coastline.

As well as amazing wildlife, the Shetland landscape is rugged and wild with a harsh beauty. Winter storms batter the coastline while the summer months bring calm days with sun soaked meadows and golden sandy beaches.

What you can expect to see

Shetland is a dream for birdlife and sea mammals with many transient visitors as well as permanent residents. When driving around the islands there will be wildlife on gate posts and pottering along the side of the road. It is just a matter of keeping your eyes open and your camera ready. Dolphins, pilot whales and orca are seen on a regular basis off the coast throughout the year. More unusual visitors may arrive along the coast and recent visitors include rosy starlings, snow geese, bearded seals and a very lost walrus.

As well as mammals and birds, Shetland has a large number of wild flowers. In the summer the meadows and cliff tops are awash with colour including bright pink sea thrift, white bog cotton and yellow iris.

Fulmar

The fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is one of the most commonly seen birds on the Shetland Islands and while it may look like a ‘seagull’ it has some special features. The fulmar is a member of the petrel family and excretes an oily, noxious substance when it feels threatened. The beak has a tubular structure on the top mandible that excretes salt. These seabirds spend much of their life on the open ocean and only return to land to nest. These are mainly seen during the spring and summer riding the updrafts on the cliffs.

Puffins

Puffins (Fratercula artica) are summer visitors to the Shetland Islands and nest in the sandy cliff tops. Their burrows are re-used year after year and their return each summer is almost guaranteed within a few days. The puffins can be seen returning to their burrows with sand eels and their antics can provide hours of entertainment and photography opportunities.

READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH PUFFINS

Seals

Seals are common all around the coast of Shetland. They haul out on the rocks and slipways and can often be seen bobbing just off the coast watching what is going on. Both grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and common seals (Phoca vitulin) can be seen living together although the common seals are more common.

Common seals have a more rounded face and shorter nose with a mottled appearance. The grey seals have a longer face and a ‘harder’ appearance.

Otters

Otters (Lutra lutra) are found all along the coast of Shetland. They can be hard to find but with good fieldcraft and patience it is possible to find them. Some are more confiding and can be seen running along the harbour walls and jetties. Nothing beats queuing for a ferry and realising there is an otter on the beach. The otters are easily spooked and so keeping hidden is the only way to watch and photograph these amazing mammals. A local guide can make finding the otters much easier, especially if you have limited time on the islands.

Black Guillemot

This amazing sea bird has distinct black and white appearance which is offset with their bright red mouth. These small seabirds are found on the rockier sea cliffs and live in small colonies. Their favoured habitat makes then hard to approach. The black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) are distinct in behaviour and appearance from the common guillemot.

Great Skua – ‘ Bonxie’

The Great Skua (Stercorrius skua) or Bonxie as it is known locally is a large predatory bird. It is aggressive and lives up to its name as the “Pirate of the Seas”, mugging other birds for food. They will also kill smaller birds like puffins and shearwaters and steal eggs from nests on the cliffs. They are not afraid to dive bomb humans and their loud calling can be intimidating as you walk along the cliffs.

Gannet

The gannet (Morus bassanus) is a large and elegant seabird. The have a complex courtship which can be seen on the precarious cliffs ledges that they use for their nests. Their nests are built from seaweed in the same spot year after year and many over the last few years are now incorporating more and more plastic debris and discarded fishing nets and ropes. The colonies that they build their nests are a living and breathing mass of feathers.

These stunning birds have a dark yellow colouration to the head with pure white plumage and black tips to the wings. Their large webbed feet have superb green stripes and a blue outer ring surrounds each eye. The young gannets have a black and white mottled appearance on their backs.

If you want to photograph the gannets diving then a tour with a photographer is the only way to achieve these amazing photographs.

Shetland Ponies

All over Shetland you will see ponies. These are hardy little souls who are out in all weathers. They are usually smaller than other ponies, especially the miniature Shetland ponies. Whatever their size they are stocky with short legs and the most amazing manes.

6 Wildlife Photography Locations in the Shetland Islands

Allow at least a week to explore these islands. The weather can be changeable and so having a plan ‘B’ option each day means that you can make the most of the weather conditions. As well as the wildlife, Shetland has a long history and time must be made to explore the ancient broch’s and more modern lighthouses.

Unst

Unst is the most northerly of the Shetland Islands and is the best place to find bonxies. At the northern point of the island is Hermaness National Nature Reserve. A path leads across open moorland where the bonxies nest during the summer months. At the end of the trail the sheer cliffs are a dramatic end to the island. The sea cliffs have a large gannet colony and puffins nest in burrows along the cliff edge. Bonxies will be patrolling ready to take anything they can pilfer.

Just offshore is Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, the most northerly lighthouse in the UK. Beyond this is just one more rock, the last piece of the UK. This is a stunning photography location at sunset although care should be taken in windy conditions as it is extremely exposed.

READ MORE: HERMANESS NATURE RESERVE AND MUCKLE FLUGGA

Yell

Yell is a good place to look for otters. The best place to start looking is around the ferry terminals and small harbours. Look for broken shells on the shore line and stones marked with spraint (otter poo). They will often follow fresh water to the sea so looking for their trails makes finding them easier. When driving along the coast look for unexpected ripples in the water surface. You can often see them dive to catch food and then swim to the shore to eat their catch. They can be easily spooked so good fieldcraft is essential. If you aren’t sure what you are looking for then it is best to find a local guide to take you to find them.

Yell also has black guillemot and arctic tern colonies that are tucked away and quiet making for a pleasant encounter and easier photography.

