My quest to take the perfect puffin pic
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/113397209/-

2019-06-11 03:15:07

"Did you not bring a hat?" Alan Hewitt, my photography instructor, asked. It was a mild May morning and low clouds smudged the sky, so my reply was no, closely followed by why?

"The Arctic terns will dive-bomb you!" he laughed. The dog-eared fishing hat on his head looked like it had received its fair share of pecks over the years. "Let's get you one from the tat shop before we catch the boat."

I was in Seahouses, a grey-washed English North Sea village where the air is made up of 40 per cent nitrogen, 10 per cent oxygen and 50 per cent salt. The reason I had travelled here was because every year hundreds of thousands of seabirds migrate to the nearby Farne Islands, which David Attenborough once described as his favourite place in the UK to see wildlife. And there's one animal that holds particular celebrity status in these parts - that most lovable cartoon butler of a bird: the puffin.

I was here to get a photograph. Ideally I would capture that quintessential clumsily-coming-in-to-land shot, or perhaps one of a puffin with a mouthful of twigs or sand eels. One ever-so-minor obstacle was that I didn't have the foggiest about how to use the albatross of a Fujifilm camera that tugged around my neck, let alone how to compose a half-decent photograph. This is where Alan came into the picture.

Alan has been leading photography classes on the Farnes for years, and while cruising across to the islands he gave me a crash-course in what he called "camera craft". In his sing-song Geordie accent he explained the delicate balancing act between ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation and aperture, twiddling the dials as he went.

"And which button takes the picture?" I asked. From this point onward we had an understanding that if today was to be a success, it would probably have something to do with beginner's luck.

"Get a lungful of that!" Alan said as we came within yards of Inner Farne. I dutifully inhaled a gulp of air so putrid that it prompted a fellow birdwatcher to raise her scarf to her mouth. Guano. Tons of it, drenching the rocks like God had knocked over the paint pot while touching up the clouds. Magnetically attached to the rock face were thousands of birds - shags, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, eiders, puffins - quarrelling in an orchestral din. On the rocks at sea level was a gang of fat seals, yawning sorrowfully and looping their heads as if to say "Oh no".

Seals aside, there are no mammals of any size on the Farne Islands, which is one of the reasons why the puffins and other seabirds migrate here in such great numbers. A bit like the Galapagos, there are no predators here, just a few bumbling bunnies. As a result, the birds have free rein to nest where they please - and that they certainly do.

After disembarking on Inner Farne, I saw that a number of Arctic terns had nested right beside the wooden walkway. As Alan predicted, they gave me a not-so-welcoming peck on the head for having the audacity to walk so close to their eggs. But we had to run the gauntlet, for we had puffins to find.

"This is where the art of 'field craft' comes into it," Alan said as we crossed the island, with a flurry of birds swarming overhead like white noise on an old television. The biggest mistake amateur photographers make when trying to capture a flying puffin, he told me, is just to point and shoot at every single one that flies by. You have to think carefully about your surroundings before taking a shot. Which way is the wind blowing? Where is the sun in the sky? Where are the puffins nesting?

With this in mind, we positioned ourselves near some burrows, obviously not a bad spot as we were soon joined by a gaggle of fellow puffin paparazzi. We started to shoot. Every now and then, Alan's camera and those of a few other twitchers would rattle, but by the time I saw what they had spotted it was too late. They were clearly tuned into the puffins' flight paths; my current tactic felt like trying to shoot a mosquito with a machine gun.

After an hour or so, I still hadn't got "that shot" I had so brazenly promised. So I sat down and fixated on just one puffin, posing on a rock a few yards away. The viewfinder was glued to my left eye and my right eye was shut. I was a sniper, biding my time. For minutes, the puffin mooched back and forth like a stand-up comedian with hands in pockets, full of self-doubt with those nervous, downturned eyes. And then it turned and looked straight down the lens. The background was a blurred watercolour of green grass and blue sky. It raised its wings and there was a split-second before it began flapping. I held my breath and pressed down the shutter.

The reason this shot stood out from the 2000 others I took (that's no exaggeration) is that it doesn't capture the cutesy puffed-chest puffin, nor the goofy crash-landing puffin that I had set out to get, but rather depicts something you rarely see - a powerful puffin, a resilient bird which spends its entire life out at sea, loyal to one mate for the duration of its lifespan of up to 30 years, and working long hours to feed its lone puffling back at home in the burrow. In this fraction of a second, the puffin showed me that it is not just the adorable caricature you see on souvenir tea towels. It is a warrior of the sea.

Perhaps it was me and my fellow photographers, on our knees and wearing silly hats, with our backpacks peppered with bird poo, who were the true clowns in this scene.

ESSENTIALS

Greg Dickinson took a Serenity boat to the Farne Islands (farneislandstours.co.uk; all-day bird trip £40 adults (NZ$77), £25 (NZ$48) children) in the company of Alan Hewitt, who runs photography classes and expeditions (from £109 for a day; alanhewittphotography.co.uk). He stayed at the Bamburgh Castle Inn in Seahouses (telegraph.co.uk/tt-the-bamburgh-castle-inn-hotel; doubles from £98) and travelled from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed with LNER (lner.co.uk; from £74 return). Gregg hired a FujiFilm X-T3 and used a 100-400mm lens (fujifilm.eu/uk).

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