Trying my hand at Wildlife Photography on the Farne Islands

Trying my hand at Wildlife Photography on the Farne Islands

Trying my hand at Wildlife Photography on the Farne Islands

This past Friday I ventured a few miles from my desk to the coast and more specifically Seahouses. A place I know fairly well having drank there now and again since my school days.

Seahouses is of course the Northumbrian town that is the base for the famous trips to the Farne Islands. Naturally there are more than one operator of these trips, some better known than others, I decided to use the power of Twitter to choose mine. A few weeks back 3 photographers I follow on twitter banded together, called their project Project Puffin and spent 2 days on the Farnes capturing the wildlife on the accessable Islands. They used Andrew Douglas’s company (, who happens to also have a very informative Twitter account @thefarnes, so I decided to do the same. Andrew was extremely helpful and only too happy to accommodate my request for longer on the Island (Inner Farne) than you’d normally get.

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The kit I decided to take on this trip was all encompassing. Packed away were my Nikon D700 & D200 bodies, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 50mm f1.8, 16-35mm f4 and my old Sigma 135-400mm f5.6-6.3 for extra reach. The tripod was left at home as the extra carrying weight was not worth it for the fact I rarely use a tripod apart from low light landscapes. Instead I took my cheap 7dayshop monopod that I’ve never used in anger all the 5 years I’ve owned it, just incase the light deteriorated significantly and I needed a little more stability. Something else I was using for the first time was the combination of my old Lowerpro CompuTrekker and my recently purchased ThinkTank Racing Harness, Pro Speed belt and bags combo (Lens Changer 75Speed Changer) for quick and easy lens access and changing. Seriously impressed with ThinkTank gear, but that’s a subject for another day, I’ll be adding to my ThinkTank setup very soon!

The trip entailed leaving harbour at 12:45, a sail around of the Islands and then landing on Inner Farne for the afternoon. Usually you get an hour on the Island but with my request I was there for three!

The Sail around was great! Andrew manoeuvred the boat into great positions to get the best shots, he also tipped me off to hang around on the righthand side of the boat to get the best vantage point for the birds on the cliffs. A top tip there for those photographers going whilst the birds are on the Islands! He and his assistant Keith kept us all informed of, and pointed out, the various species and the rarities amongst them. It certainly helped me, not knowing your Razorbill from a Guillemot doesn’t help your credentials as wanna-be wildlife photographer.

In truth I’m in a very early place for my wildlife photography, a few pictures of Blue Tits feeding during the winter is about as extravagant as I’ve got so far. So as I stepped off the boat to find Terns, and their adorable fluffy chicks, both numerous and close, I couldn’t help but start shooting anything that stayed still long enough for my ancient (and slow) lens to focus as close to sharp as it physically can.

After my initial exuberance, I quickly bypassed the main area where the Terns were, due to some serious abuse from above (always wear a hat!!), moving around the path there is a bare area of Puffin burrows and immediately there he (or she) was! Happily standing there alone 12ft away with a mouthful of sand eels …THE SHOT I went for! In the first 10 minutes on the Island I had my shot!

Puffin with a beak full, just what I'd made the trip for!

I kept my expectations low for the rest of the day, I knew that my lens (the Sigma) wasn’t fast enough to focus on Puffins airborne / landing / taking off so I had no illusions of recreating the excellent shots the Project Puffin guys have published so far. My objectives were “Portrait” style of any bird or mammal that came close enough, and to concentrate on getting images as sharp as the kit would allow.

Apart from meeting and having a bit of a crack with Andrew after the day was over, I also met and had a good chat with two of the wardens, Ed and Wez. Wez I’d followed on twitter (@FarnesWardenWez) for some months so it was especially nice to meet him having seen life looking after things on the Islands through his various informative posts and the odd picture he’d post on the social media website.

Being a bit of a tech nerd, one of the things that interested me was the kit that other snappers were using. A good mix of Canon and Nikon, but I’d say Nikon just shaded it in the popularity stakes. Apart from the guys shooting terns flapping around their heads with short / wide lenses, most people were using lenses longer than 200mm, most from distance looked to be 400mm or 600mm – and not the budget models either! Several thousand pounds worth attached to already expensive bodies. There must still be alot of disposable income around. I’ll have to win big on the Lottery to get anything like some of the setups I saw on the Inner Farne on Friday.

Coming away from the Islands I had a good feeling about what I expected to find on my cards. Here is a breakdown of what came out…

  1. Initial look through – Islands Tour – Disappointing, soft images of shots I thought were interesting shaped and composition. Seals – Looked ok. Inner Farne – Couple of sharp tern shots (realised these were from the 70-200 before I reverted back to the 135-400 Sigma). Puffins – The series with its beak full of sand eels were great, due to him being close. Others were too soft and not showing much character or composition was lacking.
  2. Second Pass – Realised so many Puffin shots were throw-aways, images simply not sharp enough. Closer inspection more shots from the Farne Islands Tour became usable, also close up shots of nesting Shags showed some great detail.
  3. Processing Pass – Some tour shots not as soft as first thought. Some cracking seal shots came out great. Quality Puffin picture numbers still poor. Surprised by in flight pictures of terns taken as leaving the Island, surprisingly sharp – but only useable for small scale imagery due to having to crop tightly for composition.
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Whilst I’m a stickler for sharpness when zooming on screen at 100%, which is a view I should get out of I was actually pleased how the old lens worked. Granted there were great lighting conditions, it was fixed to the outstanding D700 and working at full frame – so it was always going to produce better results than the experiences I’d had with it using the D200 and even further back using the D70.

[image size=”medium” align=”right” icon=”zoom” lightbox=”true” autoHeight=”true”][/image]I would like to return and use only the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, which is tack sharp, to compare results. Whether this is in the next week or so or next year only time and my schedule will tell. Or if someone would like to lend me a good 400mm or 600mm lens I’d be quite happy to take that along!!

In wrapping up I must give out a few thank you’s.

For inspiration, the Project Puffin lads (@RichardpPhoto, @AustinTphoto & @alanhewittphoto) and @FarnesWardenWez
For the great tour and for allowing me to stay on Inner Farne longer, thanks Andrew Douglas – @thefarnes
And in an effort to get some freebies – ThinkTank for developing some tremendous camera carrying kit!