Just after dawn on a May morning in 2016, Mia McPherson drove at a crawl through the Golden Spike National Historic Site in northern Utah looking for Short-Eared Owls. She scanned the dusky grass and sagebrush-covered hillsides, eyes peeled for movement or the piercing yellow shine of the bird’s eyes. In an open patch, she spotted an adult, a clue that chicks might be nearby. She stopped her Jeep on the road's shoulder and spotted three fluffy juveniles amidst the underbrush some 50 feet away. She rested her camera on the frame of the open car window, photographed for a few minutes, then drove off: She didn’t want to interfere with the care or feeding of the brood. In the resulting images, the birds almost glow in the soft morning light.
McPherson was successful because she’d studied this animal’s behavior. At 12 to 18 days old, the Short-eared Owl chicks leave their ground-level nests to avoid predators. There’s a short window when families can be seen moving on the ground before the young fledge, McPherson says.
Learning as much as you can about a species’ natural history and behavior is key to creating good pictures. Web research can provide some of that information, as well as discussions with experts or listserv chats. But a deep understanding of birds’ daily habits comes from in-the-field observation—and that requires finding them.
One of the best ways to locate owls is by listening for them, says Gerrit Vyn, a photographer and cinematographer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Many people are familiar with their loud territorial screeches, but there are a lot of other, more subtle calls,” he says. To help birders and photographers identify various owls, he created an audio guide called “Voices of North American Owls,” which has downloadable recordings of 21 species.
Photographer Chris Linder often looks for nests, and once he’s found one, he visits multiple times to learn where the parents perch, when they sleep, and what time they emerge to hunt. Observing an owl’s body language offers clues to its next move. If it starts stretching, it may fly off. If it appears to be yawning, it may regurgitate a “pellet”—indigestible fur and bones from its last meal.
Initially Linder keeps his distance, slowly moving closer, a method that minimizes impact and eventually makes him part of the landscape. “You don’t want to charge right in on day one,” he says. Birds that feel threatened take wing and remain wary. A gentle approach raises the odds of producing images of owls doing what they do naturally.
If you find that owls fly off when you appear, and don't return for a while, this is a good indication that it may be best to leave this particular nest alone. Some owls can tolerate your presence; others may not, and it could disrupt feeding as well as expose the nestlings to the elements and to predators, such as Great Horned Owls or eagles.
Owls often nest high in trees, and shooting up at them isn’t flattering. The goal is to capture head-on images that emphasize the owl’s beautiful, forward-facing eyes. One way to do that is to find nests in trees that sit in a depression, where you can shoot from a nearby hill (which also gets rid of a bright-sky background).
Many photographers choose to shoot from a distance—using lenses ranging from 200mm to 600mm, sometimes adding a 1.4x extender. Some use tripods religiously; others use flash, a practice that has been debated. Those like Mia McPherson who shoot pictures of Burrowing Owls—a ground-hunting species—often work from their vehicles, resting their cameras in the open window. It’s crucial to focus on the bird’s expressive eyes, she says.
With lenses that long, few photographers can hold a camera still enough in their hands without creating motion blur at a shutter speed of under 1/200th of a second, even when a bird is perched. Capturing an owl in flight might require a shutter speed of anywhere from 1/500th to 1/1500th of a second, depending on the time of day or night and your camera’s sensor. Given the choice, shoot during dusk/dawn “magic hour.” If you have to shoot in low-light situations, be aware of how high you can boost the ISO before seeing noise in your files.
Many photographers also emphasize the importance of knowing your camera inside out. Practice in all kinds of light and learn how to find every setting—exposure, shutter speed, ISO, manual focus—so you can make split-second adjustments if a bird suddenly flies. In editing, analyze the bad images to learn from your mistakes.
If you want to help protect owls by contributing images to local conservation organizations, tell the whole story, says Krista Schyler, who has photographed Great Gray, Barred, and Great Horned Owls in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands: “Don’t just shoot portraits.” Step back and photograph the animal within its habitat. Capture the beauty of both the wildlife and the land, but also document the degradation or threats facing these species.
And one last tip from Point Reyes-based photographer Daniel Dietrich: Making strong images of owls takes patience and perseverance. “Get out early,” he says, “and when you find your subject, don’t glance away, even for a second, or you might miss the photo of a lifetime.”