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You may think that a secret Puffin surgeon sneaks into your house at night and performs a ‘Puffinectomy’ on your images ..............

You may think that a secret Puffin surgeon sneaks into your house at night and performs a ‘Puffinectomy’ on your images because you swore there was a flying puffin in the shot you took. Unfortunately, it may just be that those pesky ‘Puff’ are the trickiest of birds to capture in flight. Sometimes it feels like there’s more chance of catching air in a string vest however there are a few things we can do to make the seemingly impossible, possible.
Flying puffins are about as hard as they come to capture and even though I am not the best I thoroughly enjoy giving it a go. Maybe it should become an Olympic sport. Skomer Island on the Pembrokeshire coastline is one of my favourite places in the world, just being there is more than enough but if you can capture a flying feathery exocet missile too, ‘big bonus’! Don’t be daunted and have a go but don’t forget portraits too, especially the classic ‘puffin with a beak full of sand eels’ image (it just so happens there’s a blog on here as well).

To get maximum ‘Puff’ out of your experience, a few bits of homework will save you time and heartache and very importantly, don’t leave it until you get to Skomer (other destinations are available). Try these techniques on gulls, pigeons etc, play around and get used to the settings and more importantly test the settings to suit your style and technique. These techniques can of course be used on all birds in flight.


I’m using lens lengths in 35mm terms so, please work out your lenses taking into account your crop factors.
There is a tendency to use your longest lenses such as the 500 or 600mm but they have a very narrow field of view. I must admit I can lose the puffin in the viewfinder as not only are they rapid but when it comes in close, it tends to drop dramatically when you are least expecting it. There is nothing wrong with using these especially if you can aim a little further away and follow your target as it comes closer to you just be wary that it can make catching them a little more difficult. I tend to use something in the 200-400 range as it has a wider field of view and therefore a little more wiggle room for correcting yourself. I will often crop a little in processing to make up for the smaller subject in the frame although sometimes you get lucky and it works straight off the bat. The classic 70-200mm is a little too wide and you will have to crop quite a bit to make the bird big in the frame unless it lands on your face of course however there are many environmental shots where this space can work anyway.

Some things it’s beneficial to know before you set foot on to ‘Puffinworld’

As I mentioned you don’t want to waste any time on Skomer Island (other Islands are available!) learning where the settings are on your camera as you only have 5 hours allotted and your senses will be tested to the max anyway with birds flying left, right and centre, up, down and all around (I think that’s a Duran Duran lyric?!). So, get used to your camera and be prepared.

Know how to:

• Move your AF point or points around the autofocus area available.
• Change the number of focus point areas (clusters/arrays or whatever they are called on your camera, you will have anything from one to over a hundred) and check if the sensitivity of each focus point is as accurate on all the points or just some (on some earlier cameras it was only the centre point).
• Change from single to continuous auto-focus (AL-servo, AF-C, CA-F whatever is your camera brands name for it).
• Alter the frames per second.
• Manual focus.
• Change your aperture.
• Set your ISO
• Use exposure compensation (not necessary if you use manual)

Easiest method

Least difficult but by no means easy is to capture these feathered blurs flying side on to you and with as uncluttered a background as possible, such as blue sky, calm sea, smooth ground etc.
• Continuous auto-focus and continuous shooting.
• Select a big group of focus points or even all your AF points, let the camera do the work.
• Be careful of where the bird is in the frame, try to have it flying into space.
• If you are using aperture priority mode use exposure compensation to suit conditions. If you are shooting into the blue sky/bright sea you will probably require adding at least 1 to 2 stops to expose your bird properly. Remember as in all photography choose the most important aspect to expose for, in this case the puffin.
• Shutter speed: Use as high a shutter speed as you can if you want to catch these birds sharp however I often like to show a bit of movement in my images (although even at 1/2000s and above can have motion blur) so sometimes use a slightly lower shutter speed if you want to chance it. The higher the shutter speed the more chance you have of capturing something sharp so use your ISO to bump up the shutter speed, no matter the time of day or conditions.
• Aperture. Again, there is always a trade-off, a relatively high aperture of f/8 and above will help as you have more leeway if the autofocus doesn’t quite catch the bird in the right place and more of the bird will be in focus but it will slow down your shutter speed. Remember the smaller the aperture (bigger numbers), the less shutter speed you will have, so you need to up the ISO to compensate (every smaller aperture change will halve the shutter speed).
• ISO: Don’t worry about high ISO because if your photograph is unintentionally blurred you are only going to delete it anyway so what have you got to lose? Some of you with full framers have no excuses, ramp it up!
• Aim: Try and aim for the head (eye even) and place the bird relatively centrally if it’s big in the frame. The autofocus will pick the area with the highest contrast and sometimes that’s not the eye which should be sharp (that’s if it’s not a panning shot but even then, it works better if it is).

Let’s make things harder and wrestle with a Puffin (not literally although sometimes …….)
Okay hopefully you’ve managed to get a few shots in the bag but what if you want them coming towards you or if the background is busy. Well tough, just don’t bother! Umm, okay if you must.
Firstly, some of the previous settings are still relative, exposure compensation, continuous auto-focus and keeping an eye on the ISO usage relative to your shutter speed.

