Behind the Image: Owen Hearn, Seal at Sunrise

Sixteen-year-old photographer Owen Hearn won first prize in last year’s RSPCA Young Photographer Awards with this striking silhouette of a seal. Here, he explains how he captured it.


Behind the Image - Owen Hearn

Image: Owen Hearn


I’ve been interested in photography for the past four years, ever since I was bought a point-and-shoot camera as a Christmas present. I soon traded in the point-and-shoot for a bridge camera and not long after moved onto a DSLR – needless to say, photography has since become a passion.

My work is usually based around my grandparents’ Bedfordshire farm, as there’s an abundance of wildlife such as Chinese water deer, hares, owls and other subjects to learn to track and capture on camera. As often as I can, however, I like to travel the UK to find different subject. This has included taking pictures of the gannets on Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, mountain hares in the Cairngorms, marsh harriers in Jersey and peregrine falcons off the Dorset cliffs.

The above image was taken during my first trip to see the grey seal population on the Norfolk coast. Norfolk boasts the largest grey seal colony in England after this year’s pupping season, and many of them can be seen at Blakeney Point – not too far from where this image was taken at Wells-next-the-Sea. It was New Year’s Day and, with a very early start to get the farming work finished, my grandfather and I headed to Wells-next-the-Sea in the hope of getting some decent shots of the seals. We live about two-and-a-half hours drive away and intended to be there for sunrise, so you can imagine how early we had to start!

With no particular knowledge of the area, we had pinpointed a spot near the coast that we had looked up online. We had no idea how many seals to expect but, if all else failed, it would be a chance to investigate for a future trip. When we arrived the car park was clear and we wrapped up and set off in search of the seals. We didn’t have to go far to find them; there were seals on the beach, not in great numbers but it provided the opportunity to get single seal shots. They were well used to people being on the beach so I got to work to see what I could come up with.

After taking a number of ‘safe’ shots I started to wonder how I could create an image that would be a little different from the norm, perhaps a different angle or an unusual close-up. I ended up lying down in the sand, getting very wet and shooting uphill towards the seal who was on a bank of sand. The rising sun was behind the seal and, by underexposing by a few stops to create the rim-lit effect, the background darkened and I was able to come up with this image.

Shooting with a Nikon D300 and a 600mm f/4 lens, I used a wide aperture to give a shallow depth-of-field and to create some nice bokeh in the foreground (helped by the sun shining off the pebbles on the beach). The actual position and pose of the seal was very basic but by underexposing by 3.7EV stops, an ordinary scene was turned into something a little more eye-catching.

The trip was short-lived as, although the conditions were great for taking pictures at sunrise, the sunny morning then started to attract the visitors; within an hour there were more people walking on the beach than there were seals! The time spent taking photographs was much shorter than the time it took to get to Wells-next-the-Sea, but it was well worth the trip. Those important moments at sunrise and sunset never fail to add a wonderful dimension to what would otherwise be an ordinary image.

I was lucky enough to win first prize in my age category and overall at the RSPCA Young Photographer Awards 2014 with this image. I was extremely pleased to say the least!


About the Author

Owen Hearn is a sixteen-year-old self-taught photographer with an interest in wildlife and agricultural photography. His photography has won awards such as the Veolia Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2012) and the overall prize in the RSPCA Young Photographer Awards (2014), and he was highly commended in the British Wildlife Photography Awards. For more of Owen’s work, visit his website or Facebook page.


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