Have You Ever Wondered What Photographing Gray Owls in the Wild is Like?

How many of you folks out there have actually seen an owl in the wild? If you've ever wondered what photographing them must be like, this video will take you through an evening in pursuit of owls in the Tetons.

In this video from Steve Mattheis we see what it's like to be on the hunt with his camera gear for owls out and about in nature. We can also pickup some simple tips that can help us out if we ever find ourselves in a similar situation. I think that as one would expect, the real take away from this video (or any wildlife photography related topic for that matter) is that a lot of patience and a little luck are the name of the game.

The main thing we can glean from this one are distance from subject and focal length. Unless you are crazy lucky, you're generally not going to get super close to owls, especially if they are out hunting for their evening meal. This means that your 50mm, 85mm, and 105mm lenses are not going to be your friends here. When you're out birding (owling in this case, is that a thing?) you'll want to longest telephoto lens that you can manage, greater than 300mm is a good place to start but the longer the focal length the better.

Have you ever seen an owl in the wild? I know that I've seen a couple here and there, usually around dusk flying from a telephone pole or something like that though they are definitely a rare sight. Only once have I seen an owl out in the forest hunting for food and it was epic. It was a chilly morning and I was out hiking and pretty much had the whole trail to myself. I saw something fly from one tree to the ground then back up to another tree. It was a huge owl, I could barely contain my excitement, and I pretty much stood there taking photos (despite being ill-equipped) for the next 30 or so minutes. If you've had the patience and good fortune to capture an owl before, drop the photo in the comments, I'd love to see what you found.

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20 Comments

Simon Patterson's picture

It was an owl which finally tipped me over the edge to move from a point-and-shoot to DSLR. I realised I couldn't shoot the owl at dusk with the gear I had.

That was years ago. Now I have the right gear to shoot an owl at dusk, I haven't seen another one in the wild. Making a good owl shot is still in my bucket list!

Extremely hard generally. Takes lots of time and lots of mileage. First 2 for example - 21 trips, over 3000km total driving, -20c or lower temperatures. Saw it only 3 times. Then it disappeared. Last one is a snowy owl - not too easy and not particularly hard either since they tend to go to roughly the same locations each winter.

Matt Williams's picture

Those are some f***ing beautiful photos!! Mind if I ask what you shot with? I'm getting into birding, currently using my D7500 with a Tamron 100-400, which has given me excellent results with larger wildlife. Never done birding before, though.

What area / country were these taken in? I don't know anything about snow owls or owls in general, really.

David Pavlich's picture

Nicely done! I just moved to Winnipeg a couple years ago. My last winter's project was to photograph a snowy in the wild, but right at the peak of their arrival in the area, I had carpal tunnel surgery. So....that's this winter's project. A Great Gray would be a real hit, but they are really tough to find here.

Matt Williams's picture

Also, if you have any good resources on how best to study/research owls to prepare for photographing them, links would be greatly appreciated!! Obviously I can google, but I wanted to know if you had some good resources that you use or used that were helpful.

I will reply collectively -
Gear - for great greys no focal length is long enough. For the 2 pics I was using the !DX and the Canon 200-400. The flight shot was hand-held whereas the perched one was on a tripod. This setup was getting way to heavy to hand-hold so got rid of it and now mostly use the 1DXII paired with either the Canon 400DO or the Canon 500/f4 + 1.4TC. But generally any camera and long lens combo will do. Only question really is how close can you get before you hit the bird's comfort zone.

Sources - one of the best sources to check is https://ebird.org/explore. You can pinpoint the search to locations that are closer to home. Facebook can be a good intelligence source too since lots of people like to show their pics to friends etc. There should also be bird specific groups that you can join for your area.

Learning - https://www.audubon.org/ is an excellent sources to learn about birds, photographing them, ethics etc. Quite informative.

I am in Canada (Ontario). Though we do get all sorts of winter birds, people do tend to keep findings close to their chest but sometimes one gets lucky. Great grays are really hard to find so it is mostly word of mouth.