So, what are the differences:

• One of the main things to change is your focus point/points. If you use all points your camera being basically a dumb machine will probably choose anything but the Puffin so, you need to choose a small group of focus points and that’s going to take some aim and steadiness. If you veer off the Puffin, your focus point will grab a part of the background and your Puffin will be smoother than a sand eel. Try to aim for the head and keep as steady as you can at all times. You can also ‘pump’ the shutter button which basically means instead of keeping your finger pressed constantly on the shutter, lift your finger and place it back again so the camera can have another go at locking on.
• Think about where you want your Puffin in the composition as you may need to crop later. If you are too tight or in the wrong position you may be unable to save the composition by cropping (by the way, that is very likely and if you come away with a few images you like, that’s a good job). I will probably have my AF point or points slightly to one side or the other of the frame depending on the direction of flight and a little higher than central to give me a little leeway as it comes forward and as I prefer it to be higher in the frame than lower.
• Aperture: As before your aperture will depend greatly on keeping the background as diffuse as possible so as not to get in the way of the Puffin unless of course you want an image of a Puffin in its environment. Something like f/5.6 or f/8 would render some of the background out of focus depending how close the Puffin is to it but you will need to judge that for yourselves on location. Remember that by shooting for the head your aim needs to be accurate, as if the head is out you don’t have a shot.
• Shutter speed: As fast as you can get if you want it sharp but see previous notes. Raise your ISO up as high as you can get away with.
• I don’t know the exact names and menu system but all brands have ways of tuning the autofocus tracking. Alter the tracking by telling the camera how fast to lock on and for it to refocus. Minus settings tend to hold focus longer but would take longer to refocus if it lost focus and plus settings would refocus quicker but would ‘fall’ off the subject if your aim was out and grab onto the background, hence the ‘pumping’ shutter technique can help in re-acquiring. This is one of those things to especially try out before you get to shoot the Puffins. I would say you need to be more into the plus region, just try it out, you won’t break anything (other than your heart!).

A couple of other things:

Puffins often fly towards their nest but abort at the last moment and then make another pass or maybe several before actually landing. Use this to your advantage and watch the Puffins flight path all the way through your viewfinder. This will give your camera focus a helping hand rather than catching it unawares.
Even though I use back-button focussing I think pressing the shutter button for focussing is a better technique because you are able to move the focus point around whilst shooting. The reason I don’t is as I have said many times, I work better knowing a single system and prefer to work around it’s limitations rather than swap back and for.
You could also use manual focus and pre-focus on a certain spot and wait for the Puffin to fly into your path. Try using a fairly wide big aperture of f/8 or above however this method is very hit and miss as you don’t know if the little darlings will fly exactly into your path and of course you are back to the problems as mentioned earlier of heavy backgrounds and slow shutter speeds with the raising of your ISO. Back button focusing could be used in a similar way by disengaging the focus on a spot and then when the bird flies into your pre-focussed path, re-engage the shutter button using the back button. Try as many combinations as you can to find something that works for you, as in all photography there is no real right and wrong, just find a way!
Try panning to give your shot a sense of movement, doesn’t always work but it looks great when it does and this has the added bonus of not needing as quick a shutter speed and you can have a small aperture of f/11 (there’s not much detail if you have intentional blur) or more etc which will automatically slow the shutter speed anyway.
No ‘Carry on’ jokes please but wind can be your friend. Wind conditions can be helpful as birds will often use the wind to take off and fly into as it makes it easier just like planes (where do you think the planes got the idea from?). So, if you have a nice breeze check the direction, plonk yourself down and watch the path the birds are flying in. If they are using the wind to land, point yourself in that direction.

Fellow Olympians!

My settings are as follows:

Manual priority most of the time because I stick to one mode or I forget what I’m doing. It’s not because I want to look like a ‘proper’ photographer. The reason I came to use manual is mainly down to the fact that I am predominantly a bird photographer and I want to make sure my exposure remains consistent when shooting from ground/water level to sky should a bird take off. I primarily use back button focus although for birds in flight it’s probably advantageous to use normal shutter theory but again like manual mode It’s down to the fact I forget where I am and can’t work out why it won’t focus when I press the shutter button. Sometimes I think KISS (keep it simple stupid) is the best method, for me at least.

Puffins flying across you and with an uncluttered background:

1. I will use an aperture of f/5.6 or possibly f/8 as long as I can achieve a high enough shutter speed. Raise that ISO, do not be afraid.
2. I will use the 5 or 9 area grouping if possible but 25 or even fully automatic grouping can work if you have a background that doesn’t mess with your auto-focus.
3. Continuous shooting: Around 12fps, more if you want (or have it but remember you have to go through them all in post processing).
4. Continuous auto-focus as I don’t think ‘with tracking’ is quick enough at the moment for rapid birds however it works okay with slow moving birds (although it’s not really necessary in this instance).
5. C-AF lock +1 or 2: the plus settings mean the focus will keep hunting rather than stick on an object for a time.

Puffins at 12 O’clock

1. Aperture of f/4 or f/5.6. This will give you the fastest shutter speed, a more diffuse background and a hard job of keeping your Puffin in focus however life is always about compromises!
2. Again, raise that ISO as high as you dare, to achieve the highest shutter speed if it’s needed (you may want to be ‘arty’).
3. C-AF +2 as that Puff is Mr or Mrs Erratic!
4. Single point focus if you can cope but usually a 5 or 9 point grouping. Be careful that your focus is on the head.

BIF General settings:

1. AF mode C-AF
2. AF scanner mode 2
3. AF area pointer on2
4. C-AF lock +2
5. C1 Res priority C on
6. IS on
7. Continuous shooting, around 12 fps
8. Don’t forget to tweak to taste.

These settings work best for me at the moment, although I am always trying new ideas and methods. One other important point, what works for me may not suit your style or technique. Keep on looking to improve your techniques and look into adapting the settings to suit you. This can also make your images unique.