The contrasting black and white plumage of eiders can make for challenging exposures. Oscar Dewhurst shares his top tips for how best to photograph these birds
About the eiders
Eiders can be found around much of the UK’s coastline during the winter. Their gaudy plumage makes them very photogenic, but the high contrast can make exposure tricky.
- Location In the breeding season they tend to be along the UK’s northern coasts
- Size Length 50-71cm; wingspan 80-110cm
- Nest Nests are built on the ground in colonies near the sea and are lined with eiderdown plucked from the female’s breast
- Diet Shellfish, especially mussels
- UK population 26,000 breeding pairs, 60,000 wintering birds
Eiders are famous for their soft down used to incubate their nests, as well as by humans to stuff quilts and pillows. Males are unmistakable, with contrasting black and white plumage and a green nape, as well as a large wedge-shaped bill. Females are brown, with delicate barring. They are the UK’s heaviest duck, and are also believed to be the fastest bird in steady level flight, reaching speeds of almost 50 miles per hour.
A sea duck, they are rarely found away from the coast, where they dive for crustaceans and molluscs, and nest on islands and rocky coasts. In winter, they disperse across the UK’s coastline, where they can often be seen in large flocks, staying close inshore. As they are rarely found on land, you will be confined in terms of positioning, unless you want to be in the sea with them! Consider the angle of light, time your visit and alter your positioning accordingly. It always pays to be at the same level as your subject for more intimate portraits and to throw the foreground and background out of focus.
The contrasting plumage of males can make exposure difficult, particularly in harsh light, when it can be hard to avoid losing detail in the shadows or highlights. So shoot early or late in the day, when the sun is lower in the sky. With softer light it will be easier to pick out the eye in the resulting photo, as with harsh light it often gets lost in the black of the bird’s crown.
For best results, set your camera’s fastest frame rate and continuous autofocus with a single focus point. Depending on the weather conditions, I switch between aperture priority and manual exposure modes; manual mode is good when the light is constant, particularly when photographing a high-contrast bird such as male eiders, where the metering can be fooled by the white and black plumage. Take an exposure reading off a neutral area, such as grass, and dial that in, checking the images to ensure the correct exposure. If the light is changeable, aperture priority means you don’t need to keep changing your exposure manually, although watch out for the problems the contrasting plumage can cause.
With their gaudy plumage, eiders make great photographic subjects. At this time of year, males will be displaying to the females; they push themselves out of the water, then throw their heads back and call. As well as this, there are plenty of other opportunities for images, such as flocks of birds together on the sea, images showing off the birds’ wonderful plumage or birds in flight. In some areas, the birds are very confiding, having been fed by tourists, so you can experiment with wideangle images showing them in their environment.