Shane Baker | Trying to photograph owls
Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.

Trying to photograph owls

January 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Everyone likes owls, right? So when my step daughter announced that a family of owls had started roosting in the trees at her house in the Darling Ranges near Perth, I had to have a look - and try to photograph them.

The problem was (actually, one of several problems) that I chose the one day this Perth summer when it was heavily overcast. (The default Perth sky in summer is cloudless and bright.) So when I arrived in the evening, it was actually quite dark in the tree in which the owls were waiting to go hunting. Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae)Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae)This little owl, photographed in the Darling Ranges behind Perth may be a Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae).

So, armed with my Nikon D800, my 70-200 zoom and my 1.7x extender (which reduced the maximum aperture from f/2.8 to around f/4.8) I started looking for owls. They were there - right up high in the tree surrounded by quite thick branches, which meant they were really in the dark.

I tried a couple of shots and to be fair to the D800, it was actually pulling focus in a really dark situation. However, between my waving the lens around (my monopod needed to be much longer to allow me to shoot at about 45 degrees into the tree) and the number of twigs getting in the way, the owl itself was generally just a blur. So I went old fashioned and used manual focus.

Next, exposure. With that little light and with an effective 340mm focal length, I needed more aperture and more shutter speed than I could get with normal ISO settings, so after a couple of shots, I settled on ISO 2500. (Remember: this is on a 36 meg SLR intended basically for portrait and landscape work. It was never intended to be king of the twitching fraternity.)

Anyway, I had a go - with the camera on full manual and me trying to hold the thing steady. Had a thought a little longer, my tripod with its ball head would have been useful in this specific birding situation - but I didn't (think).

So, I reeled off half a dozen shots, promised myself I'd return on a brighter day and headed home - with not a lot of hope for a useable image. Once home, I loaded the files into Capture One and slid the shadows slider to the right - and was surprised to see an image emerging!

In the end, I played a little more with overall exposure, applied a little noise reduction, tried to lighten the eyes a little (which were really in total shadow) and put in a gentle vignette. 

Will it make the cover of National Geographic? I fear not, but I like this image of what is admittedly, a charismatic bird. (By the way, I think its a Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae), but what I don't know about ornithology would fill a library.)

The image itself is more a tribute to the clever people at Nikon and Phase One than yours truly, but I'm happy to post it on this web site.

Have a good one.

Shane Baker




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