Wildlife Photography: Tips from the Falkland Islands

Our arrival in the Falkland Islands was early in the morning after a very rough night at sea. We were due to land at West Point Island (West Falklands) around 08.30 but the expedition leader deemed the sea state too bad and we had to wait.

A couple of hours later and we took to the zodiacs and arrived on the beach. West Point is the landing to visit a Black Browed Albatross and Rock Hopper Penguin colony. We were told the walk was around 1.6km over easy terrain. Actually it is 1.6 miles up and down hills and since we were battling a very strong wind it was not easy going. There is an option of getting a lift by land rover from the beach to the colony – if you get offered this option our advice is take it!

The colony is situated on the side of a hill and you can get within touching distance of the birds, but the paths are very narrow and the number of people great, so it is worth taking your time and letting the crush die down.  There is plenty to see and just watching the antics between the species and themselves is fascinating. Photography here was a challenge (see below for tips).

There is a lot going on besides the Albatross’s and the Penguins and it is worth keeping an eye out for the Caracara which hover constantly over the area looking out for lone chicks to take.

Our afternoon landing was at Saunders Island (West Falklands). This was a picturesque bay which on our arrival was filled with Commerson’s Dolphins. Around 100 individuals rocketed round the boat and chased after all of the zodiacs as they made their way to the beach. None of the expedition staff had ever seen this quantity in one place – truly magical.

This landing onto the sandy beach provides an opportunity to see literally thousands of Magellanic, Gentoo and Southern Rock Hopper Penguins and a small number of King Penguins. There is also a colony of Black Browed Albatross up the cliff.

This is an easy walk along the beach and the penguins are either in large groups, small groups or individuals. It is impossible not to take hundreds of shots! The penguin are very curious and if you stand or sit still they will come waddling towards you completely unaware of the 5m exclusion zone that is supposed to be between them and us!

The colony of rock hoppers at the end of the beach provide an opportunity to see them doing what you see in the nature programmes – jumping up and down the rocks (this was not the case in the visit to the colony on West Point Island).

Besides the Penguin there were Magellanic Oyster Catchers, Brown Skuas, Kelp Geese and Upland Geese.

Coming into the straight before arriving at Stanley (East Falklands) gives a perspective of the landscape and reminds one of the battles that took place here over 30 years ago.

The landing is onto a jetty and you arrive right next to the information centre. It is a small town which is easy to walk round. There is an excellent museum which covers information about early settlers, the whaling industry, information and a short film about the Argentinian occupation and an actual example of an Antarctic hut used on an expedition.

The town also has an excellent supermarket which has items ranging from food stuffs through toiletries, electronics, clothes and hardware. If there is anything you think you might need, have forgotten or (in our case) has broken this is the opportunity to sort it out – there won’t be another one until you get back to Ushuaia when of course, it will be too late!

There are a number of gift shops and places to eat and it is worth walking along the sea front to see the memorials, the church and the Governor’s house.

Photo Tips

The longest focal length you have is not necessarily the best.  At West Point Island you are almost on top of the Rockhopper Penguins and Albatross and often closer than the minimum focusing distance of your telephoto.  Some of the best shots we took were between 100mm and 200mm rather than the 400mm maximum available.

It is easy to keep firing away and taking photographs of every cute penguin that you come across.  At Saunders Island, in particular, take a moment and think about composition – what else is in the frame of the picture; have you included all of the bird or missed one of its feet; is it looking in the right direction?  The wildlife isn’t going anywhere so speed of reaction isn’t a factor – make the most of the time you have to get the best shot you can.

Think about habitat shots rather than just portraits of individual birds.  The shots with the most impact can be those that include the location.  Tightly cropped portraits have their place and can highlight the undoubted cuteness of the penguins, but after a while, the viewer wonders whether they could have been taken at a zoo.  Including the environment brings out the magic of the experience.

This applies to most places but try to avoid changing lenses – and if you have to, protect yourself from the wind as much as you can.  It can be a pain to have to go through your photographs later and remove those dust and dirt spots that could have been avoided.