How to Plan a Photography Trip to Skomer Island

puffin photography skomer island

Lying less than a mile off the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastline, Skomer Island is a haven for wildlife.

skomer island puffins

Its bustling cliffs are home to countless breeding seabirds and birdlife, and its sheltered inlets and fertile waters are also home to an incredible variety of wildlife both above and below the water.

It is perhaps best known for its significant puffin population, a guaranteed sighting with a variety of photo opportunities on every trip.

This island is a must-see for any nature photographer looking to capture stunning imagery and take in the sights and sounds of this peaceful escape from the human world, but is a particular draw for the keen bird photographer.

Read more: 7 Advanced Techniques to Improve Your Wildlife Photos

Skomer Island

Skomer is the largest of the Pembrokeshire islands, measuring around 730 acres, and is managed by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. This island was formed around 12,000 years ago when sea levels rose, causing it to be separated from the mainland.

It is now cut off from the rest of Pembrokeshire by the renowned tidal currents of the Jack Sound. But it’s this isolation and absence of ground predators that make it one of the world’s most important habitats for burrowing seabirds, such as the Manx shearwater and Atlantic puffins.

skomer island

Skomer and its neighboring island Skokholm are home to roughly half of the world’s breeding population of Manx Shearwaters, making the island of critical importance to the survival of these birds, with nearly 350,000 breeding pairs calling it home during the Summer.

It also has over 42,500 puffins, which are the main draw to the island for many. Skomer is a bustling metropolis for many seabirds, with guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, and fulmars all further enhancing the importance of this seabird haven.

Visiting Skomer Island

There are two ways you can visit the island as a guest. One is as a day visitor, which allows you five hours to explore the island. This is enough time to walk the island in its entirety and see all the beauty and wonder it has to offer.

puffin skomer island

The other option and, in my opinion, the best way for a wildlife photography visit is an overnight stay. This gives you the benefit of having the island to yourself at dawn and dusk so you can be there for the best light to photograph.

Many people visit this island every year and come away with great photographs, but I recommend this experience as it allows you to capture the beautiful golden hues as the island comes to life at first and last light, and will help your seabird images to stand out from the crowds.

You can book a stay at the Skomer Island Hostel through the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust website, though places usually book up fast, so I recommend planning your trips well in advance.

If you are lucky enough to secure an overnight stay on Skomer, the accommodation is a converted farm in the centre of the island and can sleep up to sixteen people.

Facilities provided are simple yet comfortable with electricity and hot water generated from the sun.

sunset puffin photograph

It’s on a self-catering basis with a shared, equipped kitchen, and a separate dining room. When bringing food onto the island, you must ensure it is in sealed bags as this will prevent any ground predators such as rats from getting onto the island.

You will not be allowed to land on the island if your luggage is not appropriately sealed; open and carrier bags are not permitted.

Your other option for better exposure to a variety of conditions is to volunteer. Each year, the island offers people the opportunity for either a short-term option lasting a week or a long-term volunteer position that spans the length of the breeding season.

It’s a great way to see the island and help with the day-to-day running at the same time.

You have to ‘apply,’ also done through the South & West Wales Wildlife Trust website, and these positions are usually heavily oversubscribed, so you may find yourself waiting a year before you get a spot. It’s worth it when you do, however!

Read more: 8 Tips for Photographers on Boats and at Sea

How to get to Skomer Island

The island is only a 20-minute boat trip from the mainland which runs from Tuesday to Sunday. The new online booking service is much smoother than the old system and allows you to book your tickets in advance.

Skomer is limited to 250-day visitors in order to maintain the habitat and avoid disrupting its wildlife. There are two fees: the landing fee, which you pay on booking, and a fee for the boat, which you will need to pay in cash on the day.

As is always the issue with islands and boats, whether your trip runs are in the hands of the weather.

Strong northerly winds are the biggest issue, which creates a swell making it difficult for the boat to drop off passengers on the Skomer end, so please keep an eye on the winds in the days leading up to your trip.

skomer island puffin photography

As it is a remote island, accessibility and visitor facilities are limited. There are four public compost toilets found at the farmhouse, and there is no option to buy food or drink. With no bins, all rubbish must be taken home with you.

The paths are uneven, rocky, and hilly in some places, so a reasonable level of fitness is required.

With the puffins, shearwaters, and rabbits all burrowing on Skomer, the island has become a network of underground tunnels and burrows. For this reason, please keep to the designated paths with both your feet and any bags to avoid damaging this fragile habitat.

Perhaps the most difficult part for visitors are the 87 steep steps to climb from the boat up to the island.

Best time to visit Skomer Island

The best time to visit Skomer is from mid-May through late July as this coincides with the seabird breeding season.

puffin photography skomer island

Spring on Skomer is a beautiful time, with the island carpeted in bluebells and red campion, so vivid they can be seen from the mainland. Later in the year, this is replaced by thrift and sea campion along its cliff edges.

Arguably Skomer’s most famous inhabitants, the Atlantic Puffin, begin to return in March, gathering in rafts on the water below, but won’t settle back at the colony until mid-May when the breeding season begins.

Early in the season, they can be photographed in the beautiful spring colours; moving into June and through to July is when the classic sandeel portraits are possible.

puffins skomer island

Later in the season, the pufflings begin to appear briefly to stretch their wings before fledging, adults begin to leave the colony from mid-July onwards.

Read more: 7 Top Tips for Puffin Photography This Summer

Skomer highlights

Once on Skomer, here are some highlights to aim for.

1. Manx shearwater return

Staying overnight on the island allows you to witness one of the UK’s most spectacular natural events. Each evening, under the cover of darkness, Manx shearwaters return from the sea to their burrows in a cacophony of sound.