In the last couple of years, snowy owls are literally everywhere and should not be hard to find. Other kinds of owls can be quite iffy. Woods are good areas to check out for great horned, screech, barred, and even great grays. They generally prefer looking for prey on the ground and swooping down on it. Some owls prefer large open spaces eg snowies. Areas with livestock will generally have a large mouse population so expect more owls in such areas. A scope is a useful tool to have handy.

Caution - safety of both self and bird is really important. Walking around in winter conditions on fields and in woods can be extremely dangerous especially with deep snow cover.

Summer owls - plenty around for sure but with leaf covered trees and planted fields one has to get very very lucky to even spot one. But always a possibility.

Best advice - take it slow and easy and you will get something.

But all this said if you must must must get great grays then Jackson Hole and Sax-Zim Bogs are the places that will not disappoint. I have never been (too old) but no one I know has left those places in disappointment.

Steve Galicza's picture

Around were I live i'm lucky to have a healthy population of snowy owls that i'm able to get some nice photos, but always on the hunt for more :)

Hoping this year to spend more time in the bush and spot some in trees, for me there mostly on polls around here.
I have mine all posted to my instagram check them out @stevegaliczawildlife

I've had the good fortune of being able to see a few owls around here (Michigan).

David Pavlich's picture

Owls are the best!!!

Matt Williams's picture

Very nice shots! Do you have any good resources on how best to study/research owls to prepare for photographing them? Best locations/times of day/etc etc? Any links would be greatly appreciated!!

Not really. I've pretty much been told by friends where they were or just came across them while out looking for wildlife. I do know that using a phone app and Bluetooth speaker to call Barred owls works well. I've actually seen Barred owls and Snowy Owls at all times of the day here, mostly November through April.

Matt Williams's picture

Can you recommend a good app or do you not use one?

I see you're in Michigan. I'm from Ohio (now in TN), but I travel to Ohio quite a bit, especially November/December/January. Gonna have to start doing some research!

Using recorded bird calls is considered unethical birding/nature photography practice. When a bird hears a recording, it cannot tell that the sound is recorded. Because many birds use songs to claim territory, hearing another song may make the bird believe its territory has been invaded by a competitor, and it will seek out that competitor to challenge it. When a bird responds to a recording, it is no longer foraging, caring for eggs or chicks, preening, resting or otherwise doing the activities it needs to survive – all because it is chasing a fake bird.

Ryan Mense's picture

The xeno-canto website has tons of audio that can be downloaded https://www.xeno-canto.org/

Using recorded bird calls is considered unethical birding/nature photography practice. When a bird hears a recording, it cannot tell that the sound is recorded. Because many birds use songs to claim territory, hearing another song may make the bird believe its territory has been invaded by a competitor, and it will seek out that competitor to challenge it. When a bird responds to a recording, it is no longer foraging, caring for eggs or chicks, preening, resting or otherwise doing the activities it needs to survive – all because it is chasing a fake bird.

Matt Williams's picture

Got it, thanks for the info.

Thanks for that Info D D. I was going to ask about whether electronic calls were ethical or not because I wasn't sure.

Ryan Mense's picture

I’ve never had luck with owls, but I’ve never went out with the sole purpose of finding them either. So knowing I’m no expert (or even “enthusiast” at this point), here’s what I think I know... Location wise look for mature woods that are up against open field. They will perch in the trees and hunt in the field. Time of day I think is near sunset or sunrise since they’ll be napping away the day. Things to look for would be whitewash on trees, pellets on the ground. Listen for squirrels sounding the alarm in the distance. Might be just from you, but they also go wild for owls in the area. Same with birds. I think this concludes the little I know, haha. Maybe it will be a starting off point for you like it is for me.

Matt Williams's picture

Very very helpful, thank you!! There are tons of places within an hour or less of my hometown in Ohio that fit that description. Unfortunately Nashville isn't exactly wildlife friendly and I don't know the surrounding area as well.

David Pavlich's picture

Just a nice video!