Monday, September 7, 2015

A Guide to Photographing Owls

Great Horned Owl, April 2013

Owls are my favorite bird group.  They are hard to find, hard to hear, and hard to see.  That is, unless you know what you are looking and listening for, and where to go.  In this post I will try to teach my readers about how to more effectively find and photograph owls.  I have been lucky to meet some top owl enthusiasts, Caleb Strand and Tommy DeBardeleben.  They have both helped me learn a lot about owls.  This year, I have been fortunate enough to encounter 10 owl species.

They are:

Great Horned Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Burrowing Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Short-eared Owl (seen and heard)
Flammulated Owl (heard only)
Spotted Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Whiskered Screech-Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Western Screech-Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Northern Pygmy-Owl (heard only)
Elf Owl (seen and heard, photographed)
Barn Owl (seen and heard, photographed)

North America (excluding Mexico and Central America) is home to 19 regularly-occurring non-vagrant owls.  My personal goal is to find all 19 by the end of 2016.  This will be a difficult task, as two of them, Northern Hawk-Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, are highly localized.

Western Screech-Owl, June 2015

The 9 species I need to find are:

Boreal Owl
Great Gray Owl
Snowy Owl
Northern Hawk-Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Eastern Screech-Owl
Barred Owl
Long-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Owls in North America are a fairly diverse lot.  The sizes of our owls range from the large and powerful Great Gray Owl to the tiny 5" Elf Owl.

Owls are difficult to search for, unless you know a lot about their habitats, ranges, and behaviors.  Arizona, where I lived until very recently, is home to 13 species.  Idaho, where I live now, is home to 15.  Washington, a short 30-minute drive from me, is also home to 15, and is more reliable for Boreal, Great Gray, Snowy, and Northern Hawk-Owls.  Thus, there are a lot of opportunities to find owls up here in the Inland Northwest.

Head over to Tommy D's excellent post for a thorough guide to finding owls specifically in AZ, species by species.  I definitely recommend you read his post before you continue this one.  This post will be fairly general and broad-scope, and focus on photographing owls.  Now that you are a Tommy-taught expert on finding owls, I'll teach you how to photograph them.

Burrowing Owl, June 2014

To find many species of owls, you must search at night. This requires a different type of preparation than typical daylight birding.  You must be prepared to encounter potentially dangerous wildlife, as well as be prepared with enough food and water.  Also, always let someone know where you are going before you head out looking for owls at night.  Always bring a flashlight and plenty of water!  It is usually best to bring a friend as well.

Most owls call and hunt nocturnally, making them easier to find at night.  However, some species are primarily active diurnally, calling and hunting in the daytime.  Depending on your region, owls usually most easily found during the day or evening include:

Northern Pygmy-Owl
Burrowing Owl
Short-eared Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (don't expect one of these rare owls unless you happen to be in south Arizona at a spot called Organ Pipe National Monument)

Always research the call of your target owl.  I cannot think of a single instance where I have owled at night and seen the owl before I heard it.  This knowledge is essential to finding owls.  Look in your field guide for habitat suggestions.  Checking with birding friends can also be a good way to find owl spots.  However, owls are sensitive, and avoid drawing too much attention to their whereabouts.  Don't post their exact locations publicly online.

Barn Owl, June 2015

Listen, and try to locate the owl by paying close attention to the direction you hear the call coming from.  Once you have located an owl, switch gears into trying to photograph it.  Patience is key here, and keep your distance while you decide which angle to approach the bird from.  In bird photography, background plays a key part of determining a good photo.  If the background is very busy, with lots of leaves or distracting twigs, the picture will simply not be as good.  Often, there is nothing that can be done about bad backgrounds, but do your best to try to find an unobstructed view of the owl.  Even a 1 foot shift in your position can make a big difference in the aesthetic quality of your background.  So, experiment and see what works.

Now that you have picked your angle, approach the bird very slowly.  If it shows any signs of stress, such as quick movements or hunching over, stop.  The primary concern is the well being of the bird, and as bird photographers, we must keep their safety in mind.  Once the owl resumes normal behavior, it may be OK to continue towards the bird very slowly.  However, do not approach so close that you can fill the entire frame with a head closeup of the bird in your camera.  Also, full body shots are usually more aesthetically pleasing anyway.  At night, owls often sit still calling for long periods, so there is usually no rush to approach the bird to photograph it.

Elf Owl, May 2015.

A note about specific owl species:  Spotted Owls and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls are Federally protected, and it is illegal to harass them in any way, including approaching too close, using flash photography, or using playback to entice the bird to come closer.

Now, I'll talk about settings.

At night, you will want to use flash,  If you have an off camera flash, great.  These can be obtained for about $120 (contact me for details).  If not, your camera's built in flash will work in all but the most distant situations.  Obviously, you will also need a flashlight.  If you have a friend with you, you can ask him to hold the flashlight pointed on the owl so you can autofocus the camera.  However, do not point the light directly in the owl's eyes.  They do not seem to mind, but how would you like it if someone pointed a bright light into your very sensitive eyes?  Point the light on a nearby branch, and use the reflected and dimmer light to see the owl.