Hearing the sound for the first time, you realize why sailors must have thought Skomer was haunted, as the birds’ cackling calls filtered out over the ocean.

Please make sure you have a red filter or light for your torch, as red light is proven to not cause any unnecessary disturbance to the birds, whereas a bright white light would.

Read more: How to Photograph Manx Shearwaters

2. The Wick

There are a few locations to photograph puffins on Skomer, but the most popular location is The Wick, which is always a highlight of any trip. It’s a great place to just sit and watch as puffins go about their daily lives.

skomer island photography

The beauty of this colony is that you won’t need binoculars; they bustle around your feet. It’s the perfect place to capture those beautiful portraits of a puffin with a beak full of sandeels.

The other popular location is High-Cliff, which is only a short 5-minute walk from The Wick and for me is arguably a more beautiful setting than The Wick.

Read more: Bird Photography Tips – Shooting Bird Portraits

3. Variety of birdlife

While puffins are a highlight for many, there is so much wildlife that calls this island home.

skomer island birdlife

Guillemots line the cliffs and ledges around the island. The best place to see them in large numbers is Bullhole, but binoculars are recommended as they are too distant for photography.

As you land on the island, the best place to photograph razorbills is immediately to your right on the steps, where you can get eye level with a small colony of these fantastic birds.

birdlife skomer island

In addition, kittiwakes and many species of gulls can be found on the island, including its biggest predator, the greater black-backed gull.

Countless migratory birds also use Skomer as a stopover; a few examples are wheatears, sedge warblers, and nesting swallows, to name a few.

Read more: 7 Ways to Capture Character in Bird Photography

4. Grassholm gannet colony

On a clear day, Grassholm, one of the biggest gannet colonies in the British Isles, can be spotted from the Garland Stone.

Gannets are regularly seen fishing in the waters around the island, along with the majestic fulmars gliding in the updrafts.

Read more: 4 Essential Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

5. Birds of prey

Skomer is home to several birds of prey, including nesting peregrine falcons, buzzards, and one of my personal favourites, the short-eared owl. If you’re lucky, on a calm evening, you can spot the owls hunting over the meadows from the farmhouse.

There are also breeding choughs and ravens on the island.

Read more: Birds of Prey – How to Find and Photograph Raptors

6. Other wildlife

The surrounding waters of Skomer are teeming with marine life, including porpoises, dolphins, and passing whales.

There is a large population of Atlantic grey seals, which can often be spotted, laid out on North Haven beach, or curiously popping out of the water as you wait for your boat.

Recommended clothing and photography equipment

The weather on the coast, particularly islands, can be very unpredictable. With little shelter on the island for day visitors, pack a rain jacket and sunscreen just to be prepared for all outcomes.

Also, make sure to wear suitable footwear, as the paths are undulating and rocky in some places.

puffin skomer island

With so much to see on Skomer, the photographic opportunities are endless; everything from a long telephoto lens to a versatile zoom and a wide angle all have their uses.

sunset puffin photo skomer island

But remember not to pack too heavily, as everything you bring you will have to haul up the steps and carry around all day.

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

Essential photography kit

Photography tips for Skomer Island

Now that you know where to go and what to bring, here are some tips to help make your images stand out from the crowd.

1. Consider composition – tell a story

Before you press the shutter, think about what story you want to tell. A mistake I often find photographers make when working at seabird colonies is forgetting to step back and look at the bigger picture.

how to photograph puffins skomer island

It’s easy to see a beautiful subject, such as a puffin, and rush to shoot the bird as big and bold in the frame as possible. It can be a little more difficult to compose when shooting wide, as the subject no longer becomes the main focus of the frame.

However, these images are often very engaging and tell a story about the wider location.

Read more: The Essential Guide to Composition in Bird Photography

2. Get low

To truly connect with a subject, you need to shoot from their level. Atlantic puffins see the world from roughly 10 inches (18 cm) off the ground, whereas a human’s eye level is much taller at about 5-6 feet.

Towering over a puffin shooting down will very rarely make for a pleasing composition, so ensure you’re wearing clothes that allow you to get right down to their level. You will find that some of the puffins are quite friendly and may even approach you if you remain still!

Read more: 6 Tips for Better Fieldcraft in Wildlife Photography

3. Embrace the weather

Typically, in the British summertime, if we decide to wait for the golden light, we could be waiting a long time. Clouds, rain, and fog are the norm here—but don’t get downbeat when the weather isn’t in your favor; embrace it.

skomer island photography

Often, the best images can be achieved in the worst weather. Shooting in wet weather can come with its own challenges, such as keeping yourself and your kit dry.

Keeping yourself dry and warm in these conditions is vitally important. The longer you can stay out in these conditions, the more chance you have of producing unique imagery.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Extreme Weather

In conclusion

Skomer is an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and only being a short twenty-minute boat trip from the Pembrokeshire mainland, it’s accessible to all.

This island oasis, home to charismatic seabirds, seals, and marine life, is a must for any wildlife photographer looking for an adventure.

I’m sure, just like me, once you spend a few hours in the company of the enigmatic wildlife that call this island home, it will be impossible not to keep returning year after year.

Visit Kevin's website

Kevin is a multi-award-winning wildlife photographer, tour leader, and photographic guide. His work with Atlantic puffins recently won the prestigious portfolio prize in Bird Photographer Of The Year, and the publication of his first book, Puffins: Life On The Atlantic Edge, due out this October. Kevin has a passion for photographing UK wildlife, but his journey has seen him travel further afield across Europe, Canada, and the polar regions in search of wildlife. He is an experienced guide who has been running 1-1 and group workshops for many years, using this experience to pass on his knowledge of the natural world and how best to capture it.

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