Fetlar

Fetlar feels more remote than the other islands. It has a long history of farming and is more fertile than other islands which can be seen in its less rugged appearance and its local name as the “Garden of Shetland”. Loch Funzie in the north of the island is a small RSPB reserve and is home to red-throated divers (Gavia stellata) and red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus).

In the winter months goldeneyes, tufted ducks, wigeons, teals and whooper swans make the island their home, joining the eider ducks and starlings in their island home.

Noss

Noss is an uninhabited island which is a National Nature Reserve. It has large puffin, guillemot, fulmar and gannet colonies that nest on the ledges of the sandstone cliffs. It is estimated that over 60000 pairs of birds nest on the cliffs each summer.

Boat trips give a different perspective of the gannet colony and these leave from Lerwick. They take you out past the island of Bressay to the cliffs where it is possible to see the gannets diving, a spectacular sight.

Mainland

Mainland is the main island of the Shetland Islands and includes the main town of Lerwick and the airport at Sumburgh. Just a short distance from the airport is Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. This is one of the best places to see puffins. They nest in the cliffs around the lighthouse and a view platform to the south of the lighthouse makes viewing easier. Fulmars can be seen riding the thermals and keep your eyes open for the black and brown rabbits that live on the cliffs.

Two puffins back to back surrounded by pink flowers

READ MORE: VISITING SUMBURGH HEAD

Mainland has some stunning landscape photography locations including Esha Ness with the rugged cliffs and lighthouse. St Ninian’s Isle is fantastic for photography of its 500m sandy tombolo that links the island to the mainland. Keep an eye out for the Shetland ponies who keep watch over the walls of their fields across the islands.

Fair Isle

Fair Isle is the most remote of the Shetland Islands and is 24 miles south of Shetland Mainland. Since 1954 the island has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is home to 60 people. It has the highest number of bird species in one area in the whole of the UK with over 388 identified and is a treasure trove of sighthings for those who are keen bird watchers. It is home to the rare Fair Isle wren (Troglodytes troglodytes fridariensis) that is only found on this isolated island.

Given its exposed position in the north Atlantic it is often the stopping point for unusual migrating birds, so it is difficult to say exactly what you will see on the islands, but puffins, fulmars, storm petrels are some of the common visitors.

Photography Equipment for the Shetland Islands

The wildlife in Shetland is often a distance from a safe area. This is especially the case on the sea cliffs where the ledges are not easily accessible. For this reason a longer lens is the best option. A minimum of 500mm on a full frame camera will allow you to capture the wildlife from safety.

A longer lens is also needed for otter photography. The only way to encounter the otters is from a distance and the longer the lens, the easier and less intrusive your encounter will be.

Some of the photography locations are across rocky coasts or quite long hikes so a smaller lightweight camera may be a better option.

Shetland has amazing landscapes and a wide angle lens is useful to capture the immense bird colonies and the sea cliffs. The whole area has stunning dark skies so a wide angle lens will also be useful for star photography. Adding a tripod and remote shutter release to your bag will mean the option is there. At the same time a polarising filter and an ND filter will give you plenty of landscape options.

READ MORE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH STARS IN SHETLAND

Shetland is far enough north with dark skies to capture the northern lights. The coastal areas make for perfect views to the north and photographing the northern lights is possible even when the rest of the UK is too far south.

READ MORE: HOW TO CAPTURE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Spare batteries and lots of memory is useful to allow you to stay out all day. Given the weather conditions on Shetland a dry bag to store personal items and a sturdy camera bag with waterproof cover is essential. You will also need to consider a waterproof cover for your lens and camera body and lens cloths.

If you are travelling to Shetland by plane, you will need to consider the size of your camera bag as the planes are compact with very limited overhead space or foot room.

when to Visit shetland for Wildlife

Shetland is a year round location for wildlife but the summer months are by far the best for wildlife encounters. Spring and summer see the birds visiting their breeding grounds and from late April the sea cliffs come to life. They are busy areas through until mid-July when they start to leave for their winter travels.

June and July are the best times to visit when the weather is relatively settled and the days are long. Even in the summer the weather can be unpredictable and chilly. In the winter months the nights are long and the weather can be wild.

Otters are seals are resident all year round although the shorter days and rough weather in winter makes it harder work to find and photograph them. During November and December care should be taken as the seals are having their pups and should not be disturbed.

How to get there

Shetland can be reached from mainland Scotland by plane and ferry.

The Northlink ferry runs from Aberdeen daily and arrives into Holmsgarth in Lerwick which is just a short walk from the town centre. The ferry is an overnight journey with a late night stop into Orkney.

It is also possible to fly to Shetland with Loganair. The flights leave from a number of Scottish airports and fly into the small airport at Sumburgh. This is about 45 minutes south of Lerwick so either a hire car, taxi or bus timetable is needed to plan your journey on from the airport.

Getting around Shetland

Shetland has good roads around most of the islands and the roads are empty. It is easy driving and having a car makes exploring possible. there is a bus service but it is limited and will make photography limited and difficult to organise. It is possible to hire a car when you arrive if you do decide to fly or take the ferry as a foot passenger.

The islands are served by a small ro-ro ferry that runs to a regular schedule. The times can be seen here. It is possible to buy multi-use tickets if you will be doing a lot of crossings or just pay once you are on the ferry.

Getting to Fair Isle is a little more complicated. the crossing can be made on the Good Shepherd IV from Grutness near Sumburgh airport or by taking a flight from Tingwall airport. If you are going to Fair Isle then you will need to be flexible with your dates to accommodate any weather.