Photographing Puffins in Iceland

The majority of the world's Puffins are actually in Iceland, so naturally, Sue and I set out to find them.

My fascination with these birds started about 6 years ago when I photographed them off the coast of Maine. They were bringing back fish for their young, and I ended up making a video from the bird blind, and having an image published online by National Geographic

Dyrhólaey is located in the southern part of Iceland.

Dyrhólaey is located in the southern part of Iceland.

While Iceland is rich in natural beauty, it seems most who visit put Puffins at the top of their list of things to see. Every gift shop has a dedicated corner for stuffed toys with colorful beaks, magnets, T-shirts, hats, etc. You can even buy a taxidermy Puffin for about 25,000 krona ($185 usd). Thankfully we did not see them on any restaurant menus as the only close encounter I wanted was through the lens. 

As for gear, I was using an Olympus OMD EM1 along with the 40-150mm f/2.8 and a 1.4x teleconverter. This gave me an maximum focal length of 420mm at f4 in a small and weatherproof system. The ruggedness of the setup was immediately put to the test in Dyrhólaey. The winds were enough to knock you down, and I definitely got my share of black sand in the eyes. While others scrambled to protect their gear, I kept shooting.

The hearty souls who stuck around were rewarded with a great view of the birds. Sue wisely recommended that I get down low to the ground where it was less windy. This proved helpful, as did my sturdy Gitzo 1325 tripod. With gusts upwards of 50 mph, there was no way hand holding a telephoto lens would have worked out. I even used a cable release to fire the camera without touching and moving it. 

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From this low angle, I watched as one, then two, and finally three Puffins gathered to look around. Using the low speed burst mode I fired off shots at every possible head angle. I opted for S-AF as opposed to C-AF as the birds were relatively still and I wanted to make sure focus was tack-sharp. I was using a single AF point along with a fast shutter speed of 1/1000. With a shallow depth of field at f/4, the flowers and grasses were thrown out of focus nicely.

As a side note, I have to laugh when I read reviews from those who say the bokeh on this lens isn't good. This is the best telephoto lens I've ever used and produces results far better than any of the Canon L lenses I've owned in the past. It even works well for macro shooting, and as you'll see in upcoming posts, it's a workhorse for landscapes. While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion, I think the images speak for themselves. If you're still struggling with your backgrounds, try my tutorial here

After bunkering down in this spot for quite some time, I found a few more birds who were resting along the steep cliff wall overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The contrast of their colorful bills against the dark waters below provided nice impact, and I tried a variety of compositions.

From this vantage point I was able to get fairly close to the birds. They actually don't seem to mind people at all, and at no time did they seem disturbed in the least. This experience in Dyrhólaey was indeed amazing, so much so, that we really wanted to see more Puffins if at all possible. 

 
 

Once we completed our drive around the "ring road" we had a full day in Reykjavik and decided to take a bird watching boat tour with the Elding company. This was a fun ride, and the guide provided a good amount of information about the birds. Thankfully, every passenger has a good seat so there was no jostling for a better viewing position. With warmer weather (55 degrees), the captain was able to get us fairly close to Akurey island. This was a much different habitat with massive rocks that gave way to wildflowers along the bluff. The birds were burrowing into the soil.

Still, being on a moving boat made technique even more critical. From this swaying vessel, I opted for shutter speeds no slower than 1/2000, which of course required a slightly higher ISO. The files held up really well though, with very little noise up to about ISO 800. At 1600, it's a bit more noticeable but super easy to clean up in Lightroom. Once again, the teleconverter helped a great deal as a 400mm was absolutely necessary to capture tight shots.

I also pulled the zoom back a few times to show how they fit into the overall landscape. Watching them navigate over various boulders was comical, as the Puffins are definitely not the most graceful of creatures. For example, when taking off for a landing, they seem to run on the water's surface while frantically beating their wings. 

After spending several hours watching, photographing, and learning about these birds, it's hard not to fall in love with them. Yes, I'll admit to buying a magnet for the fridge, and even a little figurine for my office. Still, not everything about the Puffins situation is cheerful. In fact, due to the rising temperature of the water, they are struggling. This is explained in a recent article by National Geographic. "Warming oceans and earlier thaws are driving away the seabirds' prey; unleashing deadly, unseasonal storms; and knocking tight breeding schedules off-kilter. Mounting carbon dioxide absorption and melting glaciers are acidifying and diluting the aquatic balance, jeopardizing marine life and the creatures that depend on it for food."

 
 

The opportunity to photograph these birds in the wild was thrilling, especially in such a beautiful setting. As a growing number of people come to appreciate their beauty, it's reasonable to think that more will be done to protect their habitat. That is one of the joys I find in photographing the natural world. Sure the technical details are important, just as the lens, camera, tripod are essential tools. Yet, the power of photography doesn't stop there, as pictures can be used to educate, enlighten, and reveal truth. 

In the coming days and weeks I'll be sharing more new images from this epic adventure in Iceland. Check back soon, follow on Facebook, and sign up for the free monthly newsletter here