In Birdland with No Camouflage


In this article, I will guide you to the world’s largest northern gannet colony. The Bass Rock (that’s Baah-ss, not the 4 string instrument) is a (very) big volcanic basalt rock in Firth of Forth, just off the coast 20 miles from Edinburgh. Quite old, too: 320 million years, give or take.

Approaching the Bass Rock
Approaching the Bass Rock
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 200mm, 1/640 @ f/6.3, ISO 100

Impressive credentials. But what attracts photographers here are the gannets. Up to 150,000 of them: the world’s largest northern gannet colony. Plus assorted shags, guillemots, and razorbills, where they can find space on the lower ledges.

Northern Gannets are the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, with a wingspan of up to 2 metres. They fish by diving into the sea from a height of up to 30 metres, reaching speeds of 100 kph as they strike the water. This allows them to catch fish much deeper than most seabirds.

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And they’re very photogenic. Clean lines, subtle textures. Mostly white, but with soft yellow colouring on the back of their necks, striking blue rimmed eyes and black edging round their beaks and wings.

Bass Rock Birds 13
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 200mm, 1/2000 @ f/5.6, ISO 100

Despite living beside the Forth for decades I’d never been close to the Bass Rock until I took a boat trip round the island a couple of years ago courtesy of the Scottish Seabird Centre. That was an amazing enough, but I then found out that the Seabird Centre ran small photography trips throughout the summer landing on the rock for several hours. (Otherwise the Bass Rock is generally inaccessible to the public.)

You have to book well ahead: numbers are very limited. And the weather is unpredictable. But I took a gamble on the weather and booked a 7 AM trip last August several weeks in advance.

The problem is that I’m no bird photographer. My comfort zone is standing in front of a stationary building, camera on sturdy tripod, manually focusing in live view, usually with a blue sky above. (Yes, we get them here.) I’d fairly recently switched to a Canon 5D Mark IV (as I love their 24mm TS-E lens) and had little clue about successfully using Canon focus tracking. My longest lens was a mere 300mm.

But worst of all, I had no camouflage cover for my lens, thus seriously prejudicing my credibility with the other photographers.

So, how to make the most of this potentially once-in-a-lifetime-trip? I had 2 big challenges: technical and creative. Both required advance preparation which is the key to any photographic trip – especially when you’ll be out your comfort zone.

Addressing the technical challenge of photographing birds in flight was relatively straightforward. In theory, that is, but not in practice! I read a few web articles (including Photography Life) and watched some videos. What I love about the Canon 5D IV over the Nikon D800 I had previously used is the ability to set up to 3 custom settings that save every parameter, including autofocus options. So, I set up one custom setting as group AF, auto ISO with the minimum shutter speed set to “faster,” and with the lens stopped down slightly for a little extra depth of field. Another was the same setup but with single point AF and the third was single point with ISO 100. Very simple – just change the setting dial as required and use only the focus joystick and aperture control where needed to adjust depth of field. (No, I didn’t set up back button focussing, but have seen the light since!)

On the creative side, the challenge was simply to try and do something a little different from what I expected others would be doing. It’s always a good strategy not to compete with people who really know what they’re doing, but instead to try a different approach, preferably building on your own photographic interests. So, lots of shots of birds in flight was not my plan. Instead I decided to focus on the more abstract qualities: composition, textures and patterns and emphasise these aspects through black and white. So, along with my 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L, I took wider lenses: the 16-35mm f/4 L, 24-70mm f/4 L, and my bargain (£200 on eBay) 100mm f/2.

The day came. With my camera bag packed the night before, along with a sandwich and flask of coffee made, I set off from Edinburgh just after 6 AM. To my surprise, the weather started quite good – and as I drove east, it just got better all the time. I arrived in North Berwick in sunshine and little wind and set off in a small fishing boat with around 8 other photographers, as well as a very knowledgeable guide from the Seabird Centre.

And, just as I feared, there were a lot of camouflage lenses on board.

Bass Rock Birds 2
Canon 5Div, EF24-70mm f4L IS, 64mm, 1/640 @ f/7.1, ISO 250

Landing on the Bass Rock involves some clambering up ladders, and then you’re on the path that leads up past the old lighthouse to a halfway point – our base for the morning. As you climb, the gannet density increases dramatically. The noise is incredible, and you end up on a narrow path, every other available space crammed with birds warning you off with their beaks if you stray to the edge.

Bass Rock Birds 7
Canon 5Div, EF16-35mm f4L IS, 16mm, 1/500 @ f/8, ISO 100
Bass Rock Birds 5
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 81mm, 1/640 @ f/7.1, ISO 160

You have around 2.5 hours on the Bass Rock, and there is a relatively limited area where you are allowed to walk. So you can leave your gear undisturbed and just slow down, taking one lens at a time and planning in advance what you can do with each focal length. If you miss a shot because you have wrong lens you can just go back later and secure in the knowledge you’ll get something very similar.

Bass Rock Birds 6
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 300mm, 1/320 @ f/6.3, ISO 125
Bass Rock Birds 12
Canon 5Div, EF100mm f2, 1/1200 @ f/6.3, ISO 100
Bass Rock Birds 8
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 79mm, 1/400 @ f/9, ISO 100
Bass Rock Birds 9
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 300mm, 1/1000 @ f/7.1, ISO 100

You can even summon up courage to try birds in flight, experimenting with different settings. I found it helpful to use the 5D IV’s focus point joystick for greater compositional flexibility.

Bass Rock Birds 11
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS, 200mm, 1/1600 @ f/8, ISO 100
Bass Rock Birds 10
Canon 5Div, EF16-35mm f4L IS, 35mm, 1/2500 @ f/6.3, ISO 100
Bass Rock Birds 14
Canon 5Div, EF70-300mm f4-5.6L IS,00mm, 1/800 @ f/6.3, ISO 100

Back home, I converted my favourites to black and white using Nik Silver Efex, having first adjusted the histograms in Lightroom (often opening shadows up a bit). In Silver Efex, I usually added a slight structure boost and sometimes the red filter to darken the blue skies. For me, the 5D IV did the job really well. I know it’s not the most fashionable or exciting camera these days – but it just works, and the file quality is excellent!

One Last Thing I Loved:

Being able to leave my rucksack on the ground unattended.

What I Didn’t Love:

Cleaning my rucksack after leaving it on the ground unattended.

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