Latest Photograph – Puffin and Bamburgh Castle, plus some Kleptoparasitism!

I’m always looking to photograph wildlife in a wider context, maybe to include interesting habitat, behaviour or scenery. During one of my recent trips to Inner Farne I noticed this lone Puffin sitting on the white stone wall surrounding the lighthouse. As a frame filling portrait it had an interesting and classic ‘ingredient’, a bill full of sand eels. Instead, I thought a wider shot to include the iconic Bamburgh Castle in the background was much more interesting as it is quite unusual to see a puffin sit in this location for as long as it did. Puffins with sand eels are incredibly vulnerable to Kleptoparasitism, where one species habitually steals its food from another. In the puffin’s case it is mainly gulls, especially black-headed gulls.

Puffin & Bamburgh CastlePuffin & Bamburgh Castle. Nikon D500, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8
1/320, f/18, ISO800, 200mm.

After I posted this photograph on social media it became the subject of quite a detailed discussion during a photography workshop with regards to my choices of equipment, settings and techniques. So much so I thought it would make a good blog post!

I used my Nikon D500 as it was the only camera body I had with me together with my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 lens. My other choices which I quickly considered, but ruled out, were my 28-70 f/2.8, or 200-400 f/4.

A wider angle lens (such as my 28-70 f/2.8) would have given me more depth of field for the background. But, Bamburgh castle is approximately 2 miles away from the Inner Farne lighthouse. A wide angle would have distorted the perspective and made the castle look so small the shape would be barely visible nevermind recognisable. The puffin would also have looked too small unless I positioned myself much closer but this would have undoubtedly scared the already vulnerable puffin away.

Using my 200-400 f/4 lens past 200mm would have gradually created the effect of making the castle look much closer and larger. But with an increasing focal length a narrower aperture would be needed to create more depth of field to keep the castle recognisable. This in turn would need a longer shutter speed and probably needed a tripod or a much higher ISO. As I was aware of how vulnerable and nervous the puffin was, time was crucial and setting up a tripod was risking missing the shot. Using a more narrow aperture than that which I had used would have increased the problem of diffraction, i.e. as the aperture gets smaller, light has to spread to cover the camera’s sensor leading to softness.

I opted to use the longest end of my 70-200 f/2.8 as this gave me a balance. The perspective of the castle worked, I was able to keep a good distance from the puffin and it was light enough to hand hold at the required shutter speed with a reasonable ISO. I positioned myself a little lower than my standing height to block out the distraction of another wall behind the lighthouse, just enough to take it out of view but keep some of Bamburgh beach still visible. Including a lot of sky was an easy choice, either that or a lot of the white washed stone wall.

Ideally I would have preferred to have been a little further to my left which would have created a bit of space between the Puffin and the castle but the area was occupied by around a dozen other photographers with huge telephoto lenses mounted on tripods. I took two shots before the puffin flew off, hopefully to succesfully feed its young with a fantastic bill full of sand eels!

I mentioned the term ‘Kleptoparasitism’ above. This is a constant occurence on the Farne Islands as the puffins look to enter their burrows to feed their young. It’s also a source of great interest to the many photographers who visit the islands too!

Kleptoparasitism (i), Black Headed Gulls look to steal the Puffin's catch!Kleptoparasitism (i), Black Headed Gulls look to steal the Puffin’s catch!
Kleptoparasitism (ii), Black Headed Gulls look to steal the Puffin's catch!Kleptoparasitism (ii), Black Headed Gulls look to steal the Puffin’s catch!

As always, thank you to Andrew, Toby, Andy and Tony on Serenity Farne Islands Tours for everything they do to facilitate my photography. Their amazing double-hulled boats, willingness to help photographers and all-round good banter makes them the best choice for visiting the Farne Islands!

42 thoughts on “Latest Photograph – Puffin and Bamburgh Castle, plus some Kleptoparasitism!

  1. Thank you, I find your though processing revealing. I wonder if there will become the day when I can think like this and with the same speed.

  2. It takes a brave photographer to try and do something different, I’ll bet the other photographers you refer to all came away with exactly the same photograph. Thank you for trying something different and thank you for describing your thinking. Lovely shot too!

    • Thanks Anna, I have a hundred close up shots of puffins with sand eels so it was a great opportunity to do something different.

  3. Game, set and match! The subject is amazing, the subject with the sand eels is amazing but the subject with the sand eels and the background is just superlative.

    • No Saul, I didn’t have any with me. If I’d had some grads I may have considered it but had I done so I would have probably missed the shot. I applied a 1/2 stop grad in Lightroom.

  4. I think I saw you there this week – were you with David Lindo from Springwatch? We were on the same boat as you.

  5. I saw you photographing the terns last week. I was going to say hello but you looked deep in thought! I saw a couple of the tern photographs on Twitter later. They were incredible. I don’t know how you do it.

    • I do like wildlife portraits but sometimes I like to show a species in the environment or habitat. There’s room for all sorts of different approaches.

  6. We went to the Inner Farne Isle and got pecked to death by terns, couldn’t even begin to think about taking photograps it was terrifying.

    • Close the aperture too far down and we get a very slow shutter speed which would mean cranking the ISO up. Very small apertures also increase softeness caused by diffraction – when the light has to bend from a small aperture to cover the sensor.

  7. It’s so interesting to read how you think and give so much thought into taking a photograph. I’d love to be able to think like this and how your logic works for a photograph.

  8. I don’t understand how you focus on three birds – I have the Nikon D5500 and it has one focus point, 9 points, 21 and 39. How do you use 3?

    • Hi Rhys, Dynamic focus just allows a number of points to be used together to share focus information for panning with moving subjects. It’s not about any maych to the number of subjects.

  9. Interesting to see your photograph at the top of the page and you great explanation of your thought process. Love the use of the castle in the background. By contrast when you say “Ideally I would have preferred to be a little further to my left which would have created a bit of space between the Puffin and the castle but the area was occupied by around a dozen other photographers with huge telephoto lenses mounted on tripods.”, the ground drops away enough to hide the castle so you were in the right place for the shot you visualised, unless 9 foot tall! I have the photo taken at the same time from your left but like David I was a Farnes virgin on this trip so I’m still getting my quota of close up Puffin with Sand eel shots 😉 An interesting place, and nice to see the Dolphins on the way back.

    • Thanks Jonathan, this was actually taken on a different day to when David and I were there. I reckon just a foot or so to my left would have done the trick.

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