Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Farne Islands - Part I


A trip I’ve planned for a number of years now but not actually got around to going is the Farne Islands, a group of Islands off the Northumberland coast, North East England, famous for its nesting birds especially Puffins as well as its large Seal colonies.

I deliberately chose the end of June as it would be the height of the breading season and most of the birds are there only during the summer period.  For anyone interested in wildlife, in particularly photographing it, this is one of those places which are a must see.  Another reason for going was to see the Puffins which are apparently, in decline so I wanted to see them.

To get to the Islands requires a boat trip which, on the way was a tour around the other Islands.  I did this trip once before when I was around 12 or 13 and all I can remember was being sea sick and so I wasn’t filled with too much confidence when I saw the size of the boat we would be on – there was a constant to and fro of boats to the islands and most of them seemed somewhat larger.  Thankfully I had my sea legs with me this time and quite enjoyed the forty or so minute outward trip.

I did a bit of research as to what the best photography equipment would be to take and decided on two of my DSLRs and a compact.  For the lenses a 400mm, 28-102mm and 17-40mm.  A lot of people online said that you could easily get away with a 300mm but it turned out the 400 was the best decision.

Farne Islands

The Farne Islands as seen from Seahouses

Farne IslandsOn arrival at Staple Island you could already see the swarms of the famous Terns that greet you. The image left isn’t particularly good quality – it was taken with my compact which struggled to focus not helped with the boat rocking backwards and forwards.  Notice how, after a lively sunny day, it now decided to now cloud over!

One thing that did get mentioned over and over again is the need for head protection from these Terns which I thankfully brought but I noticed a distinct absence by other people on the boat and as we approached closer to the landing point I thought they were soon going to regret not bringing something along.

Once landed there was a small fee to pay to the National Trust who help preserve the islands, not just the wildlife but the rest of the history that went along with the islands including the story of Grace Darling and the Culdee.

IMG_9681On walking up the path to the main part of the island, the ‘attack’ soon began as the Terns made it clear their disapproval of our presence by dive bombing us.  The reason quickly becoming evident as many of them had nested right next to the path and with plucky defiance they went for anyone walking past, especially if they decided to stop near their nest.

You would think, at first that it was wrong to have people walking this route, but clearly they choose to nest in these locations every year despite the ‘disturbance’.  Everyone was warned before getting off the boat not to go pass the cordoned off path and show some consideration.

The picture right was taken with a wide angle lens just pointing up from my head and yes, I did get ‘pecked’ on a number of occasions which was fair enough but I did object to my camera being crapped on – obviously didn’t want its picture taken.


The reasons for the Terns aggression

I kept walking along this section, feeling a little uneasy about stopping and causing more stress for the Terns, though, as already mentioned, I’m sure they would have learnt not to nest here if there was a major problem for them.  As I walked along I just took a few grab shots on the move as a result of which most were out of focus or blurred.

The Terns weren’t the only ones you could get right up to.  Further along at the first viewing area near the cliff edge were Guillemots and Cormorants.  The latter were so close you could reach out and touch them, though with those beaks I wouldn’t have recommended it and were too close to photograph with anything other than a short focal length lens.  Unlike the Terns, they were totally unperturbed by the close proximity of humans.


Cormorants taken with at 105mm


Taken at my 400mm lenses minimum focus distance

Further around the small island came the main attraction for me – the Puffins.  There is something very endearing about this little bird and, like the Kingfisher, very photogenic.  When I go out to take photographs, particularly wildlife, I have in my mind an image I hope to come away with.  With the Puffins it was that iconic image with Sand Eels in its beak, preferably in flight.  I soon noticed the Puffins were flying in to their burrows to feed their young while having to pass the awaiting gulls, looking for an easy meal by mugging them.  The Puffins would virtually ‘crash land’ into their burrows to get past these freeloaders and from what I saw, this method worked well.  You couldn’t help but feel for the Puffins.  All that hard work just to have a Gull to take your catch from you.  Still that’s nature and clearly the Puffins do ok. 

The following images are just some which I managed to take.

Farne Islands Puffins
Farne Islands Puffins
Farne Islands Puffins

I’m still going through the images I took, surprisingly not as many as I thought I would – around 4 gigabyte of them.  The temptation was to just keep your finger on the shutter release and keep it there and at 10 frames a second I would have certainly filled up all the cards I brought along.  Many of the other photographers there certainly used this method and although I did shoot at my cameras maximum frames a second, I tried to do so at the right time for bursts.  With birds every direction, right next to your feet, coming in at every angle it was certainly easy to get carried away.

The problem I found was that you only had one hour on the island before the boat left and this was not nearly enough time, at least not for my first visit.  I needed to work out the best location, the typical behaviour and then needed the practice of catching them as they flew in.  I think I did ok for my first time but next time I would do better.  The one grumble, was that as soon as we approached the island the sun went in, after being sunny all day!  Apart from getting rid of that horrible grey background, it would have given the images a more 3D feeling which they lack.

