Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips

Photographing grey seals at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire

2011 Update

Since writing this article in 2006 things have changed a lot at Donna Nook. There have been calls from the Lincolnshire Trust wardens to ban photographers from visiting the colony out by the surf. There have been accusations that this is leading to increased seal mortality. This is described in an article here: Photo radar article

Whether there is any evidence that photographers are directly responsible for this decline or whether they are being unjustly accused by over-zealous wardens I cannot say. I have not personally witnessed any irresponsible behaviour from photographers but that does not mean to say that it does not go on. I have heard tales of some idiots taking pictures of seal pups with flash at point blank range - such people are probably acting in ignorance rather than through intended cruelty - but any such activity should be politely but firmly challenged by anyone winessing such behaviour. No picture is worth taking if the animal's breeding success is being put at risk.

John Stuart-Clarke has written a very balanced article on the contraversey here: Donna Nook contraversy.

As an ethical photogapher who puts animal welfare above all other criteria the contraversy has given me a dilemma as to whether I should leave this article on my website. For the time being I am leaving it up as I believe that it would be a pity if the vast majority of responsible photographers and photo tour companies are denied the opportunity to photograph one of the best wildlife spectacles in the country without reliable evidence. At the time of writing, the LWT can only request that visitors do not go out to the surf so photographers can still make up their own minds - I agree with Paul Hobson's suggestion for the LWT to come up with a code of conduct for photographers to educate the inexperienced ones rather than to continue to vilify all photogaphers and persue a ban.

The current LWT visitor guidelines are available here : Visitor Guidelines. The relevant section is reproduced here:

" When taking wildlife photographs it is important to remember:

* The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.
* Photography should not be undertaken if it puts the subject at risk from disturbance, physical damage, and lessened reproductive success, or if it causes the subject anxiety."

These are not rocket science and there is no excuse for any photographer to ignore these guidelines

2006 Article:

Great Britain is internationally important as a breeding site for the grey (atlantic) seal Halichoerus grypus. Every year, one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in this country takes place on a piece of remote Lincolnshire coast near the RAF station at Donna Nook. There is no better place for photographing grey seals.

In October grey seals begin to arrive and haul themselves up the beach from the sea to give birth to their pups.They provide a unique opportunity to get close to these usually unapproachable animals and they provide fantastic photographic opportunities.

Getting There

The nearest village to Donna Nook is North Somercotes on the A1031. It is 20 miles away from Grimsby.
All the roads from North Somercotes converge at a small car park. This quickly becomes full, particularly in October at the weekend, but overflow car parking is made available in an adjacent field if this is the case.

For a Multimap link to Donna Nook, please click here: Donna Nook

When to go

October is the traditional time to visit, but breeding continues right through November and into December. There are reputedly some seals still present in January and into February and there is the benefit then, that there will be virtually no people around.

Timing is important when planning a visit. The RAF do practice bombing runs, mainly during the week, when red flags are flown and there is no access to the beaches down to the water's edge. You can still visit the colony beside the car park at these times though. The bombing runs are less likely to take place at weekends, so this is probably the best time to go, however, it is much busier with visitors at weekends.

If you are planning a visit to the sea shore, it is best to consult the tide tables. It is a long walk out to the water's edge at high tide (about 40 minutes ) but feels much longer - particularly if you are carrying long lenses and heavy tripods !

Finally check the weather forecast. Ideally a sunny day is best to bring out the colours in the water and the seals fur, but a bright- overcast day can also be good to avoid the burn-out which becomes a problem with wet fur. Fortunately in November and December, the light tends to be much softer than in the summer months. The usual advice to arrive at dawn for the best light applies, and you are more likely to bag a place in the car park at this time !

Where to go

From the back of the car park there is a path onto the sand. Take a turn to your right, and there is a path which is ideal for a first experience of the seals. The seals lie around in the sand dunes and water pools with their white pups dotted around. A small picket fence is erected along the path during the breeding season each year by the local nature conservancy trust and there is usually a warden around to provide information to visitors. The fence is small and keeps seals and their pups separate from the general public.
Small white seal pups are very endearing, and are often deposited very close to the fence - where they make fantastic subjects for photography. It is possible to use a 100mm macro lens to take close-up shots here.


Grey seals from the main path
This is the site that greets you from the path. Your mission, if you
wish to accept it, is to make them look more interesting in a photo!







For my previous couple of visits, both during November, I didn't venture further than this path, and got some very satisfying shots, like this mother suckling a pup. Shot taken with a 100-400 lens at 400mm...
Grey seals- mother suckling calf

However, for serious photographers, there are some fantastic shots to be had of the seals as they frolic and play and also fight in the surf at the water's edge. To get to the sea, head out from the car park at an angle of about 1 o'clock and just keep walking. You will need wellingtons as it gets wet in places.

Personal safety!

This is really a significant issue at this site if you plan on walking out to the water's edge, so please read this bit !

As you are walking a long way from the shore, it is easy to become disorientated, so as you start walking out, take note of some landmarks on the shore. There are various concrete blocks and buoys that can act as markers.

When the tide turns, the sea starts to come in pretty rapidly, so be prepared to start moving back promptly when it does. It is very possible for the sea to come in up a gulley behind you (it did with me), so be vigilant to ensure that you don't get cut-off by the tide. This is a very real risk, but perfectly ok if you are sensible - so please take care.

Finally, the seals themselves are large animals and are very powerful. They can move surprisingly quickly and can apparently pack a nasty bite - having teeth similar to a dog , so don't get too close. Mothers with pups can be very protective and big bulls can be pretty aggressive when pumped up with testosterone. So be warned ! Having said that, if you are sensible and make a very slow approach, over say 20 minutes, shuffling forward on your belly for the last bit, most seals will accept you and tolerate a close approach. If you just go walking upright up to the seals you will frighten them off - which is not fair on the animals, and you will incur the wrath of other photographers who have already painstakingly worked their way into position.

