When it comes to photographing wildlife, I’m nowhere near the lofty eminence of John Sherman or Tom Redd (both of whom I had the privilege of meeting in Colorado earlier this month), but I’ll make use of any opportunity I can. Photographing the grey seals on the Norfolk coast was an annual autumnal pilgrimage for me but the last couple of years I was remiss in not making the journey.
Determined to go this year I waited an age for some decent weather, but then I remembered that this is the United Kingdom and as much as I love Her Majesty’s realm the prospect of good weather is often a pipe dream. So my friend and I trundled for a couple hours along the coast, far from civilisation and barricaded from the wind by the sand dunes until we finally caught a glimpse of some seals bobbing up and down in the water. Further afield, many more were gathered on a shallow bank of sand offshore.
The United Kingdom has many colonies of grey seals along its coastline, both in the west and east, and they are fortunately a protected species here. The males are a dark colour and the females a grey or brown shade. To my eyes they are beautiful mammals, intelligent, sociable and curious, with many anthropomorphic gestures.
The seals are naturally weary but curious of humans, keeping their distance but often approaching the beach to stare at passers by. Pups are born in the autumn (winter in the west Atlantic), identifiable from their white fur and, like most mammalian species, the parents are protective of them.
Grey seals will eat mainly fish, eels and lobsters, but have been known to eat porpoises and even harbour seals. They certainly have the teeth for it.
Obviously, while photographing them one wants to keeps a respectful distance, so a zoom lens is a must (this is where Verm’s 500mm would come in handy!). On this most recent occasion I used the Olympus 40-150mm F/2.8 (80-300mm FF equivalent), which didn’t get me that close. I wanted to use the 1.4x teleconverter with it but it hadn’t arrived in time. On previous occasions I have used a 400mm focal length on a DX sensor (600mm FF equivalent). I have included some of those previous photos here too.
Lighting wasn’t great with the overcast cloud cover so I shot almost everything at F/2.8. This also helped me keep my ISO lower. For many shots I would lie on my front on the sand, or crouch by shrub or behind some rocks near the water’s edge.
The seals exhibit a variety of poses and gestures, all of which I find photogenic, and their boisterous play is a pleasure to watch even without a viewfinder glued to my face.
I’m not going to presume to offer any advice except to repeat that keeping a respectful distance is a good idea. The seals are this far away from human activity and dwellings for a reason.
Furthermore, maintaining a distance allows them to feel comfortable in their environment and behave as they would normally do; this can only benefit your images. As I stated above a zoom lens, preferably with a fast aperture, is essential but a wider focal length could obviously capture more of their environment. A decent frame rate and a capacious memory card will also help with capturing moments of action. Keep your finger on the shutter once you’ve focused on some activity. You can delete the unwanted files later. Cameras with phase detection auto focus will have an easier time than the contrast detection on my E-M5 but I’m happy with the shots I got from it.
Anyway, be still, be quiet and be patient, and you may be rewarded with a glimpse into the world of the beautiful grey seal.