Today’s blog is by puffineer and photographer, Oli Prince, giving guidance on getting the best puffin photographs.

It might be a bit late in the year now to be getting puffin photos as the breeding season is almost over but it’s a great time to start planning for your summer 2021 visit. We have some top tips for you on how you can make the most of your puffin photography experience.

Patience is essential to capture animals exhibiting natural behaviour. When you first arrive at a colony, take some serious time before even reaching for your camera to observe where the birds are flying and landing and where you can locate yourself to avoid disturbing them. Understanding their habitat and movement is key to capturing them displaying natural behaviour.

How do I photograph puffins safely?

Safety is the number one priority when taking pictures of puffins - for the birds and for you! When you arrive at a site, if there are any site wardens or local bird experts available ask them to show you safe spots to locate yourself to see the puffins. You should never put yourself in danger to get photos, so keep away from sheer drops, and don’t sit too close to the sea where you could be in danger of being swept away. A photo is never worth risking your safety.

Find a spot and sit quietly, giving the puffins time to return to their natural behaviour (c) Oli and Steph Photography 

You also need to make sure that the photography is safe for the puffins. Animals naturally don’t want anything to do with us, we’re often seen as predators and they don’t know how we are going to treat them, so if we get too close we can scare them.

Puffins can drop their fish if spooked which means the young pufflings will lose their meal, as puffins will never pick up food off the ground. You could even deter the adult going back to their burrows altogether or make them fly around the colony for a long time exposing them to predators such as gulls or skuas. Either way they are wasting their energy which is a precious commodity for seabirds, and you could even be putting their lives at risk.

The key things you can do to avoid scaring puffins, or damaging their colony, are:

Stay at least 5 metres away from puffins at all times (it’s okay if they approach you, but don’t move or try to touch them)

  • Don’t walk over or around puffin burrows as they can collapse and could kill or injure birds inside
  • Keep as still and quiet as possible. Seabirds like all animals can pick up on your energy and vibes!
  • Don’t sit next to the entrances to burrows, as this will put puffins off returning
  • Don’t cross any ropes or barriers (they’re there for a reason!), and stick to footpaths
  • Leave no trace - don’t leave any litter at the colony

 Some of the key behaviours that show puffins are being disturbed include:

  • Are the puffins staring directly at you?
  • Are they wheeling (flying in circles) around and repeatedly failing to land as they approach their burrows?
  • Is a puffin standing around in the colony with fish in its bill because it can’t get to its burrow?

If they exhibit any of these behaviours, then the chances are you are too close to them.

Slowly back away until the puffins return to their original behaviour. We are aiming to photograph puffins displaying natural foraging behaviour and sticking to these guidelines will help you achieve this.

Puffin rock (c) Oli and Steph Photography

What photography gear and camera settings should I use?

For flying birds, you are going to need a good camera with some telephoto range. Ideally at least 300mm. For puffins on land you can get away with using a mobile phone that has a good camera, but ideally you would use a good quality camera.

You need a fast shutter speed to achieve a sharp image if the birds are flying. If you are using the cameras preset shooting modes, select the sport mode. If you are confident at using your cameras manual settings then shoot in shutter priority, and select a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second, but preferably 1/2000th or faster. You can increase your ISO level to help achieve a faster shutter speed: somewhere between 400 – 800 ISO should be about right.

Image sharpness is the key to helping our team successfully identifying the fish in the image, so select an autofocus mode that is ideal for tracking moving subjects, as this will make it far more likely the bird is in focus.

Finally shoot in burst mode, to increase your chances of getting at least one sharp image of the bird.  

When photographing birds on the land things are much simpler. The birds are not moving as quickly so the shutter speed is not as critical, but you should still aim to have as fast a speed as possible, as puffins can move quickly into their burrows.

The Puffarazzi project

In 2017, the RSPB launched Project Puffin to investigate the reason puffin population are declining, through tracking puffins, counting colonies, and, most importantly through our Puffarazzi citizen science project. We asked you to submit images of puffins carrying fish as they return to their burrows to feed their young.

Puffin heading back to the burrow with food in its beak (c) Oli and Steph Photography

Our dedicated team of volunteers have been analysing the fish species, number and size to understand the changes in their prey species distributions over time.  To date we have received and identified over 4,500 photos.

We need more photos but the constraints of Covid19 and lockdown have made it very difficult for most of us to access puffin colonies this year. So, this is a prime opportunity to go through your archives of images and contribute to citizen science by submitting old images of puffins with fish in their bills.

Older images are also very important so that we can build up a data set for comparison with the current images - you just need to remember where and when you took the photos! This will help us identify changes in trends of the prey species and size over time.

To read more about our project and how to get involved, visit our webpage.

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