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Island sanctuaries

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Island sanctuaries Shutterstock
01 Jun
Combining a wild coastline, evocative ancient castles and some of Britain’s most important seabird colonies, the area around the Farne Islands in Northumberland is a photographer’s paradise

The Northumberland coast is rightly admired as one of the most picturesque locations in the British Isles. Here, in the far northeast of England, flanking the North Sea and close to the Scottish border, the photographer can find views of unspoilt beaches, coastal villages, ancient castles and a smattering of islands of historical importance.

The most prominent castle along this coast is Bamburgh. Built on an outcrop of dolerite close to the shore, it has connections to English royalty that date back to the 12th century. The castle’s strategic position close to the sea and the border meant that it was the target of numerous cross-border raids by the Scots and a prized objective during England’s historic wars. For example, in 1464, Bamburgh became the first English castle to be defeated by artillery, following a nine- month siege during the War of the Roses.

Today, Bamburgh Castle and the surrounding village are a popular stopover for those wishing to visit nearby Holy Island, or the seabird rookeries on the neighbouring Farne Islands.



The Farne Islands are a designated national nature reserve and one of the most important seabird breeding sites in the British Isles, with 23 nesting species, including around 37,000 pairs of puffins. The islands are also home to a large colony of grey seals, with more than 1,000 pups born every autumn.

The number of islands and islets varies with the tides – from 15 at high water to 20 at low tide. Not surprisingly, these hidden outcrops and changing depths have made the islands a shipping hazard.

Lighthouses have existed on the islands since the 18th century, but that hasn’t prevented hundreds of vessels being wrecked over the years. As a result, the Farnes are a popular scuba diving location. The presence of divers often arouses the curiosity of local grey seals, providing underwater photographers with another subject for the camera. 

As with neighbouring Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands were a hermitage for Celtic Christians from the seventh century, including St Cuthbert, who resided here before becoming Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, Cuthbert must have preferred the greater solitude of the Farnes as he returned barely two years later.

One of Cuthbert’s most enduring legacies is a law decreed in 676 protecting the population of eider ducks and other seabirds that nest on the Farnes. This is one of the earliest examples of nature conservation law anywhere in the world, and helped to enshrine the Farne Islands’ status as one of the world’s oldest protected seabird sanctuaries. 



Today, the Farne Islands are owned by the National Trust and have no permanent human population. The hermits, monks and lighthouse keepers may have gone, but every summer, hundreds of keen birdwatchers, photographers and naturalists visit the Farnes.

As well as puffins, other commonly seen birds include guillemots, kittiwakes, shags and razorbills. There are two landing stages: Inner Farne, which is open to the public from 1 April to 31 October, and Staple Island, which is open from 1 May to 31 July. Boats sail daily from the mainland fishing village of Seahouses.

The islands may be small – Inner Farne is the largest at just under eight hectares – but the deafening noise of the nesting birds carries across the water long before your boat reaches the jetty. On both Inner Farne and Staple Island, the paths leading from the jetty are packed with birds, particularly Arctic terns, which lay their eggs right next to the boardwalks. Tripods are allowed, but great care must be taken with their use as, in many places, you’re never more than a step away from a bird’s nest.

Taking pictures in such close proximity to nesting terns has both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that you can use a wide-angle lens and fill-in flash to photograph terns on the attack; the disadvantage is that you’re likely to be the target of the attack and will inevitably be doused in the bird’s guano. The lesson here is to always wear a hat.



The Farne Islands are home to England’s largest breeding population of Atlantic puffins. With the British Isles supporting around ten per cent of the world’s puffin population, this makes the Farne Islands population globally significant. Thanks to the islands’ accessibility and protection, these puffins are among the most closely monitored colonies in the world.

Puffins mate for life and arrive at their colonies in March and April, staying until the end of August. Both parents share the egg-incubation responsibilities evenly and although they separate during winter, they somehow manage to pair up again in the spring mating season and return to the same burrow each year.

June and July are the best months to see puffins. By then, the chicks will have hatched and the adult birds can be seen returning to their burrows with a beak full of sand eels for their hungry offspring. By watching the activity around a group of burrows, photographers can be ready for a variety of puffin poses, from close-up portraits showing their colourful markings to panned in-flight shots as the birds come in to land.

Puffins use a fairly direct flight path when approaching their burrows. They may look ungainly, but with a wing speed of 400 beats per minute, they move quickly. Your chances of keeping them in the frame will improve if the puffin is flying into the wind.

Use a telephoto lens and track the bird with your camera’s auto-focus switched to continuous. Also make sure that the drive is switched to continuous and the lens focus limiter is switched off. When framing your in-coming bird, try to keep it wholly in the frame, but to one side so that it’s flying into space, and just keep pressing the shutter-release button.



