Wildlife Photography Guide to the Shetland Islands

birds in flight tips shetland islands Scotland

The Shetland Islands are a popular destination for wildlife and nature photography enthusiasts.

Shetland is one of the most remote and exotic locations in the UK. Home to rugged coastlines and diverse natural history, wildlife in the Shetlands ranges from orcas to orchids.

other wildlife shetlands

While this article provides advice on preparation, what to expect, and the best times to visit, it’s important to note that exploring Shetland is best done with the assistance of a local guide.

Many of the best locations are off the beaten track and often change from season to season, so having someone knowledgeable is invaluable.

How to get to the Shetland Islands

Getting to Shetland requires some planning. You can choose to fly to Sumburgh Airport from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and more recently, London Heathrow (via Dundee).

If you decide to fly, you might need to consider renting a car or arranging for a driver/guide to pick you up.

puffins uk shetlands scotland

However, my preferred method is to drive up to Aberdeen and take the Northlink ferry, which is a 12-hour boat journey. The ferry is highly reliable compared to flights, allowing you to bring your car and equipment without any restrictions.

This way, you have everything you need at hand, including a variety of outdoor clothing. This is crucial at 60 degrees North where the weather is predictably unpredictable.

Read more: How to Photograph Wildlife in Extreme Weather

What to bring

Besides your camera gear, the most crucial item to include on your Shetland adventure is waterproof footwear. Opt for comfortable walking wellies like the Aigle Parcourus or high-topped hiking boots as they are the best options.

The ground is often wet underfoot, and you may find yourself needing to cross boggy areas or freshwater streams while exploring Shetland’s coast.

wildlife shetlands

A good waterproof jacket is also a must-have. Most camouflage options are pointless in the rocky environment, but having a jacket that doesn’t rustle when you move is advantageous.

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

Shetland seabirds

The best time to visit depends on what you want to see. Life here follows a highly seasonal pattern, and the islands truly come alive as daylight length increases from the middle of May.

bird photography shetland

It is during this time that marine life gets a boost; plankton blooms and the water becomes abundant with calorie-rich fish like sand eels.

This attracts numerous seabirds, some of which travel long distances across the globe to capitalize on this resource. Arctic terns and, less commonly, common terns return to their breeding colonies.

While these breeding sites must always be respected and kept at a distance, there are nearby places where they feed and display, offering great photographic opportunities.

Wherever you find feeding terns, you will also find arctic skuas (AKA scootie allen).

The aerial dogfights that occur as the skuas attempt to steal sand eels from the terns are spectacular but not the easiest thing to capture due to the birds’ rapid changes in direction.

birds in flight photography tips

For such scenarios with birds in flight, it is best to use a 100-400mm lens, which offers a wider field of view and flexibility.

Another species that provides a unique photographic opportunity in Shetland is the black guillemot, also known as tystie. With a summer plumage blacker than negative space, complemented by bright red legs and bill, they truly stand out among the seabirds on these islands.

There are a few closely guarded locations where you can photograph them amidst lichen-peppered boulders at relatively close range.

black guillemot

Once again, a local guide can not only take you to these sites but also ensure an ethical encounter that doesn’t disturb the birds (knowing the location of nests is important to avoid inadvertently getting too close).

Of course, we can’t discuss seabirds without mentioning puffins. Shetland offers several fantastic locations for photographing the “clowns of the sea,” two of which are not to be missed.

Sumburgh Head provides an easily accessible colony of several hundred puffins, along with other seabird species like shags, guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes.

Here, the birds can be observed from a close distance, separated from the public by a low stone wall.

puffin photography shetland islands

There are open spots along the walk leading up to the lighthouse where the birds can be photographed, often nestled amidst flowers such as birdsfoot trefoil and sea pinks.

However, capturing the same experience is not as easy at the larger colony on RSPB Hermaness, located at the topmost tip of the UK’s most northerly island, Unst.

Unst boasts not only several thousand puffins but also around 60,000 gannets. It is also a fantastic place to photograph great skuas and ravens.

Read more: How to Harness Light in Bird Photography

Hermaness National Nature Reserve

Hermaness is a must-visit location for anyone seeking to photograph seabirds in the UK due to its stunning backdrop. The opportunities for capturing both the birds and the landscape in your images are unparalleled here.

An easily accessible boardwalk leads you from the car park at the mouth of Burrafirth right to the edge of the towering cliffs facing west.

Looking to your right, you can see several sea stacks, whitened by guano and adorned with gannets, while the Muckle Flugga lighthouse sits just beyond, marking the most northerly point in the UK.

gannets shetlands

However, don’t let the lighthouse distract you for too long, as a spectacular gannetry is hidden along the track to your left. As you round the grassy rise, you are greeted by a cacophony of guttural calls and the distinctive smell of seabirds.

It feels like a scene from Jurassic Park, and wide-angle lenses become essential in capturing Shetland’s seabirds in their natural environment. I usually bring my 100-400mm, 15-24mm, and a nifty 50mm lens, as longer lenses are rarely necessary at Hermaness.

Take your time, respect the birds’ space, and you will find them close enough with your zoom lens while still having the flexibility to include more of the environment when the opportunity arises. Trust me, it will!

Read more: 9 Things to Know to Get Great Seabird Photos

Gannets by boat

There is another way to see and photograph gannets in Shetland, and that is from a boat. Sailing from the Victoria Pier in Lerwick, Shetland Seabird Tours run photographic trips beneath Shetland’s second-largest gannetry, Noss.

These excursions have produced a number of award-winning gannet images in recent years, from above and below the waves.

diving gannet photography tip

Ideally, it takes more than one trip to get the best images. Your first trip is likely to be overwhelming. Having guided many of these trips myself, knowing what to expect and when to switch lenses is key.

