Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images
Wildlife and nature photography hints and tips
seals at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire
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:
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
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
The current LWT visitor guidelines are available here : Visitor
Guidelines. The relevant section is reproduced here:
" When taking wildlife photographs it is important to
* 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
This is the site that greets you from the path. Your mission,
wish to accept it, is to make them look more interesting in
|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...
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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...
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!
Image taken with canon 1Dmk2, Canon 500mm f4 lens, f8 @ 1/1000
sec, iso 200
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
For lots more images of seals - please click here to visit
my seals gallery
Copyright Ophrys Photography 2012