Close to perfection – photographing puffins on Skomer

Puffins at the Wick, Skomer Island
Puffins at the Wick, Skomer Island
On Tuesday I took the boat over to Skomer Island to photograph puffins. It wasn’t my first visit but this time the intention was to photograph them within the landscape. It is easy – all too easy, really – to get frame-filling close-ups of these approachable and entirely charming little creatures. The discipline for me would be to stand back and let the landscape speak as well.

It wasn’t a great start, to be honest. I woke early with the unmistakeable signs of a developing feverish cold. Arriving at Lockley Lodge about 7.30 am. I discovered that a significant queue had already formed. By the time I had checked in at West Hook Farm campsite and returned to Lockley Lodge there were already more than 60 people waiting. So, in the unlikely event that each person was queuing for themselves only, I still wouldn’t get the first boat. In fact I had to wait for the third, leaving at 11 a.m. I consoled myself with the knowledge that Martins Haven wasn’t exactly the worst place in the world to be waiting for public transport!

But taking into account the crossing, disembarkation, a long haul up steps with heavy gear, the obligatory welcome talk from the island warden, and then another mile’s trudge, it was nearly noon before I arrived at the Wick. The sun was almost at its highest already, and I hadn’t even started. Fellow photographer Andy Davies was there with one of his puffin photography workshop groups and I told him my heart just wasn’t in it. Occasionally puffins would fly in with beakfuls of sand eels. This was the “money shot”, the classic puffin image that everyone wanted; yes – even me! I swapped lenses several times, from long zoom to standard zoom, to medium telephoto, each time in reaction what had just happened, and in the hope and expectation that it would happen again. Not a healthy state of affairs. I wasn’t “seeing” anything.

It is difficult to describe the way puffins are at their colonies to those that have never experienced it. There is barely a hint of fear in their attitude to human onlookers. When one flies in with a beakful of fish it sometimes makes a rush for its burrow. But puffins are heavily predated on by herring gulls, which patrol the colony on a regular basis or stand back, just waiting for the opportunity to grab a load of fish. (In fact, research is taking place at the moment to discover if a crowd of people standing within the colony actually improves puffin productivity by discouraging the gulls.) At other times single puffins stand outside their burrows. One disappears underground and another pops up somewhere. One flies in and a couple fly off. One walks over to join its neighbours in a companionable manner. It looked as if they were having a good old gossip. Apart from an occasional argument with its flurry of clashing beaks and flailing wings it is all very relaxed.

Slowly and gradually I began to recognise the way the birds were part of the island landscape. I settled on my medium telephoto zoom lens and began watching as these small gaggles of puffins gathered and parted against the stunning background of the Wick, its aquamarine waters and rocky shores.  I repeatedly walked backwards and forwards along the footpath to set bird against background.  I felt that one puffin was just a distant portrait and had already been done a million times, two puffins together looked like a co-incidence, but groups of three, four and five….. now we’re talking! My main problem was depth of field and I sometimes made the mistake of estimating (well….guessing…) the hyperfocal distance and using that, rather than focussing on the birds. At the shorter end of the zoom at least I got back-to front sharpness in some cases. Elsewhere I planned to create panoramic images anyway so a sharp background wasn’t always important.

It was soon time to pack up my kit and begin the walk back to the jetty in time for the 4 p.m boat back to Martins Haven. My fever had continued to develop during the day and eight hours (altogether) out in the hot sun was definitely not what the doctor would have ordered. I must have looked far from cool in any possible sense of the word – laden with gear, wearing badly fitting sunshades and a wally-style sun hat. Nor was my mood any better. I managed to negotiate an extra hour on the island but was too knackered to take advantage of it. Fortunately I did not need to go anywhere that evening.

The next day I was too ill (man-flu, definitely…..) to do any more photography, unfortunately, so I drove home – a seemingly never-ending series of hold-ups, roadworks and traffic lights. I had a quick look at some of the images before going to bed and I was disgusted. They were all out of focus and I never, ever wanted to see another puffin again in my life! But it was the illness talking and on closer examination I seem to have covered most bases. Having said that a beakful of sandeels somewhere would have been perfection!

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