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.
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!
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!