Esther Beaton


How to Photograph Owls

How to photograph owls? Well. This is a tough one.

Lesser Sooty Owl
Lesser Sooty Owl (Tyto multipunctata) with wings spread, female from Daintree area of northern Queensland

Owls are one of the challenges of wildlife photography because there are so many things going against them: they’re nocturnal, they’re camouflaged and their small. Mostly. You really have to have a good grasp of the photographic technicalities to beat all these odds. On the other hand, the reward of photographing them more than balances out the difficulties.

To start with, they are just so bloody CUTE. That’s because they have a flat face with forward-looking eyes – just like our own. When we look into those staring eyes, they mirror something back – maybe a soul connection? We even place owls on a pedestal, giving them “wisdom” because of that fixed, trance-like gaze.

Another quality is their sense of mystery. Thanks to their ultra-silent flight, they can just suddenly appear out of nowhere. This makes them doubly wise.

Mainland Masked Owl
Mainland Masked Owl (Tyto novaehollandiae race kimberlyi) male in typical crouched posture looking down.

The rewards of a great owl picture are certainly plenty – if only you could figure out how to capture the elusive image.

The Don’t Do’s

Let’s start with some not-to-do things first.

Great Horned Owl on nest
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) on nest with three chicks in cottonwood tree. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, California
Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua)  male, at daytime roost in Cumberland State Forest, northern Sydney, NSW (red eye from flash)
Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) male, at daytime roost in Cumberland State Forest, northern Sydney, NSW (red eye from flash)

You generally don’t want to photograph owls at daytime. It’s not their natural habitat or habit. Also, it’s when they’re most prone to be camouflaged among messy sticks, leaves or foliage. In Australia, the Powerful Owl is one exception and is relatively easy to find on a roost branch in daylight. But then you need to shine some light into the shadows of the foliage. A single on-camera flash can accomplish this, but you’re likely to get red-eye.

The other difficulty with a single flash, even if you did use it at night, is the lack of definition or modelling. The flat lighting from a single on-camera source gives a flat, two-dimensional result. Not great. If you add a second flash unit, it will help create three-dimensionality, giving depth both to the portrait and the scene.

The Ideal Lighting Setup

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) southeastern Australia
Barn Owl (Tyto alba), southeastern Australia

The ideal is to photograph them at night, and to use two flash units. One unit gives a nice backlit edge which separates the owl from its dark surrounds and another one is used to light the front of it. This one may be have to be positioned a little off axis, i.e., to the side of the lens, in order to avoid red eye. But that creates a new problem.

The longer the focal length of the lens, the longer too has to be the reach of the flash unit. So you’ll need a focusing speedlight as well as an extension to match the lens focal length. Say you’re using a 300-400 mm lens (this is ideal for photographing owls in the forest). But even the fanciest dedicated flash unit (those made by the manufacturer of your camera) will only zoom to about 200 mm. A Better Beamer is an excellent extension to your flash unit and one that will give you a concentrated beam of light, matched to the narrow angle of your long lens.The added bonus to this method is that recycling will be faster and you’ll be able to shoot the next frame within one or two seconds. Without the Beamer, there will be a lot of wasted light and you could be waiting five or ten seconds for a recycle and in that time – where did the owl go?

Southern Boobook Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae). found all over Australia.
Southern Boobook Owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae). found all over Australia.

But like I said, it would be nice to have some backlighting behind the owl. Thanks to modern wireless speed lights, you can have a friend walk behind the owl and aim a second unit at the bird’s back. Even a powerful torch will do the job and will also help you with focusing on the owl – though it would be more likely to disturb the owl into flight. As you can see, achieving good lighting in the wild is indeed a challenge.

First Find Your Owl

But there is another challenge to rectify first. First you have to find your owl. This is probably harder than the job of photographing them. A relatively easy way is to follow their hooting to the source. But once found, how do you keep them in one place long enough before they’re frightened by your noise and activity?

Photographing in the Wild

A hollow in a dead Spotted Gum where Mainland Masked Owl is emerging from roost. Coastal lowland forest, north of Grafton, NSW (with both flash and ambient light)
A hollow in a dead Spotted Gum where Mainland Masked Owl is emerging from roost. Coastal lowland forest, north of Grafton, NSW (with both flash and ambient light)

Knowing where they are roosting or nesting is the best tactic. A roost tree is usually a hollow one, or has a hollow limb. Owls come out to hunt just after dusk. I’ve waited patiently for up to an hour and, because they emerge at a known spot, you can be tightly focused, with all lighting and other equipment ready to fire the moment one appears out of its hollow.

But nothing beats the help of an expert and I’ve had the privilege of working with owl scientists Rod Kavanagh and Matthew Stanton as I covered their researches for Australian Geographic. Even so, I had to work fast to get the “natural” shots. These fellows were trapping the owls and their ropes and devices and measuring implements were messing up my attempts to make nice natural history portraits.

Researcher radio-tracking owl with star trails in sky above. Whiporee State Forest, northern NSW
Researcher radio-tracking owl with star trails in sky above. Whiporee State Forest, northern NSW

Yes, owl photography is definitely a job of teamwork, the very least of which is someone holding that second flash unit. But I have gone out on my own and sometimes even a single flash unit is better than no owl photo at all. Once I came across a Powerful Owl in a very low branch -tantalizingly close AND with a full moon just rising. This event turned out to be such an unexpectedly dramatic encounter that it’s worth telling the story in more detail.

In The Sanctuary

Zookeepers Territory Wildlife Park
Zookeepers with Brahminy Kite (L) and Rufous Owl (R). Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin, Northern Territory
Keepers with barn owl, Featherdale
Rick Webb holding Barn Owl, and assistant Ben, Featherdale Wildlife Park, Doonside, Sydney, New South Wales

I’ve had so many near-successes in the field, that if I want a reliable shot of an owl, it’s best to go to a sanctuary or zoo, where they are “sitting ducks” – I mean owls. When I’m on assignment, most animal sanctuaries allow me behind the scenes or into an enclosure, in exchange for some credits, coverage or other contribution. That’s what I did for my assignment for Australian Geographic. At Featherdale Wildlife Park, I had enough time to get pin sharp portraits, beautifully lit, some with even a third light, and with a variety of poses and expressions.

But one of my all-time most successful portraits was taken with very simple lighting and without fancy sets.

Barking Owl, Victoria
Barking Owl (Ninox connivens). Southeastern Australia.

A keeper at Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria was mothering an orphaned Barking Owl. This juvenile was so placid on her arm that I was able to frame close on the face, with only the faintest “poof” of fill-in flash needed. Even as a youngster, the depth of its all-wise nature is apparent, permeating through its eyes and blending with anyone who wants to get wrapped up in the warmth of its gaze. The image may be made up only of pixels, yet you still feel a connection with something real – as if you’re in touch with the essence. Soul to soul, knowing to knowing.

Good luck in your searching and photography of owls and may you too reap the reward of a great photo. If you have tips I haven’t thought of, please share them so others can have the benefit.

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