On December 7, 1972, the astronauts on Apollo 17 looked back towards Earth, describing it as the size of a marble. That day, they took a photograph that showed our planet to be overwhelmingly blue. This image became so famous that it is known as “The Blue Marble” and is one of the most iconic pictures of our time. It illustrates beautifully the fact that 72 percent of the Earth is covered in salt water. I have a passion for photographing the birds that spend much of their lives travelling across our oceans; many species visit land once a year to breed. They are some of the world’s great nomads. When they do gather to breed, they can come together in vast numbers, creating spectacles that are astonishing to witness.
One of these seabird cities can be found in the English county of Yorkshire, at Bempton Cliffs. I had not visited Bempton for nearly thirty years, until this summer. I returned to document the teeming bird life that cloaks Bempton’s 100-metre-high cliffs. The sounds and the smells of tens of thousands of breeding birds are memorable enough, but it is the visual spectacle of cliffs teeming with life, that is so unforgettable.
The potential for taking pictures can be a little overwhelming for a first-time visitor. There is drama everywhere you look. In the air, kittiwakes, a delicate looking gull, squabble with their neighbours in airborne jousts. Gannets cruise past some with beak-fulls of vegetation or seaweed en route to line their nests. Puffins occasionally peek over the cliff top to delight human visitors. Known as the “Clowns of the Sea” for their comical look they are impossible to walk by and not photograph.
I love to travel light. My kit on that day included both converters — M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20 and the 1.4x Teleconverter MC-14, an M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO lens in my pockets and the OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.Zuiko ED 100-400mm F5.0-6.3 IS telephoto zoom over my shoulder. That way, I had every eventuality covered, but was not weighed down by gear. Lots of opportunities means being prepared with a wide range of focal lengths, and it is in these situations where opportunities can present themselves in a blink of an eye, and where a telephoto zoom lens is the perfect choice. Standing, overlooking a kittiwake colony, I was able to use the zoom lens to take a range of images, from wider shots of the colony to individual portraits of birds on the cliff face. Occasionally, a particularly territorial individual would stoop on to unsuspecting kittiwakes arriving or leaving the colony. Mid-air fights, lasting just a second or two, gave very fleeting opportunities, but I managed to capture this drama using the nine-point autofocus setting on my camera that locked on quickly to the birds flying against the sea below.
The more versatile your lens, often the more creative you can become with your imagery. Standing on the edge of the gannet colony, I could see opportunities to focus in on just parts of the bird or pick out details as pairs interacted, preening each other or pointing bills skywards in a courtship display. The zoom lens produces tack sharp images with both the 1.4x teleconverter and 2x teleconverter, giving even greater reach. So, when a razorbill popped its head up, I was able, with the 2x teleconverter and a 35mm equivalent of 1600mm focal reach, to create beautiful head and shoulder portraits in the low evening sun.
It was a special day photographing the seabirds at Bempton, made even more enjoyable by being completely free from heavy gear to simply walk and explore the cliffs and uncover so many exciting opportunities to capture life in this bustling seabird city.
Author & Photographer: David Tipling