There are lots of opportunities for wide-angle images as well as long-lens work, as gannets dive around you, fly beside you, and go about their seasonal breeding behaviour on the cliff face above you.

birds in flight tips shetland islands Scotland

I particularly like doing the boat trip and visiting Hermaness on consecutive days. This really puts you at the heart of the gannet’s world and creates a great headspace for encouraging creative thinking around new images.

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


Special mention needs to go to the smaller of the three Northern Isles, Fetlar. It hosts some of Shetland’s most impressive breeding birds in summer, and as a result, much of the island is either a designated SSSI, SAC, or part of the reserve.

The utmost care must be taken when visiting the island, only using appropriate designated viewing areas if trying to photograph Schedule 1 and 2 species.

Red-throated divers, usually seen feeding out at sea, can be seen and even photographed inland at a few freshwater breeding sites.

red throated diver shetland island birds

These are Schedule 2 species, and both the birds and their breeding pools are protected by law. Fetlar, however, has some of these sites next to a public road where photography, if you are lucky, can be possible.

If you want close-up images of these magnificent birds, then Shetland Nature operates a number of licensed hides where you can get those up-close, water-level images that are otherwise incredibly difficult to achieve.

Fetlar is also one of the UK hotspots for breeding red-necked phalarope. Approximately two-thirds of the UK breeding population can be found here from the middle of May until early August, the peak time to photograph them being May.

This is when the birds can be found displaying along select shorelines. Again, the utmost care must be taken with this species, whose breeding sites offer the highest degree of protection under British law.

This is one of the reasons that enlisting a local guide is highly recommended.

shetland bird photography

Fetlar is also an excellent place to see and photograph Arctic skuas, whimbrels, golden plovers, and even short-eared owls.

A vehicle makes for an excellent hide for these species, and the layout of the roads often means you don’t even need to hit the deck for eye-level images.

Of course, longer prime lenses are best used when shooting this way, not least for keeping you at a respectable distance from the birds. A 1.4 extender and a beanbag go a long way here too.

Having your camera and lens set up ready to hand as you travel around the islands makes a lot of sense. You never know when you might spot a golden plover or whimbrel chick from the road.

Read more: Understanding Schedule 1 Licenses for Bird Photography


Whilst spring and summer are when Shetland’s wildlife is at its most intense, winter, with its low sun and dramatic seas, has a charm of its own.

A supporting cast of wildlife gives winter in Shetland a special place in the UK wildlife photography calendar.

otters shetland islands Scotland

From mid to late autumn, otter cubs begin to emerge from their holts, and sites where females once lurked in the shadows suddenly spring into action as young families hunt and play where land meets sea.

While it is a question I am all too frequently asked, there is no such thing as a consistently good otter location. Year on year, site productivity waxes and wanes, but key features such as a low, peaty shoreline within the vicinity of freshwater are constant.


You will only get sustained, unobtrusive encounters by visiting these sites on an inshore wind, and even then, great care must be given to avoid becoming inadvertently upwind of a holt.

Again, a local guide should know where these holts are and manage the shoot accordingly.

Shetland’s otters are not the drive-by experience you may be familiar with on the Western Isles. Here, you really need to put the legwork in and have a good working knowledge of a range of locations.

Read more: How to Photograph Otters: Locations, Techniques & Fieldcraft

Other wildlife on Shetland

Another often overlooked mammal that can be found on mainland Shetland is the mountain hare. Like the red grouse, hares were introduced in the early 1900s for sport and can often be seen from the roadside in the central uplands.

Going out to photograph both grouse and hares in the same session is a great idea, with both having good numbers in the central east and northwest mainland.

Shetland has both common and grey seals. While pupping sites are not easily accessible and best avoided to prevent disturbance, adults can be found hauled out at a number of locations.

Rerwick beach on the South Mainland is one such location, where over 30 seals of both species can be seen from above, making it a great spot for top-down images.

Shetland wildlife

Another great place to photograph seals is around the harbour areas between Victoria and Mairs Pier in Lerwick. With an array of interesting features from the fishing industry and unusual backdrops, this also makes for a great place to photograph gulls and corvids.

Keep your eyes peeled for white-winged glaucous or Iceland gulls too. A surprising number of species are still active after the light has faded, so for something truly different, try exploring the seafront at night.

There is also the ever-present chance you may spot a dorsal fin. Shetland has a number of orca pods that frequent its shores. If you are lucky enough to get your lens on them, I would urge you to shoot wide.

shetland wildlife

A frame-filling shot of a killer whale isn’t nearly as compelling as one that includes elements of the dramatic coastline they patrol.

Keep an eye on the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook page and spend some time watching the seas from hotspots such as Sumburgh Head.

Also, make sure you take the time to look out from every one of your ferry crossings to maximize your chances of seeing cetaceans. If not orcas, then minke whales and porpoises are a distinct possibility.

In conclusion

I have only scratched the surface of what Shetland has to offer the wildlife photographer.

There is a huge scope for exploring new, creative photography ideas, especially around the summer seabird influx. Try visiting locations at different times of the day and in different weather conditions to get a new perspective and help shake things up.

Do at least one boat trip, consider using a local guide, and keep your camera at the ready!

Visit James's website

James is a naturalist and photographer who recently made a permanent move to Shetland. He has a background working in zoological institutions and worked for many years as lecturer in animal and wildlife management, He also holds a degree in Animal Behaviour and is now a full time wildlife guide, working between Shetland and the West Coast of Scotland, where since the age of five he has been developing his fieldcraft and love of costal wildlife. James has worked with and photographed wildlife in destinations across Asia, Africa and Europe. His photography has been recognized and awarded across both national and international competitions.

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