A probable improbability of puffins

This blog post is long overdue. I have become a bit complacent recently – both by being busy on shoots, enjoying some down time back at home as well as a general reluctance to edit my set of photos, some of which you will see below. It is a fear of failure perhaps? I guess the best thing is to follow Federer’s lead in this instance and not fear failure but get a thrill out of winning.

Atlantic puffin hidden in foliage

Anyway, this following blog post is about puffins. About a week after coming back from Japan I spent a few days around Pembrokeshire on Skomer island (a different time of year from my trip last year – for that blog post and tips on photography locations around Pembrokeshire see here). Most of the people that overnight on Skomer are seriously into their photography – puffins mainly, as it is one of the best places to see them in the country. And photographing puffins is hard.

Puffins are one of the most charismatic sea birds, if you ask me. So much so that I’ve found myself asking ‘why haven’t Disney or Pixar ever done an animated film about them’. They have more personality than penguins, that’s for sure. And I would put money on the fact that Danny Green probably agrees with me – a brilliant wildlife photographer who, after many years’ work, got a feature in National Geographic magazine all about this beautiful flying auks. And so would Mark Sissons, another brilliant photographer who also has photo libraries (yes, that was meant to be plural) full of wonderful puffin photos some of which he recently published in Wild Planet. And there are countless other professional, semi-professional and amateur photographers likewise. With the whole British nation photographing these birds and more, it’s hard to come up with something different, something unique, something that stands out. So, as approachable as these birds are, yes, photographing puffins is hard.

Atlantic puffin in early morning light

And photography trips take time if you want to get creative. I have found myself fairly bored by a lot of photography these days – the rule seems to be animal in focus, background very much not and voila! You have yourself a ‘good wildlife photograph’. So I like to try and get creative. And as a result, my trips tend to go a little like this:

Day 1 – you fall in love with your subject and take photos like crazy just because you are amazed by your subject.
Day 2 – you start to think more vertically and outside of the box, see what could work creatively and what doesn’t in terms of light, framing, behaviour. You make mistakes and start making plans of shots that might actually work.
Day 3 onwards – now you start getting the good stuff as you understand the light, patterns of behaviour, landscape.

And then you need to give yourself a few days for bad weather. So I have learnt through trial and error that just for the 1 subject give yourself at least 4 days. But I only had 2 nights on Skomer (basically translates to 2 days a well) and so I felt I left just as I was starting to get creative – and the weather was finally starting to get better! Sod’s law, eh?

I set out with a basic guideline of what I wanted: commercial shots. These are ones that you will always be getting anyway on day 1 as mentioned above – ones that are fairly common, portrait and landscape, with a shallow depth of field.

Atlantic puffin head on view Atlantic puffin backlit in flight Atlantic puffin in flight Atlantic puffin in the rain

Then I wanted to get creative – this is much easier to do if you’ve got good light, though this doesn’t mean a puffin in flight backlit (it’s a tricky shot), but to me it still falls under the previous category because it doesn’t necessarily show any personal flair. I don’t know if I succeeded or not; this category is all about trying and failing!

Atlantic puffins wide on Skomer at sunset

Atlantic puffin wide in environment less saturated

Puffin shots aren’t always about saturation

Atlantic puffin doing sentry duty Atlantic puffin at takeoff

Finally I wanted to portray what I like to call ‘contextual realism’. I recently watched Charlie Hamilton James’ ‘I Bought A Rainforest’, a show I’d highly recommend, and in it he expresses feelings along the lines of ‘that to only show pictures of animals without their context is cheating, because it’s not portraying reality’. This is something I feel strongly about, especially with certain popular locations. No, Skomer is not in the middle of nowhere and yes there are distinct signs of scientific monitoring. But puffins still walk all over you, one even offered me some sandeels, and that in itself is pretty damn cool.

Atlantic puffins on Skomer Altantic puffin on Skomer in habitat Atlantic puffin coming in for landing

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