Let a Pro Teach You How to Take Great Owl Photos

Paul Bannick has spent a decade photographing owls for his latest book. Here’s why he loves them—and what he’s learned.

Paul Bannick has spent tens of thousands of hours in the field photographing owls for his book, Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls. To capture owls during their every life stage he traveled from southern Florida to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and countless places in between. “When we see owls in the winter, to me they’re emissaries from these other places, and in their visit and in their calls is an invitation to learn more,” he says. “My hope is that people accept that invitation, and rather than just try to capture the best photograph of the owl, really contemplate why is it here and how can we make sure it’ll be able to return in the future.” We spoke with Bannick about lessons learned from his decade-long focus on owl photography.

Audubon: What inspired you to do this project?

Paul Bannick: Since I was a little kid I used photography as a way to tell people about places that were threatened. My belief is that we protect what we love and we love what we know. So I wanted to get people to know more about owls, to love owls, not be fascinated or obsessed by them, but to see them and want to protect habitat for the owls and the other animals that live there with them. 

A: Why are owls a good subject for promoting conservation?

PB: There are 19 owl species in North American and almost every one is an indicator species. If we pay attention to owls, they’ll tell us about all the other animals that share their habitat. The Snowy Owl spends most its time on the Arctic tundra or out over the sea ice in the winter, and in these places ends up telling us also about threats to musk ox, caribou, and polar bears. And the Cactus Ferruginous Pygmy Owl in the Sonoran Desert exposes threats to gila monsters, sajuaros, and Gila Woodpeckers. Each owl in a way is a messenger, representing a whole host of animals that occupy their same environment.

A: What about owls appeals to you personally?

PB: I’ve always been an outdoors person who’s kayaked, backpacked, and camped, and at my most sensitive hours, when I’ve finally stopped moving, it’s always the call of an owl that would to me symbolize wild places. I love the fact that you have everything from a Burrowing Owl in the grasslands, to a Snowy Owl in the tundra, to a Hawk Owl in the burned forest, or a Great Gray Owl in the mountain meadows. For every wild place I love there’s an owl serenading me at night

A: Why did you structure your book around owls’ life phases?

PB: For my first book, The Owl and the Woodpecker, I focused on moving across the continent between habitats. But when I started speaking about it, I noticed that the parts of my presentations people loved the most were the parts that they could relate to in their own lives: finding a mate, raising a family, the young becoming independent, and also surviving hard times. So I wanted to take people through the year and show them what the owl needs to get to the next stage of life. And by seeing what they need my hope is that everyone becomes better stewards of the places where they live.

A: Why is winter optimal for photographing owls?

PB: As winter approaches, owls are on the move: migrating, irrupting, or simply expanding their territories. Together, these movements result in the largest concentration of owls of different species and geographies than we have at any other time of the year. So for instance, you might find that Boreal Owls from dense spruce forests, Great Gray Owls from boreal meadows, and Hawk Owls from the taiga, all fly down to Washington, Idaho, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine to hunt within a few miles of each other, whereas when up in their summer homes, the same individuals may have been several hundred miles apart.

A: How does one photograph owls ethically?

PB: It’s really, really tricky. I want photos that are honest depictions of the natural world, so I do not bait owls, and I do not add or subtract elements from photos. None of my subjects were captive, though a few owls were photographed in the banding process. When in the field, the rule has to be not to change owl behavior and not to endanger the owl. What makes it really tricky is that a lot of times that differs depending on the species, the season, the situation, and the landscape. 

A: How much distance should you maintain from owls?

PB: For a Snowy Owl resting on a shore near an urban area, that may mean staying 100 yards away. But a Great Gray Owl perched in a tree in the middle of the day may let someone be 20 yards away. The most important thing is to understand the owl and what it does when stressed. If a nocturnal owl is forced to open its eyes in the day, bad news. If an owl that is hunched down and resting suddenly raises its head and body up off its legs, you’re too close. If you are flushing an owl, you’ve gotten too close or done something wrong. Virtually every photographer and birder has gotten too close to birds at some point, myself included. The key thing is that we have to be sensitive to it and avoid disturbing the birds whenever possible.

We also have to pay attention to the whole situation. Is the owl on public or private property? If public property, is it an area where you’re not supposed to walk because there aren’t trails? Is it on private property where there’s a landowner who doesn’t want you there? At that point you have to contemplate whether you’re actually endangering the owl by going on the property.

A: Should you take extra precautions when photographing nests?

PB: Photographing at nests is risky, so you have to start by asking yourself if it’s necessary and if you have the proper equipment to do it safely. With nests, I arrive before the bird arrives. If I’m photographing a nocturnal species, I set up during the day, hidden away in a blind, so when birds become active they’re not aware of me. If it’s a diurnal owl, I arrive when it’s dark, so when the owl wakes I’m nearby but not disturbing its behavior. The peak hours of photography are always early in morning and in the late afternoon/early evening. That's not when a photographer should arrive.

Nests take a lot of experience. When people start to get interested in photography, they want to get closer and closer. With nests, you need to get further and further away. For a Snowy Owl in the Artic tundra, I set up so far away that with my 600 mm lens and 1.4 extender the nest is still less than a quarter of the frame. Even at that distance, if the female owl does not fly back to that nest in two minutes, I pick up my blind and go, and I don’t return to that nest. It’s not worth impacting the owl’s behavior.

A: Is it okay to use flash?

PB: I almost never use it. The only exception is with entirely nocturnal owls, but I won’t strike them with light out of the darkness; I make sure they are illuminated first. If you’re photographing strictly nocturnal owls, it should be done very carefully. You don’t want to flush them and make them become the prey of another larger bird.

A: What about baiting owls?

PB: There are a number of reasons I don’t bait owls. One is that I want to photograph them hunting in a natural way. The other is that baiting oftentimes sets a bad example. One person baits the owl, and then other people do it, and pretty soon the owl becomes accustomed to people and to situations like roads and cars. Eventually there’s going to be a collision.   

A: Has your own philosophy for photography evolved over time?

PB: My photography has changed a lot in the time I’ve been photographing birds and owls. Candidly, one of the main things that’s changed is I’ve backed up. Even though I’ve always known you don’t want to change the bird’s behavior, as a photographer, you’re always tempted to be closer to that edge, where you’re not altering behavior. As I shoot more and more, I shoot further and further away from the subject, and I’ve realized my photography is getting better because I’m able to get more behavior and integrate more of the environment.

A: Any final thoughts for our readers?

PB: If we want to see and photograph owls, the best asset we have in this country is our public lands. Private lands are vulnerable to people not wanting the attention we give them, but the public lands that we have in this country—national parks, BLM land, forest land, shoreline land, and other natural areas—are critical. Without them we would not be able to enjoy these owls and view them and photograph them. And sometimes we take that for granted. It’s really important for people to keep protecting and speaking up for our public land.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.