Category Archives: Owls

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Experimenting With Video – Part III

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

I have been photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl on and off for more than 4 weeks now and have been unable to capture him as he flies out of his box for his evening hunting excursions.

He exits his box at twilight, quickly, unpredictably, and without fanfare. I ready the camera and 500mm lens by connecting the shutter remote and locking focus. The flash is the main source of light, with some ambient light enhancement.

At the ready with the shutter half pressed, I’ve tried over and over to anticipate when he will make his speedy departure. No luck. I end up with images showing a whole body motion blur, streaking from the 3″ entrance/exit hole to the edge of the frame.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl, Looking Back
At Me In the Misty Rain.
Is That Blood on his Upper Beak?
Camera set to Program Autoexposure
Mode (P). Please Note Program
Mode’s Unaltered Exposure Settings
ISO400; f/4; 1/60th second

Experimenting With Video

In bright daylight, I can set the camera to burst (up to 14 frames per second) and easily capture flying birds with an ultra fast shutter speed. But owls are nocturnal creatures and my flash gun would never be able to keep up with the camera’s fast bursting. In addition, the flash gun is set at the max sync speed of 1/250 second and will not freeze the action with E-TTL II metering a combination of flash and ambient light.

What if I was to video the Screech Owl exiting his box and then slow down the video in post processing? From there, it might be possible to extract a single captured frame from within that video file.

The video functions on both of my DSLR cameras are unexplored territory for me. Time to learn something new.

Video and Program (P) Auto Exposure Mode

Rather than experimenting with the DSLR video function in Manual (M) mode, I set the camera to Program (P) autoexposure mode. In Program mode, the camera automatically makes all the exposure decisions, like it does in Auto (A) mode, but it doesn’t prevent the photographer from changing those settings. If the photographer alters one of the many settings originally set by Program mode, (ISO, picture style, white balance, aperture, etc) the camera will compensate on-the-fly, re-metering light levels and making the necessary exposure adjustments. Program mode does this by changing the variables that the photographer did not change, taking into account all resources available, including flash settings (not useful in video) and type/focal length of lens. (NOTE: You can even influence how the camera changes exposure parameters in P mode by  fiddling with AEC or changing the light metering mode.)

My First Videos

I started out my DSLR video training one evening by producing a couple 2-3 minute videos. (Seemed like an eternity when I was filming). Filming conditions: Cloud-covered twilight, steady rain, 40 degrees, a bit foggy, window open, portable heater going in the background. (NOTE: I do not own video or studio lights.)

As with most learning endeavors, the more I read the manual and the more I practice, the better I get. I found that one of the most useful controls for video was the Q button (Quick Control) on the back of Canon DSLR cameras. It gave me access (in real time) to all sorts of video related functions, including Auto Focus, Frame Rate/Image Size/Compression, Audio Input Control, Headphone Volume, White Balance, Picture Style, and Auto Lighting Optimization.

Watch the Owl Exit in Slo-Mo

The 34 second slow-motion video of the owl flying out of his owl house is below. I slowed down this video clip 50%. (NOTE: The original video was close to 3 minutes long, however, my web hosting server has file size limitations. I had to reduce the length, resolution and quality of this video and eliminate all sound in order to get the file size small enough to upload it to my website.)


Pre-video preparation included the following:

  • Load a fully charged battery.
  • Insert the fast, high capacity memory card.
  • Set the video mode. The camera manual advises that 120fps in 1080p mode is best for slow-mo playback, and it did do a good job, allowing me to see fairly sharp individual frames despite the low light. (NOTE: Be sure you understand the options available in your DSLR for max video size and max video time.)
  • Review web resources for DSLR video advice.

Live View

Once I put the camera in video mode, the viewfinder shut down. I had to control the settings via Live View from the LCD screen. Live View on the new Canon 1 DX Mark II camera is crystal clear and very agile. I can pin-point focus by using the touch screen (even at the edge of the frame), dial to loop through exposure settings, white balance, etc., and watch the LCD screen to see how my changes impact the picture quality in real time.

Post video production was done with I-Movie on my Mac Pro. Thus far, I have been unable to grab what I consider to be a high quality frame from the videos I shot. I will continue to try.

There is so much more to learn. Next time I will experiment with video with the camera in Manual (M) Mode.

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl – Part II

Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl

He’s back!

Photographing this little Eastern Screech Owl intrigues me. He is keenly adapted to flying and hunting under the cover of darkness. Light and opportunity rarely allow for night time bird photography, so I was very excited to be able to capture sharp images of him.

For the photos in this post, our resident owl did not fly off into the darkness like he usually does, but instead perched on a nearby unobstructed, camera level tree branch. It was very dark, but a low beam flashlight illuminating the branch on which he perched allowed enough light for the camera to calculate exposure (with E-TTL II Flash) and the lens to auto focus. His head and body were facing away from the camera, but when he turned to look back at me with those remarkable eyes, I was lucky enough to get two full body shots. He flew off to parts unknown seconds later.

