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Photography: Capturing Atlantic puffins

Ewen Bell, the photographer of our Shetland Islands feature, explains how he captured this image of a puffin resting on the cliff tops

Photography: Capturing Atlantic puffins
Image: Ewen Bell

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Atlantic puffins spend most of their lives at sea, coming to land for a handful of weeks each year to nest, so being in the right place at the right time is the first challenge. With the help of a local expert, Hugh Harrop, I gave myself a week in several key locations across the isles. 

Sumburgh Head is a dramatic location, with a lighthouse perched on precipitous cliffs. Access is restricted, but with a long lens, staying behind the fence doesn’t affect the shot. Thousands of puffins come and go from the cliffs all day, offering the chance to study them closely. The more you know about your subject, the more likely you are to capture a meaningful moment. And luck came on the first day.

This image was taken late in the afternoon, as the sun was fading behind clouds. Wildlife moves fast and you can still be caught out at 1/500th of a second with such nimble birds. My setup was Aperture Priority with a minimum shutter speed of 1/1250 locked in using the Auto ISO settings. As the light dimmed through the afternoon, the light metering by the camera simply dialed in extra ISO sensitivity as required.

To photograph smaller birds (like puffins), you need a decent telephoto range to shoot them without invading their space. In this case, a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport was my lens of choice. At 600mm, the wide-open aperture of f/6.3 creates a blurred background to separate puffins from the scenery, while delivering plenty of pleasing detail where the focus hits.

The 5DSR is not a wildlife camera under normal circumstances, but it does a great job. For a relatively static subject like this I don’t employ Auto Focus tracking or other advanced focus modes. I lock in a single AF point and use the shutter half-press to hold in place if I need to reframe. 

Puffins are beautiful creatures, especially in close detail. Though they have their quirks in flight, I find them graceful and curious to photograph on the ground.

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)