The bright days of summer may be perfect for island hopping and birdwatching, but the high contrast demands more precise metering for an accurate photographic exposure of a bird’s plumage. Apart from the brightly coloured bill of a puffin, seabirds are predominantly white or black, or a mixture of the two.

With bright overhead sun, highlights are likely to burn out and shadows will be too dark in some places to record detail, so keep checking the camera’s histogram. In bright conditions, a half stop or more of negative exposure compensation will help to avoid loss of detail in the bright whites.

You’ll save time once ashore if you’ve preset your camera functions to suit the type of images you have in mind. For example, if your primary objective is to photograph seabirds in flight, set both auto-focus and drive to continuous modes, and activate the central focus point. Not only is this more accurate and responsive than the peripheral AF points, but by keeping the bird central in the frame, there’s less chance of clipping its wings. Choose spot metering, too – this means that the exposure is made from the central point of focus.

Aperture priority is preferred by many professionals, whether shooting wide open or at around f/8 for greater depth of field, and ISO can be adjusted to maintain a fast shutter speed that will freeze wingbeats. In most cases, these presets will apply whether using a telephoto for puffins in flight or wide-angle lenses for dive-bombing terns.



The months of June and July contain the longest days of the year, when the sun travels in a vast arc overhead, lighting up the historic coast of Northumberland for around 17 hours on a clear day. North of Newcastle, this stretch of coastline is also one of the most sparsely populated in England, with little air or light pollution, thereby ensuring that the skies are remarkably clear by day and night.

In such conditions, and with castles, islands and lighthouses as landmarks, there’s plenty to interest the landscape photographer. As well as Bamburgh Castle, the ruined Dunstanburgh Castle is one of Northumberland’s most impressive sights. Situated on a headland above Embleton Bay, it makes a distinctive backdrop to the wide-angle foreground view of the sweeping dunes of the windswept bay.

Similarly, Lindisfarne Castle is often photographed as a background feature, beside the causeway that links it to the mainland at low tide. Making a distant view from further along the coast gives greater prominence to the castle’s elevated position, built on a promontory of rock rising steeply from the surrounding shore.

As a prominent coastal landmark, Lindisfarne is nearly as iconic as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Normandy’s Mont St Michel. Although much smaller in scale, it’s far less crowded and of greater photographic potential.



Always focus on the eyes when photographing birds and make sure that these areas are well lit. A catch-light of sun reflecting off the eye makes for an even stronger focal point

Set aperture priority mode and alter your ISO rating in order to maintain a fast shutter speed when photographing puffins and other birds in flight

Use fill-in flash and a wide-angle lens to photograph low-flying Arctic terns. Flash will light the underside, which will be in shadow, and prevent the bird being rendered a silhouette



Distress seabirds by venturing unnecessarily close to their nests. Stick to boardwalks and don’t walk too close to cliffs or roped-off areas

Switch off the vibration reduction or optical stabiliser of your lens. In the absence of a tripod, this is the best means of reducing unwanted lens movements when using telephoto lenses

Leave your hat at home. Arctic terns and other seabirds are notorious for attacking people close to their nests and hitting them with guano


Recommended reading

Wildlife of the Farne Islands: A Guide to all Major Breeding Species by Kaleel Zibe, Kaleel Zibe Photography, pb, £16.99

Lindisfarne: The Cradle Island by Magnus Magnusson, The History Press, pb, £12.99

The Northumberland Coast by Joe Cornish, Frances Lincoln, hb, £16.99


Equipment Selections

Accessory option: Broad-brimmed hat

With the summer sun beating down, a hat helps prevent sunburn and heatstroke. Perhaps more importantly, it will also keep seabird guano out of your eyes and hair. Get a foldable hat with a wide brim to protect your ears and face, such as the classic Tilley cotton duck hat (£65), which uses a durable fabric derived from sailcloth – perfect for the high seas and seabirds. 



Lens option: Ultra-wide-angle zoom

Most wildlife photography requires long-focal-length lenses, but that all changes when photographing seabird rookeries. With birds at your feet and overhead, an ultra-wide zoom becomes your ‘go to’ lens. The Sigma 10–20mm f/4-5.6 (£350) is made specially for cropped-sensor DSLRs, so its focal range equates to 15–30mm. With a minimum focusing distance of just 24cm throughout the zoom range, it means you can compose as close as you dare.



Camera option: Weather-sealed DSLR 

With salt spray during the boat crossing, windblown sand on shore and passing rain showers to contend with, you need a digital SLR that can handle all weathers. The new Pentax K3 (£900 body only) boasts one of the most durable weather-resistant bodies around, with no fewer than 92 separate protection seals. Add a 24-megapixel sensor, 27 AF points and 8.3fps continuous shooting mode and you have the perfectbody for fast-flying seabirds.


This story was published in the June 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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