Nesting Shags – Varying the Perspective

Posted by Matt on

One of the most important things that we have learnt as wildlife photographers is to try and tell a story with our images.  This means getting out of the mindset of taking a random selection of good pictures and instead aiming to link photos together with a common theme. A set of images that describe an environment or a particular animal can often be much more valuable than a single “winning shot”.

On our recent trip to the Falkland Islands, we tried to document the sea birds that nest along the rugged coastline. We aimed to capture a variety of images, using focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 600mm, that showed the birds’ behaviour and habitat.

Imperial shags squawking at a passing skua.

Two species of shag (birds similar to cormorants) nest on the Falklands; Imperial and Rock shags. We wanted to photograph both species and show the differences in their nesting habits. The only problem was that the rock shags nest on vertical cliff faces that are almost completely inaccessible! This meant that we had to get creative!

Rock shags nesting in a canyon.

One afternoon, we noticed a pair of Rock shags that were nesting underneath an overhang, 50 metres above the crashing surf. As soon as we saw the birds, we knew that it would make a beautiful image if we could photograph them with the sunrise behind. We spent the evening devising a method that would enable us to get the camera into the right position.

We came up with the “puppet technique”; a makeshift device involving a tripod and lots of string that gave us full control of the camera’s position in terms of angle and height. One of us could take the photos with a wireless remote trigger and provide instructions for the puppet master. We obviously had to maneuver the camera very slowly and carefully so as not to disturb the birds. It worked like a charm, and we were able to get a set of images that would have otherwise have been impossible to achieve.

Puppet Technique
Rock shags at sunrise

Another technique that we regularly employ is the “tripod lift”. We use this when we want to get an aerial perspective. In this case, we were trying to photograph a colony of Imperial shags from above, showing the amazing pattern of nests that arises as a result of each bird needing to be outside of the pecking range of its neighbours! We attached the camera to a fully extended tripod and lifted it as high as possible above our heads. This took a lot of strength, and it needed two of us to hold the tripod and trigger the remote shutter-release.

Aerial perspective of an Imperial shag colony.
Imperial shag in flight

In order to complete our set we also wanted to photograph the shags’ breeding behaviour. At this time of year, the birds were still constructing their nests and were regularly bringing back clumps of kelp to build up their towers. We positioned ourselves in their flight path and were able to get frame-filling images of them using the 600mm lens. This required a fair bit of practice and used up an embarrassing amount of storage!

You can see more photographs of us in the field on our Facebook Fan Page.


  1. Jenna Stirling said: January 19, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    Wow! Pretty daring I must say, it paid off in a big way though! I love the sunrise shot but they are all great. I think this is the best collective group of images I’ve seen so far. Keep up the great work!

  2. Ruben Vicente said: January 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    You and your brother make a great team together! Those techniques couldn’t be handled by one guy alone.

    Thx for sharing those technical tips, quite an interesting read.

  3. rushh said: January 21, 2010 at 9:59 am

    interesting work.. i like the top image.. a good story… keep it up…

  4. Nishad Sanzagiri said: January 22, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Excellent !!!
    I love this collection. My favourite is the last photograph of the flying shag. Its amazing.
    Well done !!

  5. Jim Goldstein said: February 3, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Very creative with the “puppet” technique. The photo came out great. Glad no gear was lost and no one got hurt as well.

  6. Kavey said: February 24, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    Having just returned from 26 days in the FI today I wanted to say how fantastic your images are. Very inspirational. I looked at those you’d posted before we left and they were very motivating. And I’m enjoying looking at these new ones, and seeing the efforts you put in to achieving them!

  7. Grant Marcus said: March 26, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Great images and i love the fact that you guys take the risks to get the shot, glad I stumble onto your blog great work

  8. Jonathan said: April 20, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    I love love love your ideas. you and your brother rock the world!! keep it up. and i would like to see more of your projects~yoyo

  9. Melanie said: September 5, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Just amazing! First visit to the blog, I have noticed your shots on Facebook but not actually looked close enough before. I just wanted to re-iterate all of the above!

    Plus, if you need a tea lady to come and make you regular cuppa’s on your field trips, just let me know and I will be packing my case (and a selection of tea) quicker than you can say ‘we need a tea lady’..

  10. Luke Burrage said: January 2, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Hi guys,

    I love how you work together as a photography team, something my girlfriend and I are doing more of at the moment. Do you have a closeup of the puppet crane? I’ve made a similar device myself before, certainly to hang strobes in the right place, but it would be good to get more hints from the masters. Do you use the live preview to see what the camera sees from a distance, or do you rely on having a wide angle lens? I have a 60D which has an articulated screen which could be handy.

    Catch you later,

    Luke B.

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