NOTES: This owl’s raised tufts of feathers where his ears should be look very distinctive, but do not function as ears or horns. The Horned Lark is another bird species with conspicuous ear tufts. The Snowy Owl that I photographed in the Allegan State Game Area did not have noticable ear tufts.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of His Owl Box.
FEC set to -1.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Night Time Photography Considerations:

  • Flash Failure!  My Canon 580 EX II, purchased in 2008, was no longer communicating efficiently with the camera. It operated erratically and seemed to burst without regard to the E-TTL II exposure calculations issued from the camera. (NOTE: This is probably the first time I have relied on this flash to provide more than fill to existing ambient light.) I can not be without an E-TTL II flash gun, especially when photographing nocturnal owls. I bought a new Canon 600 RT Flash Unit.
  • The camera was set to Manual Mode and the new flash to E-TTL II so that the camera would calculate the burst needed based on the exposure settings I chose. I toned down this burst by setting the flash exposure compensation (FEC) to -1. It turned out to be a good place to start.
  • The open window through which the camera points is not far from the furnace PVC exhaust vent pipe. On cold windy days, the discharge turns into a floating mist that obstructs my image making. Easy fix…bundle up and turn the furnace way down.
  • Fresnel flash extenders are intended to direct light more efficiently onto distant subjects. For this shoot, the tele flash extender was too close, causing the owl to be “spotlighted” or partially lit around the center of the frame, leaving extremities of his body and his nearby surroundings insufficiently illuminated. I removed the fresnel flash tele extender and set the flash to its 200mm max zoom. The flash beam was wider and more on target. The new extended zoom flash capability on the Canon 600 RT II doesn’t eliminate the need for a fresnel flash extender for bird photography, but you can get by without it when the subjects are in fairly close proximity to the flash. (NOTE: On my old flash -580 EX II -the max zoom setting was 105mm.)
Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl
Out of his box for the Night.
Flash Exposure Compensation -1
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Next Challenge

As night approaches, the owl is clearly more visible and alert. He looks as though his feet are perched on the opening of his owl house giving his head maximum freedom to look around. I have been trying to capture a shot of him at take-off, right as he exits his box, but I have been unable to do so because he jets out of there in the blink of an eye. The minuscule lag time between when I see him exit the box and when I press the shutter is long enough to miss the shot, even when I pre-focus by pressing the shutter release half way.

I need strategies to get exit shots. NOTE: I’ve been considering setting up a few low lights, using my camera’s video function and then processing that video in slow motion. It might work on those days that he exits at twilight when there is still a touch of ambient light. This of course assumes that this little Eastern Screech Owl decides to stick around.  More to come……

Photographing an Eastern Screech Owl –Nocturnal Birds

Photographing An Eastern Screech Owl

My camera, 500mm lens and tripod are now facing a vacant wooded backlot.  An Eastern Screech Owl moved in to our owl house around Christmas, 2016. We erected this house almost 3 years ago, so a resident has been a long time coming. Up until now, we had only squirrels and a mob of European Starlings (Yikes!) look it over.

Front Row Seat

The owl house is positioned approximately 15 ft high on an Oak tree in front of and at eye level with a bedroom window. There’s plenty of room to move the tripod around for both close-up shots, full body flight shots and everything in between. The window at which the camera waits is approximately 20 feet from the opening of the owl house.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl,
Poking Out His Head to Check on The Disturbance.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 second

Pretty Exciting, Right?

I’ve been dreaming of photographing these majestic creatures for a long time. If I am to believe the looks in his large and striking eyes, he is weary and disinterested in my shenanigans and thinks that the camera and I are pretty boring.

Photographing Birds in Near Darkness

Eastern Screech Owls are little raptors, (6-10″ long; 4-9 ounces; wingspan 18-24″) short and stocky with an oversized head and no discernible neck. They do not screech as their namesake would imply, but instead sound more like the somewhat spooky whinny of a horse. Eastern Screech Owls are for the most part nocturnal and highly camouflaged, and therein lies my problem.

A lens can not focus in darkness. If it’s too dark, it won’t even go thru the motion to hunt back and forth. There is nothing upon which its technical eye can fix – no contrast, no color, no edges, nothing. The fresnel attached flash will try to emit a light beam (auto focus assist beam) so the lens can do its calculations for autofocus to work- but that assist beam only travels so far…. most certainly not 20 feet. So far, moonlight and starlight have not been bright enough to be helpful.

Use Manual Focus?

I could turn off autofocus on the lens and work with manual focus. This would require that I pre-set focus on one target when there is light and then guess when to press the shutter when my eyes detect motion in the near darkness. This is a desperate measure for me. I’m not yet at a place where I will forego the benefits of autofocus. (NOTE: Perhaps I should read up on motion sensors that automatically detect movement and trigger the camera.)