Clothing etc

It is important to make yourself comfortable and to keep dry while you are out on the beach, otherwise you will soon be cold and miserable and not enjoy what should be a fantastic experience. It is important to wear some waterproof clothing - I wear an old wax jacket and some waterproof trousers. Footwear of choice is wellingtons. You will be splashing through some water around a foot deep as you cross some of the water channels on your way to the sea.
I strongly recommend taking some sandwiches and a drink with you - it is an awful long way back to the snack wagon in the car park if you get hungry!

Protecting your equipment.

This is absolutely vital. Sand particles are constantly blowing around, and on the day of my last visit, there was a mini-sandstorm taking place. Great for atmospheric shots, but murder on the equipment! I used a stout, clear plastic bag with a hole cut in the end to encase my telephoto lens, which I held in place with elastic bands. Another time, I would also wrap my tripod legs up in plastic too - as I ended up spending about two hours the next day washing the sand out from the joints. They still make a bit of a crunch as I turn them even now!

Grey seal bull in sandstorm

As there is a danger that the tide will come in, never leave any equipment such as a rucksack or tripod unattended - as it could end up being submerged!

What equipment to take?

As the seals on the beach will tolerate a close approach, a lens in the 70-200mm range is fine. A Canon 100-400mm f5.6 IS would also be a great choice. For seals in the sea, a bit more reach is preferable, so a 500mm is ideal, but not essential. A tele extender can also be useful to get close-up head shots.

In order to get good pictures, it is important to be on a level with the seals - in other words, it is best to lie down and meet them at eye level. It is important when using long telephoto lenses to use a means of support for the camera to prevent camera shake. Some people use some ingenious gadgets for this. Some people use a tea tray or a mini sledge to which they attach a ball and socket head, and then the camera plus lens is attached to this. It is a pretty good solution, as the tray can be slid forward effortlessly over the sand as you inch closer to the seals.

A bean bag also works well, but you will need to wrap it in a plastic bag to stop it getting wet.

I use my Gitzo tripod, with it's legs splayed out, which gets me about eight inches above the sand - which is perfect. A very useful tip here, is to use an angle finder on your eyepiece which really saves your neck from straining when looking through the viewfinder.

Getting in close

The seals may be nervous at first, so take your time to work your way in. They seem to find you far less threatening if you lay down and crawl in - presumably, they then think you are a new kind of seal come to visit them!
Take your time - perhaps 20 minutes, so as not to stress the seals - particularly if they have pups with them. Never be tempted to touch a pup on it's own - it's mother could abandon it if it gets your scent on it. With care and patience, you will get good shots with a short to medium telephoto lens, and some people have even used wide angle lenses - but I wouldn't recommend getting that close as there is a danger of causing disturbance to the seals. Please ensure that you do not prevent a mother from coming back to feed her pup that she may have left on the beach while she is out at sea.

The water's edge

This is where you will probably get your best shots. The seals will often pose for you, and if you are lucky, will see some courtship play or bulls fighting. On my last visit, it was a wonderful sunny day (which makes a change) but was also pretty windy - which had the effect of blowing up the sea into spectacular waves and foam, like this...

Grey seal in surf

Again, it is important that your presence does not prevent seals from coming back to shore. The welfare of the seals must be your first priority.


Digital SLR Photography tips

I have covered a few of the most important points already, in the text above, but to recap :

Protect your equipment with plastic bags

Get down to the seals level. This will allow you a closer approach and more impressive shots. An angle finder will help prevent getting a crick in your neck!

Use a lens of between 200 and 500mm.

Check your histogram ! The light meter on the camera deals with most seals just fine as they are a mid-tone colour. However, if they are wet, the fur can fool the meter into under-exposing - so check your histogram regularly and adjust the exposure compensation if necessary. Brightly lit sand and sea can also cause similar problems. Just remember the old tip of "add light to white" and increase exposure in scenes where there is a lot of brightness to fool the meter.

Use a low tripod or beanbag to support the camera.

Try experimenting with aperture. You may want to throw the background out of focus by using the lens wide open, but it is also worth stopping the lens down to say f16 occasionally to take in some background if it is the sea - or photogenic parts of the beach. A seal is a long animal, so if it is at an angle, you may have to stop the lens down a bit to get it all into focus. If you go in tight for a head shot, you will be working at high magnification - so again, you will need to stop the lens down (use a small aperture) such as f11 to achieve good depth of field. The background will still blur nicely as it is much further away than your subject.

Always focus on the eyes - they MUST be in focus - so move your autofocus point around until it is right over the eye - and then shoot away.

Watch out for crooked horizons in your pictures ! You can use the leveling tool in Photoshop to quickly straighten up some that you will inevitably produce.

Go for some action shots - use AI servo if you have it and give the motordrive a workout. If there isn't much light the day you visit, increase the ISO setting to achieve a sufficiently high shutter speed to freeze the movement. It is better to get a sharp grainy picture than a blurred one with no grain!

Grey seals fighting
Image taken with canon 1Dmk2, Canon 500mm f4 lens, f8 @ 1/1000 sec, iso 200

Other wildlife

While you are on the beach, it is so easy to get mesmerised by the seals, but it is worth keeping an eye open for the pretty little white sanderlings, which can be obliging here. In some years, there have reputedly been good numbers of snow buntings too, but I have never been fortunate enough to see them myself.


For lots more images of seals - please click here to visit my seals gallery

© Copyright Ophrys Photography 2012