(These settings apply for night and day shooting).  I am getting ahead of myself.  Before you autofocus the camera, set your settings.  I use Aperture mode, and set my camera and lens to the an f/stop of anywhere from f/8 to f/4.  The lower the f number the wider the aperture, and the more light is let into the sensor.  (Also, the lower the f number, the more out of focus and the less distracting the background will be, as a rule).  Then, your camera will pick the shutter speed.  Always ensure you are using a shutter speed equal to 1 divided by the focal length of your lens.  For example, I use a 420mm setup.  I always try to make sure my shutter speed is 1/400 or faster.  At night, with flash, it is often only possible to go to 1/200, due to the actual constraints of the camera.  Use that speed then.  Adjust the ISO as low as possible to allow a suitable shutter speed.  Be sure your camera is on autofocus mode.  Turn the flash on and it will automatically calculate the amount of light needed.

Approach the owl, and point the light towards but not on the owl so the camera can pick up autofocus.  Always autofocus on the owl's face or eyes, otherwise your image will not look right.  Hold your lens steadily, and if you can, use a tripod or brace your arms carefully.  Take a shot when the owl happens to look at you.  Eye contact is very important in bird photography.

Always limit the number of times you use the flash on the owl.  I usually won't do more than 10 flash exposures on one owl in one night, and I space them out as much as possible.

Here is a shot following all the parameters outlined above, with the settings I used:

Whiskered Screech-Owl, July 2015.  Settings:  Nikon D7100 and 300mm f4 lens, 300mm, f/7.1, ISO 500, 1/500 shutter speed, handheld with no tripod.

As much as possible, try to get on eye level with the birds.  This ensures a more attractive and interesting image.

Here are some more night examples, following my techniques:

Background is clean, bird is at eye level, and eyes are in focus.
Western Screech-Owl (fledgling), June 2015

Elf Owl, June 2015

Spotted Owl, photographed with high ISO and no flash.  This technique isn't ideal but I couldn't use flash on this species.  July 2015.

Whiskered Screech-Owl, July 2015

Western Screech-Owl, July 2015

Western Screech-Owl Fledgling, July 2015

Western Screech-Owl, June 2015

Elf Owl with prey, May 2015.  Although this male has an interesting food item, notice how the image is not as pleasing without eye contact.

Photographing owls in the daytime is a different challenge.  Owls are generally more trusting during the day and allow closer approach, but we should not abuse this fact.  Be respectful at all times.

Look for birds mobbing (calling excitedly and loudly) around an area.  These birds join up to harass owls and alert other birds in the area of the presence of a predator.  Mobbing birds are an excellent way to locate owls.  Owling during the day does require some luck, though.  Look carefully close to tree trunks and you may find something.  Or, you may not.  Owling can be difficult, fruitless, and very frustrating!  I have come up empty on owl searches more times than I can count.  But, it's not impossible, and sometimes it can be very rewarding.  Keep hunting in appropriate habitat and you will find an owl.

Once you find an owl on its "day roost," be cautious and considerate.  DO NOT FLUSH THE OWL FOR ANY REASON.  Approach it slowly.

Great Horned Owl, April 2014

As you approach, walk a zigzag path and do not make direct eye contact with the owl.  They will not see you as as much of a threat if you follow these tips.  Take pictures as you get closer, pereferably every few steps.  That way, if it flushes, you at least have some pictures.  If you accidentally flush the owl, don't follow it to its new perch.  It is already wary of you and will flush from an even farther distance than it just did.  Don't bother it again.

Spotted Owl, July 2015.  Notice how the distracting branches take away from the quality of the image.

Burrowing Owl, October 2014

Whiskered Screech-Owl, July 2015

Once you find a day roost, tell a couple birding friends you really trust, and the owl's location will not be too public.  Don't ebird exact locations.  Also, if there is a nest nearby, or if a pair is being defensive, leave or retreat to a greater distance.  I have been swooped by a Great Horned Owl when I was accidentally too close to a nest.  Photographing fledglings is rewarding, but use caution and respect.

Burrowing Owl, June 2014

Spotted Owl, July 2015.  This is a natural display, not a threat display.  The owl did not mind my presence.

Western Screech-Owl, June 2015

Owls return to the same day roost day after day.  Don't harass or scare them, and you may have many opportunities photographing these awesome creatures.  Such was the case with this nice pair of Great Horned Owls.  They learned to trust me after a month or so, and I got many nice images of both male and female.

Great Horned Owls, April-May 2014

Burrowing Owls, like this one below, are diurnal.  They are easily approachable during the day.  If you drive around in their habitat, using your car as a moving blind to get close to a diurnal owl perched on the side of the road works pretty effectively.

Burrowing Owls, June 2014

In conclusion, generally, the more you look for owls and the more you practice owl photography, the better you will get at it.  Keep trying, and you will come away with some pictures you like.  And above all, be patient!

Contact me for prints of any of the images in this article!  Best of luck,

Walker Noe