A Light Fix for the Lens

A light that casts a versatile, wide, even illumination for night vision is needed; perhaps LED video lights, a rechargeable lantern (180 degree or 360 degree coverage), or just an adjustable flashlight. All these devices emit light that: a) Is easy to prop and point, not directly on the owl, but perhaps on the branches below; b) Too weak to register on the digital image and screw up light balance; and c) Strong enough to give the lens a fix on focus. Most importantly, the beam intensity on these lights can be set to low power making the light too weak to disrupt the owl’s nightly routine or impair his remarkable dark adaptation vision.

Unexpected Daylight Commotion

One cold, cloudy afternoon, I opened the bedroom window, turned on the heater and positioned myself with a shutter remote. I hoped that my new neighbor would abandon the cover of darkness and take an impromptu daytime flight. During this surveillance, I noticed a few of my less tolerant wildlife neighbors fearlessly patrolling the owl box and expressing their dissatisfaction with a nocturnal predator trespassing within their boundaries. (NOTE: At the risk of anthropomorphizing here, perhaps they object to the Owl’s presence because he regularly and methodically strikes terror in the dead of night.) The rather loud rattles, chirps and thumps on and near the owl house could not help but interfere with the owl’s beauty sleep -so once in a while he stuck his head out of the box to see what all the commotion was about.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl with
a Red Squirrel atop His House.
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

Photographing the Agitators

During these raucous times, I did manage to photograph the owl’s heavily feathered head while he sluggishly perched at the circular entrance of his box. I did use the tele flash for these shots, but for the most part, the ambient light dominated the scene. (NOTE: I assume that his feet are propped on the ledge of the entrance but it’s hard to tell what’s beneath that thick blanket of feathers.) I was also able to photograph a few of the owl’s protesters. (In one afternoon, I saw and photographed the following owl agitators: A black squirrel, a gray squirrel, a Tufted Titmouse, a Chickadee, and a White Breasted Nuthatch.)

Photo of Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a Tufted Titmouse
Eastern Screech Owl Hiding from a
Complaining Tufted Titmouse.
(Titmice are usually timid and not aggressive.)
ISO400; f/8; 1/250 Second

I have not seen the owl for a few days but I am hoping he’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ll keep the camera rig in place and research less invasive methods for night time wildlife photography.

Wishing you all much joy in the coming New Year.

Photo of Snowy Owl

Photographing Snowy Owls – Sleepy, Heavily Insulated and Blending

Mid-Winter Photography Excursion

The sun had returned, if only for a day. At sunrise, I packed my camera gear, bundled up and headed for the Allegan State Game Area. 14 degrees. I passed by the corn fields twinkling with hoarfrost and spotted dozens of geese decoys positioned by hopeful hunters.

I parked off the main road near a corn field with a few Horned Larks foraging in the low lying vegetation. In previous years, I had seen Lapland Longspurs flocking with the Larks in this location. It wouldn’t be long before the Longspurs began their migration back to their nesting grounds in the arctic tundra, so I hoped I would be lucky enough to photograph them today.

I opened the car window to acclimate my camera lens to the cold. The windchill made me shiver.

Despite the frigid air and numb fingers, it felt good to be out with my camera watching and waiting for birds. Not much happening, but I had high hopes and propped the camera and lens on the car door window. After 15 minutes or so, I moved the car to a new spot nearer to protective brush, repositioned the camera, and let my mind wander while I waited. No luck.


Later that morning, a bearded DNR officer accompanied by his brown labrador pulled his heavy duty pickup next to the passenger side window of my car. Allegan County DNR employees have always been helpful, friendly and willing to share their insights about the comings and goings of the migrating and local wildlife. After the usual introductory preliminaries, he gave me the directions to a close-by dirt track road where he had just seen a Snowy Owl roosting in the corn fields. I couldn’t believe my luck. A Snowy Owl nearby, and I was prepared. I was trembling as I drove to the back woods location.

Despite the fact that my vehicle is not adept on slippery, rough and tumble back roads, I followed his instructions and scanned the landscape for the Snowy. Nothing. Just clumps of snow with grass peaking through. Then one of the clumps moved.

Photograph of Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl Blending into the Landscape.
ISO250; f/10 1/800 Second
Photo of Snowy Owl
Adult Male Snowy Owl, Mostly Sleeping, But Occasionally Watching Me.
ISO640; f/10; 1/2000 Second

 Photographing Sleeping Snowy Owls

This stoic individual wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and sleep beneath his heavily insulated plumage. Despite the bumping and grinding racket my car was making, he did not flinch. Only a few times did he open his yellow eyes to look at me. Since owl eyes do not move within their sockets, they have to swivel their heads (up to 270 degrees) to look around.

Photo of Sleepy Snowy Owl
Sleepy Snowy Owl.
ISO 320; f/9; 1/1250 Second

Rest in Peace

Snowy Owls are highly nomadic raptors that nest in the arctic tundra and travel very long distances in search of food. It was clear this individual needed to rest and reserve his strength. After taking 50+ photographs showing very little activity, I turned my car around and left him in peace.


For more information about my last encounter with Lapland Longspurs, please press this link.