Puffin Portrait Possibilities

My Facebook and Instagram photos of Puffins seemed to have struck a chord so I thought I would jot a few thoughts down on how I went about shooting them as quick as a sand eel slides down a Puffins throat.
I visit Skomer Island in South Wales, UK primarily to photograph the wonderful Puffin. The island has around 10,000 pairs that whizz above your head or waddle past your feet, it's a magical place.It's also home to Razorbill, Manx Shearwater, Guillemots, Short Eared and Little Owls amongst other birds and depending on the time of year Atlantic seals, Dolphin etc.


Portraits (this will of course also work for all wildlife).

First thing to think about, are you photographing just the Puffin or the Puffin and its surroundings, what story are you trying to tell?

A1. If it's the subject you will need to isolate your Puffin by rendering it sharp but making your foreground and background diffuse and creamy. This makes your Puffin pop out at you which is the classic wildlife portrait. Now how the heck do I do that I hear you cry? Set your aperture as low as possible as to blur the foreground but closed down enough to render your Puffin in detail whilst blurring the background. When photographers talk about wide open apertures they mean the smaller f numbers ie. f/4, f/5.6 and therefore closing down means the other way with higher f numbers. Unfortunately there are a few other variables, it will depend on your lens, depth of field, how close you are to the Puffin and how close you are to your background.

Shooting on Skomer Island the Puffins are so used to humans that they practically trip you up in some places. So on occasions you may be too close with your large lens and this will lead to a very shallow depth of field with little room for error (you may also find that your lens will not focus close enough, if that's the case use a macro extension tube or change lenses). If you shoot at the eyes like you should, you may find the beak (or if you are lucky, a beak full of Sand eels) may be out of focus. So to recap:

Shoot at the eyes around f/5.6 - f/8 but try a few test shots and check your rear screen. You can also try to shoot at the beak and close down the lens a little, start at f/8 and close down more (f/11 etc) if you have to.


*Note: Make sure the eyes are sharp otherwise a portrait just does not work.

A2. Look out for separation of your target, use the depth of field to de-focus the foreground which will make your target pop out and look for an uncluttered background. If it's too busy, you guessed it, move. It's amazing how a few inches either way can change the look of a photo. Look for flowers, rocks etc for your foreground.

A3. Look for behaviour shots, interaction of male and female, expressions (they are quite comical), feeding, mouths full of sand eels etc. Look out for gulls attacking them for their sand eel catch.

B1. If you want to include the habitat/landscape use a wide angle lens or even a standard will do, try to get in as close as you can otherwise the bird will be very small in the frame. Again try not to make your shot cluttered.

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For the majority of these shots get down low but also keep an open mind and explore other options, heights and angles.

*Most Important, use my thoughts as a starting point only, don't take my word for it, experiment and try all manner of things.