Photographing nature requires patience and the photography of owls tops the list. The biggest problem is that you have to work at night which poses huge problems, especially for focusing. A further complication is that owls are more prone to the dreaded red eye syndrome than humans. The skilful use of flash to provide adequate lighting and combat red eye is thus essential to obtain decent photographs. To get this right presents a huge learning curve for me and I therefore enrolled for the strobist course presented by Danie in April this year, my goal very much different from that of the other students!
I had one try after the course but due to technical difficulties did not get the results I wanted. Firstly I found the nest very late, only about a week before the chicks started leaving the nest. This gave me little time to study their habits with the aim of positioning my hide and also little time for them to get used to my presence. The nest was that of a pair of Barn owls (Nonnetjie uile) nesting in a nest box erected long ago in an unused barn with the further difficulty that the background was very “Industrial” and unnatural. They were very suspicious of me and I could not use a light which meant that I had to shoot blind, meaning that I had to anticipate a possible shot and prefocus beforehand. This I did before dark by mounting the camera on a tripod, framed the shot, prefocussed and then waited with remote in hand which I released as soon as I noticed movement outside the hide. The second problem was that I had technical difficulties with the triggers for the remote flash. The remote or flash went into sleep mode after a while and would only “wake” up after the shutter was released for the first time and this presented huge timing problems. I missed a nice shot his way with only one flash firing, this produced uneven lighting and harsh shadows. I tried to rescue the image as good as I could in Photoshop elements. (See photo) I did however get some reasonable shots of the young birds at the nest, although focusing was not spot on.
The earlier encounter with owls that started it all was a bit more successful. I knew that a pair of Spotted Eagle owls bred successfully near my mother’s home in 2009 and made an effort to discover the nest in time in 2010. We found the nest in October in the fork of a Jacaranda tree about two and a half to three meters above ground.
I built a hide about 8 meters from the nest and spent about 80 to a 100 hours in 24 nights there over a two month period. I mounted an off camera flash on a monopod tied to the corner post of the hide, slightly to the right and about 600-750mm above the camera. I rested the camera on a towel wrapped around the frame of the hide as they did not mind the light I mounted on the left corner post of the hide. The other major problem in Owl photography lies in the fact that owls are designed with silent flight in mind, you never know when they will appear at the nest. I sat with my finger on the shutter and eye glued to the viewfinder for hours on end, finding many times that one of the parents arrived at the nest the moment I relaxed! I can remember one specific evening waiting two hours without anything happening. This resulted in cramps and muscle pains in unexpected places and this, combined with mosquitoes and weather conditions ensured that it was not always that pleasant out there. On two occasions I had to leave the hide because of strong winds as I was worried about the stability of my 3 meter hide in spite of anchor ropes! Unfortunately it turned out to be the most productive nights as 70% of the diet consisted of moths and insects and on very windy nights the moths can’t fly and the owls are forced to hunt for larger prey. I did however get some descent shots.
I used a Nikon D700 with Sigma 150-500mm lens zoomed to between 250 and 350mm. Aperture and shutter speed used was mostly around f6.3 and 1/200. I used a Nikon SB-600 speedlight.
Mother watching me, what a magnificent bird!
Mother brings a small hare to the nest.
Ouboet swallowing a blind snake. I watched the chicks consume a total of 13 snakes. