The Dos and Don'ts of Photographing Pelagic Birds

Buller's Albatross

What is a Pelagic bird?

'Pelagic' means 'related to the open sea'. A pelagic bird, therefore, is a bird that spends the majority of it's life on the ocean, away from land (other than when breeding).

Pelagic birds include albatrosses, fulmars, shearwaters and petrels. They tend to have long, slim wings that allow them to glide over the ocean for long periods of time. Some even sleep on the wing.

The Wandering Albatross (see below) has the largest wingspan of any bird, up to 3.5 metres, and is truly a sight to behold.

So do you have to go to the remotest regions of the ocean to see one? Not necessarily. There are many places around the world where you can see pelagic birds on a day cruise. I've seen pelagic birds:

- on an organised pelagic birding cruise from Hillary's Boat Harbour (coast of Western Australia);

- on a cruise to the incredible Ball's Pyramid, Lord Howe Island, New South Wales;

- on Bremer Canyon Killer Whale Expedition (off coast of Bremer Bay, southern Western Australia); and

- on Bruny Island Wilderness Cruise, Bruny Island, Tasmania (see Blog article on this cruise here).  


the Dos and the Dont's

Number one

DO Take Sea-sick tablets.

DON'T review your images.

I've been sea-sick on every pelagic bird trip where I haven't had sea-sickness tablets beforehand (though to be fair, I've also been sea-sick snorkelling so I might be a little on the sensitive side!). On one trip, I was soooo sick that a golden-headed, purple breasted, blue-footed booby could have landed on my head and I wouldn't have cared!


  • DO definitely take (good) sea-sickness medication; AND 
  • DON'T look at your images whilst on the boat. You can have a quick check of images on the LCD every now and then but never for more than a few seconds. It's the equivalent of reading in a moving car.


Campbell's Albatross

Campbell's Albatross: Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon 300mm F4 lens, F5.6, 1/3200 and ISO640. 

    Number 2 

    DO take a good zoom lens.

    DON'T take a long (esp. 500, 600) Prime lens.

    You definitely don't need, or want, to have a super long lens for pelagic bird photography. The dumbest thing I have ever done was to take a 500mm F4 lens on a Killer Whale Expedition. The focal length was unnecessarily long (most birds will do fly-bys quite close to the boat or even land in the water next to it) and, with the rocking of the boat, I was lucky my heavy lens, and I, didn't end up as fish food! 

    So what kind of lens should you take?

    • A zoom lens, with a focal length up to 300mm or 400mm, is a good choice; OR  
    • A 200, 300 or 400mm prime lens PLUS a shorter lens in your kit bag.
    Buller's Albatross
      Buller's Albatross: F5.6, 1/3200, ISO640. My favourite pelagic image of a bird that I've taken is this Buller's Albatross. It was taken with a Canon EOS 7D Mark II (cropped sensor camera) and Canon 300mm F4 lens. A prime lens, such as the 300mm F4, has great AF and sharpness combined with a relatively long focal length and a reasonably wide aperture (great for those cloudy days). On the downside, if you get a killer whale diving under the boat, you'll be too close so keep a shorter lens handy for a quick change-over.  

      Number 3

      DO set your exposure BEFORE you see a bird.

      DONT Blow out the whites.

       As discussed in my article, Birds in Flight , you should set your camera as follows:

      • Select a focal point configuration which is roughly star-shaped (that is, a central focus with about 4 surrounding points). Try to keep the selected points on the the head of the bird, preferably the centre point on its eye.
      • Make sure it is in Continuous High Speed shooting mode.
      • Adjust the shutter speed to between 1/2500 and 1/4000 sec, depending on the light conditions. 
      • Adjust the Aperture to between F5.6 and F7.
      • ISO is the most flexible of all your settings. Don't skimp or be obsessed with keeping it as low as possible. Your priority is getting a sharp shot. If you can't get an appropriate exposure with the minimum settings for BIF above, then up the ISO. On a sunny day, your ISO should be around ISO320, on a cloudy day you may need to go as high as ISO1600 (or more).
      • Take a test shot of something white. Check the image. How is the exposure? Are the whites flashing black? If so, adjust your settings within the above parameters until the flashing stops.  

      Wandering Albatross

       Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans): Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F5.6, 1/4000, ISO640. This was taken on a cruise to Ball's Pyramid from Lord Howe Island, New South Wales. How beautiful is this young albatross?

      Number 4

       DO adopt a wide stance and stay near a railing

      To maintain good balance with the rocking of the boat, adopt a wide stance and try to 'roll' with the waves. Your legs and knees to act like shock absorbers on a corrugated road to keep your lens as steady as possible. A rocking boat is no place for stiff legs! 

        Providence Petrel

      Providence Petrel : Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon F5.6, 1/3200, ISO640. This was taken on a cruise to Ball's Pyramid from Lord Howe Island, New South Wales. 


      Number 5Other DOs and DON'Ts

       DO take:

      • waterproof covering for your camera bag (salt spray gets everywhere!);
      • depending on how rough the seas are likely to be, a raincoat for yourself and your camera and lens to protect them from large wave dumps;
      • a couple of cloths for cleaning your lenses (and do this often);
      • a strap for your camera so that you don't drop it overboard;
      • don't forget extra camera cards and a spare battery - you never know what you will see!
      • hat and sunscreen; and
      • lots of water - remember to keep hydrated
      DON'T take bananas! Nothing excites a superstitious boatie more than a woman with a banana! :-) 

       Killer Whale


       Don't become fish food! Leave your super long prime lenses at home.



        Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment below.
         I would really love to hear from you!



        • I’ve done about 6 Princess Cruise from Vancouver BC to Los Angeles CA. My camera is a 7D Mark II with the 100-400 Zoom. I’ve always been a bit confused with the AF settings. Someone told me that 9 points is better than 21 or 65. Also, I use the center spot for focus. The AF settings in the Canon are beyond my brain. Do you have a list of AF setting for pelagic birds in flight? If I ever got a photo like your, I’d retire in peace. They are fantastic.

          Kenneth Fry
        • Your tips and advice are very much appreciated. I too have been seasick often, but am very keen to go out to the Bremer canyon for bird photography. I wont take my Olympus 300mm IS Pro prime!

          Keith James
        • Fabulous information. I am a huge fan of your work. I look forward to reading your newsletters and blogs. One day I will be on one of your workshops, xxx

          Tracey Heimberger
        • I’ve been out from Port Macdonell near the Victorian South Australian border. Wonderful variety of birds that come to the shelf to feed. Fantastic experience!

          Carole O’Neill
        • Great tips, thanks. I would be fine then with my Olympus EM10 with the 70-150 zoom. It has a crop sensor with crop factor 2, so that works out to 300 on a full frame.
          Good to know.
          I know what you mean about the sea sickness pills! I once took a whale watching cruise without, and I got so sick I did not give a hoot about the whales near the ship.

          Karin (Instagram Karinsvad)

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