Whales, Puffins, and a Borrowed Zoom Lens

Puffin looking at the sky.
One eye on the sky, looking for skuas.

Like most people who enjoy taking pictures the closest I get to photographing unusual wildlife is at the zoo. While an ancient film camera is perfectly adequate for shooting the exotic creatures stalking the streets of Liverpool, I don’t have the funds for the kind of equipment needed to get really close-up shots of anything more reclusive. Even so, a trip to Shetland seemed like an opportunity to play at wildlife photography, so I borrowed a Tamron 18-200mm ‘superzoom’  lens from my sister (Thanks Sis) and set out with high hopes. We had three goals: to see dolphins, whales, and puffins.

Orcas at Levenwick, Shetland, July 28, 2013.
Orcas at Levenwick, Shetland, July 28, 2013.

We got lucky on day one when our neighbour (and owner of our holiday apartment) came over to say that orcas had been spotted just off the coast nearby. It turned out to be a pod of four (or maybe five) and they treated us to a spectacular display of the kind that wildlife television crews sit around in wet tents for months to see.

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This included a demonstration of seal throwing that was both thrilling and quite harrowing to watch, especially when it became clear that they were doing it for fun and not for food. You can’t see the seal in the picture above, but it’s in there somewhere.

Even at 200mm the lens wasn’t really adequate at that distance–I reckon I needed at least twice that to get really close–but some cropping helped bring them closer. Here’s an excellent video taken by John Moncrieff not long before we arrived.

We had even more good luck at Sumburgh Head the following day, where not only were there loads of puffins scattered across the sloping cliff tops, but a pair popped out of their burrow right at our feet.

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Photographing these birds was easy. They were well within the range of the 200mm lens–some of them were close enough to photograph with a phone–and even those further away kept still long enough for me to compose the shot.

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It was trickier capturing them in flight. The autofocus on the Tamron lens just wasn’t fast or accurate enough to lock on to them as they approached from the sea.

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Tracking them as they took off and plunged down the cliff was easier, but I wanted a landing shot.

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I finally got one as we were leaving, but more by luck than judgement. This image is cropped too as the bird was quite far away. I was quite impressed by the lens, which is small and light despite its wide range, but it is an old design now and the slow autofocus and lack of stabilisation were sometimes irritating. I’d go for the newer Tamron 18-270mm, which has a welcome extra bit of reach and is stabilised to reduce camera shake. Overall, despite the limitations, it was refreshing to use one ‘do everything’ lens for a change. If I was thinking of buying a new crop-sensor DSLR I’d be tempted to buy a body on its own and one of these to go with it, rather than the standard kit lens.

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We never did see dolphins, but getting this close (and closer) to these charming little birds, while they ignored us, was quite a thrill.