9 Things to Know to Get Great Seabird Photos

One of the best times of year for a nature photographer is spring. Wild flowers burst into life, the days are finally getting longer, and it’s when seabirds return to our shores to breed. Scroll through social media or magazines over the summer months and you’ll gaze in wonderment at a plethora of vibrant seabird images. Coined seabird season (May-July), it’s an extremely popular time of year to head out to the coast and bag yourself some images of these brief visitors.

There are many species that come under the umbrella of “seabird”. Ranging from the usual gulls to exotic migrants, here’s a few you may come across:

seabird photography tips

From the top down, that’s guillemots, puffins, razorbills, and kittiwakes. But there are plenty more around our coasts, including gannets and fulmars.

1. The Best Places to Find Seabirds in the UK

You’ll not be surprised to hear that heading to the coastline is the first step for seabird photography. You can find seabirds at pretty much anywhere along the cliffs and on the islands of the British Isles, but they do tend to favour certain areas. These well known hotspots are places they return to year on year to breed, as they know they’re relatively safe and their old nesting sites remain, only needing some homely adjustments to maintain them.

Different species do favour certain locations, and there are more around the country, but for a general introduction into this seabird spectacle, any of the below places should get you photographing UK seabirds in no time at all:

  • Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire
  • South Stack, Anglesey
  • Bempton Cliffs,  Yorkshire
  • The Farne Islands, Northumberland
  • Bass Rock, Scotland
  • Shetland, Scotland
  • Fair Isle, Scotland
  • Saltee Islands, Ireland

Seabird photography tips

For this article I’ll focus on everyone’s favourite, Puffins!

2. Choose the Right Lens

The location you choose will dictate how close you can get to your subject, so it’s worth researching where you’re visiting before you go. This let’s you plan what type of lenses you’ll need to take. It’s also important to remember that the further away a subject is, the more likely it will behave naturally; so using a longer lens will help you achieve this.

Zoom lenses are great as they cover a lot of focal lengths in one package, especially if you’re shooting when on the move. Then there are prime lenses (which have a set focal length such as 300mm or 500mm). These lenses are usually bigger and heavier, but benefit from wider apertures allowing for faster shutter speeds in low light.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

3. Use a Large Aperture to Make the Photo ‘Pop’

Use wider apertures in Aperture Priority mode, such as f/4 or f/2.8, and you’ll get superb out-of-focus foreground and background compression. This effect (known as bokeh) can add greatly to your photo, making the subject pop out of the image. It’s important to keep an eye on your background as well – concentrating your focus on the subject is always the main priority, but make sure that you’re aware of anything distracting in the distance. There’s nothing worse than a great shot ruined by a previously unseen, out-of-focus branch bisecting the subject in the background. 

Seabird photography tips

4. The Eyes are Key

One of the main rules of any animal portrait is to focus on the eye. Look at any bird image that grabs your attention and you’ll see that the focus is nailed onto the eye, pin-sharp, and drawing you in. Good bird images will usually have a nice and bright catch light from the sun in the eye of the subject too. This really boosts the appeal of an image, so it’s worth waiting for your subject to tilt or turn its head to catch a glint from the sun before pressing the shutter.

5. Consider Your Composition

Make sure to always be roughly on eye level for portraits if possible. Dropping to an animal’s level not only enhances the image, but also brings the viewer into the subject’s world, creating a much more intimate photo.

It’s also important to give your subject space in the frame: the “Rule of Thirds” is implemented in landscape photography, but it also comes in handy when photographing wildlife. Dividing the frame vertically and horizontally into thirds and placing important details of the scene, such as the subject’s eye, on where these lines intersect can greatly improve an image. By doing this you aid the composition of the scene and create space that the subject could ‘travel into’. 

Seabird photography tips

6. Keep Things Sharp

Shutter speed is the main setting required for both freezing any action and reducing the effects of camera shake or subject movement. Try to use higher shutter speeds to make sure everything is nice and sharp when the light allows it.

As a rule of thumb, the minimum handheld shutter speed you can get away with to create nice and sharp images is the focal length of your lens multiplied by your camera body’s crop factor (eg. a full-frame will be multiplied by 1.0). This value is then used as a shutter speed. For example, if you had a 300mm lens on a Canon EOS 7D body, which has a crop factor of 1.6, it would result in 300 multiplied by 1.6, which equals 480. In this situation, the minimum shutter speed to use would be 1/500th. It’s worth remembering that this isn’t gospel, as some lenses feature image stabilisation which can help in achieving sharper images at lower shutter speeds.

Read more: The Real Reasons Your Photos Aren’t Sharp

7. Experiment with Your Shutter Speeds

To freeze any action, such as birds in flight, you’ll need to set your shutter speed to at least 1/1250th or higher, you can do this by selecting shutter priority mode and dialling in your chosen speed. On most occasions, however, you’ll need a faster shutter speed than this, so if the available light allows then increase the shutter as fast as you can.

Seabird photography tips
Faster shutter speed freezes motion

On the flipside, using a slower shutter speed on birds in flight can be an effective way of exacerbating the speed of your subject. How fast the bird moves will determine what minimum shutter speed you can get away with. This is usually around 1/400th for fast birds in flight, but you can drop a lot lower for creative effects. Smooth panning is essential here to have at least some of the bird in focus. It’s not necessarily a difficult skill to acquire, but practice will improve your results. The trick is to make one part of your body do the swivelling as you track the bird, keeping the panning motion smooth and linear.

Seabird photography tips
Slower shutter speed introduces motion blur

8. Optimise Your Autofocus Settings

For moving subjects, such as birds in flight, your autofocus mode should be set to continuous autofocus, such as Canon’s AI SERVO mode, to enable the camera to constantly change the focus with whatever it’s tracking. The size of your focus point is important too, so choose an autofocus region which just big enough to cover the bird and nothing more, this way the camera won’t try to focus on the background behind it, should the subject fly in front of anything distracting. You will also want to set your motor drive / drive mode to its highest number frame rate so you can capture the full sequence of wing shapes. You’ll be surprised at what a split-second of difference can make when it comes to picking your favourite! 

Read more: Autofocus Points and Modes Explained

9. Try Using a Wide-angle

An ever-growing sub-genre of bird photography (and one of my personal favourites) is placing the bird small in the frame and emphasising the landscape around it as much as the subject itself. Not all surroundings are photogenic, however, there’s a lot to be said for attaching a wide-angle lens, or pulling back on the zoom and shooting your subject in a different and interesting way. Going for a wider field of view will always include more of the bird’s habitat, allowing you to think of it more of a landscape image with a heartbeat.

Seabird photography tips

What about you?

Have you been photographing seabirds this season? Post some of your favourites in the comments below!

Drew Buckley is an award-winning landscape and wildlife photographer based in Pembrokeshire, UK. He's a regular contributor to the very best of wildlife, landscape and photography magazines and has his own books published. Self-taught, Drew has always had a passion for combining the great outdoors with his love of photography. He also runs his own photographic workshops.

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