All You Need to Know to Visit the Farne Islands and Photograph Puffins.
If you have ever wanted to photograph puffins you can not go far wrong by visiting the Farne Islands. The Farne Islands are off the Northumberland Coast here in the UK and every Spring they are visited by thousands of nesting puffins and other amazing seabirds. If you have never seen puffins before they are extremely popular birds due to their colourful beaks and extremely tolerant attitude towards visiting humans.
This guide will run you through everything you need to know before making the trip that every photographer needs to make at least once in their life. This trip was made with friend and talented wildlife photographer, Lyle McCalmont.
Having done my research I knew that once on the islands I would be seeing a plethora of seabirds and wildlife. Not being a twitcher myself I only wanted shots of the most beautiful and interesting animals the islands had to offer. The star of the show by some distance is the Puffin and the main reason we had made the trip.
I had decided in advance that rather than firing frame after frame the second I landed, I would take a more thoughtful approach. In my opinion you can only have so many shots of a Puffin in your portfolio before it becomes too many. With this in mind I decided I only needed four or five beautiful shots to make the trip worth it. My list looked like this:
- Full body portrait
- Full body portrait with fish in mouth
- In flight with fish
- With chicks
The day began on our arrival at Seahouses. The boat was due to leave at 1000hrs and we were requested to arrive 15 minutes prior. Parking in Seahouses can get tricky later in the day but we had no problem finding a space in the main car park at around 0930hrs. We checked in at one of the small boat shacks down by the harbour. All are staffed by friendly locals who are more than happy to help out and give you information. Booking your boat trip in advance would be advisable but it was possible to arrive on the day and get a seat. Bear in mind that even if you have booked, if the weather is bad, the boats may not sail.
We were booked in with Serenity Tours . The planned trip would take us to Staple Island, land for 2 hours, take a tour around the islands and cliffs and then move on to Inner Farne. A further 2 hours there would then see us back on the mainland around 1700hrs.
We had a short wait for our boat to be made ready. It is at this point that you realise just how popular this area is with photographers and twitchers alike. I suspected that most were twitchers but, regardless, it would be easy to be intimidated by the sheer volume of 1Dx and D4s' coupled to 500mm f4 lenses. We took solace in the fact that most would be turning the turbo drive up to 11 and applying the spray and pray technique.
All aboard Serenity we were well looked after by our skippers, Andy and Toby. Both were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about the birds and the islands; we could not have asked for more. Sticking to my plan I sat and enjoyed the boat ride as many were firing at anything that moved, surely only capturing a speck on the frame even with the big lenses. I chose to fire off a couple of shots at a passing sailboat to test out my exposure settings. A short time later we approached Staple Island and caught our first view of the white cliffs. This is not the white colour of chalk as seen in Dover but the white of years of accumulated bird dung. There is also an accompanying smell that is unpleasantly fishy.
Once landed we had a short set of steps to climb to get onto the top of the cliff. It is almost unbelievable how close you can get to the birds with many nesting less than a foot from the path. There was a small area roped off allowing people to file up and view the birds; at the same time providing a barrier to protect the birds near to the cliff edge. This area is quite craggy so a sure foot was required. It did however present the first opportunity for capturing a puffin portrait. At this point I realised my decision to pack light would come good.
I decided that 300mm would be the optimal focal length for the trip. I went with the 300mm f/4 as I wanted to be light and have the ability to shoot handheld meaning I could leave the tripod back at base camp awaiting my next long exposure landscape. This lens also has a very close focusing distance and I knew this would be useful. In hindsight anything in the 200-400 range would be more than adequate. Anything longer will leave you too close for many of the portrait opportunities and have you lugging a heavy lens over often treacherous terrain. Fast focusing speed is paramount as the puffins fly very fast and close to you. The 300 f/4 was left slightly lacking in this department whereas my cohorts 400mm f/5.6 faired much better.
On a more basic level, solid footwear is a must and you will need to take your own food provisions as there is nothing for sale on either island. Sun protection will be needed in the summer months to prevent being burned, even on cloudy days, as there is very little shelter. You will need a hat or stick to wave above your head once on Inner Farne as the Terns will be pecking and dive bombing your head to drive you away from their nests and their young.
The first portrait opportunity saw several puffins posing perfectly. Their audience was a cramped row of massive lenses shooting 10fps on turbo drive. Failing to understand why people were doing this for a simple portrait shot, I had a little look around. I noticed a small area I could climb down onto, remaining inside the cordoned area, that would allow me to shoot on the level with the birds. Sadly this meant crawling across white stained rocks to get into position. I decided it would be worth it and nothing my rain proof jacket could not handle. Once in position I ignored the majority of the puffins and composed my shot around a rock that would be ideal once Mr Puffin arrived on it. I only had to wait for about 5 minutes until one arrived with a mouth full of fish. I took what I needed from him and then clambered back up onto the shelf.
Ahead is a board walk that takes you up on to the main section of the island. It was at this point that a pleasant member of the National Trust staff will ask you for £6 (at the time of writing) to enter the island (free to National Trust members). Once paid up you are free to explore the island and shoot to your hearts content. I bagged a couple more portrait shots, satisfying my list, then explored until it was time to get back on the boat.
The trip then took us around the islands giving those aboard a chance to capture more of the birds on the cliff faces. With any luck you will capture a glimpse of the local Seal population too. The next step saw us landing on Inner Farne. This island is much bigger with several buildings. The Terns seem to like nesting near to the boardwalk so believing you are there to attack their young, they attack you first. They will flap around your head and peck your head to drive you off. They do a fairly effective job. A decent hat or thick hood should provide you with enough protection. If you are tall, expect to be targeted more often. Once at the top of the hill we entered the area belonging to the puffins. They make burrows so are less concerned about a human presence.
There is a grassy area next to the old building that provided an ideal spot to set up for the 'puffin in flight with fish' shot. From here the birds will fly right past you as they make their final approach to land and deliver a meal to their young. I knew this was going to be by far the most challenging shot. We were lined up next to numerous other shooters, many with their cumbersome 400mm f/2.8's and tripods with gimbal heads. Despite this gear many seemed to be struggling. Again I was glad to be shooting handheld giving me more freedom to pan with the flight of the bird. Not everything went my way. Puffins fly extremely fast so keeping focus was very tricky. I wanted the settings to give me the best chance of capturing a great image so I set aperture at f/7.1 so the depth of field was deep enough to give the autofocus the best chance of getting the eye in focus; I the set the shutter speed to 1/2500 of a second and ISO at 1600 to ensure the action was frozen yet remained relatively noise free. I started shooting but despite panning well and several times keeping the bird in my focus point, the 300mm just could not keep up. After a quick swap with my partner I attached the 400mm f/5.6 and things fell into place.
With the shots in the can I explored the island looking for an exposed nest but these Puffins were clearly better than that keeping their young safe in the burrows.
After a short wait we headed back to the mainland and Andy and Toby got us safely back to shore. We headed back to our campsite, very happy with the day and excited to get our laptops out to review the images we had captured.
At The End if the Day
The trip was easy to organise, easy to access and very cheap as there are numerous good campsites in the area. To improve as a photographer you need to invest in your photography. The return on investment here is very high. Aside from the Farne Islands the Northumberland coast is very beautiful offering numerous opportunities for landscape pictures, this includes the amazing Bamburgh Castle. Although I'm not the biggest bird fan, I felt myself getting wrapped up in the twitcher world. I enjoyed the challenge of capturing the shots I had planned and spending time with a great mate whilst indulging our photography passion.
Check out some of Lyle's pictures at Flickr
Visit the Farne Islands and Photograph Puffins with Serenity Tours