As far as being a sight to see, I would recommend it to anyone interested in this kind of thing.  To be amongst that many birds and so close all around you, is an amazing experience.  And if you are a photographer?  Point your lens in any direction and you’ll get something – you can’t miss!

Once I’ve had the chance to go through the rest of my images, I will be posting a Part II.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A weekend of mixed fortunes


With my Mk IIn now being replaced by the Mk III, I was eager to take it out for a trial.  One of the reasons for getting this was due to its famed high ISO performance and with the day being dull and dizzily it was a perfect time to put it to the test.  For the first part of the morning, I comfortably shot at 3200 and even 6400 with amazingly little noise and no banding – roll on dark, dingy winters (though not just yet).  With some encouragement of some nuts, the Grey Squirrels where very obliging and even a Jay got in on the act.


Jay – 1/400 f4.5 ISO 3200


Having walked around for a while and finding nothing much else about, I decided to have a go at some of the ‘smaller wildlife’ that was flying and crawling round me.  I’m not a macro photographer, but it’s surprising just what there is around our feet and it’s not until you get down and have a really good look that you realise this.  I think on another day, I will go out equipped especially for macro as I really needed a tripod.  At 1-1 distance, the depth of field was millimetres.  I found myself focusing at the minimum distance and then firing the shutter at the right moment as I breathed in and out!  To get any kind of balance between depth of field and shutter speed, I had to up the ISO to 1600 – not ideal for macro.



A much brighter, warmer day (I think this is what they call summer!) so, a trip to the coast.  Lots of fledglings still being fed by their parents mainly Sparrows, Starlings and Buntings, as a result of which they were much more approachable.  For the first time this year, I was able to get the ISO down to 400 or less and still get a fast shutter speed and stop down a bit for extra depth of field.


An opportunity to test my cameras autofocus and my own skills with some gulls in flight, came later.  This is a technique that definitely takes a lot of practice and experience.  Just keeping the bird in frame long enough for the cameras focusing system to lock on is hard enough but then you have to keep it in frame so it can keep it in focus!  I found the focusing limitations were down to my own ability (or lack of) to do this and need a lot more practice - and then there’s the various combinations of in camera settings to choose from.


The reason why this blog is a little later than I had planned is that I had a bit of bad luck – my computers hard drive died on me, as did my backup hard drive, all within a twelve hour period of each other!  I’m sure I am not simply cursed with some kind of hideous bad luck, rather than the mini heat wave we’ve been having recently causing the drives to conk out.  The good new was that all my original photographs taken in RAW during the last six years, were backed up on a backup, backup.  The bad new was that everything else I had was on the other two drives, including my ‘processed’ files for my website and blog – that’s a lot of years of work.  I’m sure the true nature of the disaster won’t be completely felt until later as I start to miss other things that have been lost.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A cold, damp day in June…

…so, it’s a typical summer weekend then!  One step out of my door at 6:00 am this morning and I nearly went back in for my gloves and scarf.  A quick mental check  to remind myself that it was indeed June and I continued on my journey.  A bit of researching and messing around with my camera focusing settings, wanted me to put these into practice and see if they would make any difference to capturing birds in flight – in this case Turns – but first a stop off at the woods to see what was stirring.



Quite a bit of growth had taken place since my last visit when the ferns were just taking hold. They now carpeted the woodland floor, making spotting my first photographic hopeful, Roe Deer, more difficult, as I just stumbled upon the first five encounters, wondering how on earth I manage to miss them.

I decided to just sit down and hopefully let them come to me, so with my back to a tree and netting over my camera, lens and monopod I made myself ‘comfortable’.  The lighting was very poor, despite picking a relatively open area and so had to crank up the ISO to 1600, though even this wasn’t enough as when my first opportunity came along – a male Roe – I had only 1/60th but managed to get him to stop with the sound of my shutter.  Later, I tried the same trick with a female Roe but she either she didn’t hear it or ignored it and continued on her way, as a result of which most of the shots were blurred due to movement..

All the Roe Deer had now traded in their dull dark grey/brown winter coat for a more attractive reddish brown summer one.






I had hoped that by the time I reached my next destination, the light would have improved as the forecast was for a bit of sun!  Not a chance, if anything it was becoming gloomier.  I started off with a few ‘still’ shots including a rather damp looking Mallard, a Little Grebe with its catch and a few others before my first real opportunities, Terns, came along.

As it turned out, this didn’t really give me the opportunity and had hoped for a number of reasons.  The blanket greyness gave little contrast for the AF system to work at its best.  Exposure was a problem for a white birds flying against a pale grey background would need exposure compensation but it also flew across a background of trees which, if leaving the first exposure compensation, caused the Tern to come out overexposed.  The slight underexposure was causing increase digital noise, so I felt what could have been some really good images, turned out disappointing.  On top of this, the Tern decided to do all his hovering and best moves with their back to me.

In the end then, I didn’t really manage to test anything, so will have to try again if and when we get some summer sunshine.