Isle of May

Last week I took my annual pilgrimage to the Isle of May. I go here once or twice most years and for sheer numbers of seabirds it never disappoints.

I had planned the visit to coincide with some friends going but this was really just an excuse as we were mainly going to do our own thing on the Island but we could share the boat trip together. That was if I had booked the same boat as them. They had booked on the Isle of May Princess and for some reason I had booked the faster Osprey RIB. It was quite windy so the journey out was bracing but the crew provided full waterproofs which kept me (and my camera) dry enough.

This was going to be my last day out with my trustee Canon 7d mark ii camera which I have owned since 2014. I have had a huge amount of pleasure from this camera but have decided to take the plunge and move over to mirrorless and will be getting a Canon EOS R5 next week. I decided to really make the most of photography on this trip and try to capture some good images and take the time necessary to do so. In this post I will share a bit more about my photography process than just the nature (thereby paying homage to my 7d).

As we approached the Island we saw some Grey Seals hauled out on the rocks and one inquisitive individual approached the boat. I used spot focus and a fast shutter speed to focus on the seal and freeze the motion of the animal and the water.

Grey Seal

There were lots of Puffins and Common Guillemots in the water too. One Guillemot caught my eye rising out of the water and flapping its wings, I fired off a burst of shots hoping one would be in focus. It is quite hard taking photos from a moving boat of a moving bird, keeping the bird in the shot and using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the moment. I find this a tricky bird to process in Lightroom too – if I expose to see the eye the bird ends up very light brown and not how I feel the bird really “is”. So not much eye in these shots which I don’t really like as that really is the focal point of the head which is the focal point of the bird. If anyone knows a solution to this leave a comment and help me out.

As we came into the small harbour there were several gulls and terns around. I noticed Herring Gulls fondly displaying to each other and a pair of Lesser Black-Backed Gulls watching dispassionately from their rocky perch. This was easier conditions to take photos as now as the boat was on calmer water. With the displaying birds I shot a burst, the shot I chose has one gull with bill open and raised, this seems to capture the moment well for me

After we had disembarked and received our briefing from the reserve staff, my friend pointed out a pair of Arctic Terns mating and I fired off an another burst of photos. Again the key here was spot focus on the eye of the bird and a fast shutter speed to freeze the moment. The wing position adds to the composition for me. I have often felt that terns have angel like wings particularly with the light shining through them.

I left my friend and went up to the small loch on the island. There were some Puffins on the water and this was much easier conditions to photograph than on a moving boat. I tried to get as low down as possible for this shot (not looking down on the birds too much – the unsatisfactory “superior” view). I also chose to include 3 birds as an odd number is more pleasing in composition. I like the fact that each bird is offering a different side or angle. The Puffin is a crazy bird. If I had designed it you would tell me to try again for a more believable bird.

Another Puffin caught my eye from a distance. It had some sand eels in its mouth and I took lots of photos that would be pleasing on a tourist postcard but didn’t really excite me.

Meanwhile another Puffin looked directly at me and I found this more comical and arresting. The wind was blowing the sand eels into the air and ruffling the feathers. This was shot on my widest aperture to throw the background out of focus and isolate the subject.

I walked on to the top of some cliffs and spotted a pair of Razorbills nearby. Like the guillemots this is a hard bird to do justice too. If you expose for the eye you end up with quite a light bird which is not very true for me. I settled for clean sea backdrop and varied the distance between me and the birds to throw the background out to varying degrees.

Also nearby were some nesting Herring Gulls. They kept coming in to land and I tried to capture them in flight. I find my hit rate for in focus birds in flight is quite low with this camera and I am looking forward to the more advanced autofocus in my R5 which should make this much easier. I was happy with one of the shots showing the clear eye ring even on the viewfinder proving this one was sharp.

I carried on to the north of the Island and spotted a small creche of Eider Ducks. Three females with a similar number of chicks. Normally I would approach the shore to get a low down shot but this would have involved stepping over lots of puffin burrows. The shot is never worth putting above the welfare of the birds themselves. Then I noticed a Grey Seal taking an interest in the birds. This made an interesting interaction shot.

Walking on the low path back I heard a Rock Pipit and stopped to pick it out. It was low down among Sea Campion flowers. In situations like this you can get a foreground as well as a background which can serve well to put the bird in a strong habitat or environment. This required me to get low enough to create the effect but not so low that I lost any of the bird. Being a small bird I placed it to one side looking into the frame.

Walking back to the visitor centre again I came across the Arctic Terns. Lots of people were taking photos looking down on the birds (that superior view again). Instead I got low down to try and create some foreground interest and get on eye level with the bird. I also tried to select shots where there was at least a glint in the eye which otherwise (black eye on black head) rendered the eye almost invisible.

I still had about 20 minutes until my boat was due to leave. I walked south to the cliff overlooking a sea stack. By this point I had taken lots of photos of lots of birds and I wanted to try a few different shots. I picked out a Kittiwake for a very close shot (just the head) and was pleased with the thin red eye ring, I zoomed out and took a photo of a crowded ledge of Guillemot.

I am aware that we often find ourselves taking close up field-guide type photos of wildlife. In focus and clear but… uninspiring. I am trying to vary this up more now. I like the idea of taking a range of photos – yes there is a place for a good portrait. But what about showing some behaviour or interaction, or showing the bird in its wider environment with a zoomed out shot, or doing the opposite and picking on a detail in a closeup. This just gives you a lot more options and ways to be creative – remember this by trying to take EPIC photos (Environment, Portrait, Interaction, Closeup). If the subject, distance, conditions don’t suit one of these, try one of the others.

The idea of being stranded on the Isle of May for a night was quite attractive but I did have a boat to catch. It was time to leave but as I decided to head back to the boat I noticed I was stood about 1 foot from an Eider Duck on a nest of soft down right by the path. Well if you insist, one more photo.

As the boat pulled away from the dock Actic Terns wheeled in the sky. Their noisy screeches and sudden turns (excuse the pun) could not be more of a contrast with the still, missable, camouflaged Eider. Isn’t nature wonderful!

If you haven’t been to the Isle of May yet, what are you waiting for?

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