Seabird ‘cities’ are the perfect way to improve both your wildlife photography skills and add some diversity to your seaside photography portfolio. In this post we explain how to photograph seabirds to create pictures with real impact.
Words and pictures by Mark Hamblin.
One of the greatest challenges of wildlife photography is getting close to your subject. Some dedicated enthusiasts are prepared to spend hours sitting in damp hides waiting for a bird to turn up, but for most people this isn’t a very appealing prospect.
Also, very few people own a whopping super telephoto lens.
So if you want to get out there and bag yourself some top-notch wildlife shots, what are your options? Well, the answer lies in shooting approachable species and there are few better than seabirds.
Not only are they accessible, they are very appealing and a day out at a seabird colony means that you can fill your memory cards with action-packed images of these charismatic birds.
The nearest seabird colony may be some way from home, so plan a weekend visit when you can fully dedicate your time to photography over an extended period. A two-day window also gives you the chance to make a return visit or to allow for bad weather.
When visiting a photo location for the first time, have a good walk around to build up a picture of what spots offer the best opportunities.
The good thing with seabirds is that you can very quickly learn their habits and routines and this will help you plan ways to capture them.
Equipment-wise, you don’t really need any specialist kit and you’ll have a very rewarding shoot with just a couple of lenses such as 28-135mm and 100-300mm zooms.
A longer telephoto lens is a nice addition for tight portraits and creates soft, out of focus backgrounds. For flight photography, a ‘fast’ telephoto lens – one with a maximum aperture of around f/4 – is an advantage and will aid fast autofocus, but an f/5.6 lens is very capable. If you need a faster shutter speed simply increase the ISO setting.
At many seabird colonies, birds can be nesting in various positions from ledges on high vertical cliffs to underground in burrows.
Wherever possible try to get a level viewpoint with the bird, which will give a much more pleasing result. Eye level shooting not only improves the point of view but it’s also much easier to shoot against a plain background such as the sea or sky to isolate the subject from its surroundings.
If necessary, lie down and use a beanbag to support the camera or use a tripod without a centre column.
Many seabirds have black and white plumage, which can make accurate exposure tricky. Rather than relying on one of your camera’s automatic exposure modes, switch to manual metering.
Take a meter reading from a mid-toned subject such as a rock by setting the aperture and then adjusting the shutter speed until the indicator bar lines up with ‘0’ on the exposure scale.
With these exposure settings ‘fixed’ in Manual mode you can then shoot in confidence knowing that any subject photographed under these same lighting conditions will be correctly exposed.
In bright light, expose for the white plumage to avoid blown highlights, and consider adding a burst of fill-in flash to add detail in the plumage.
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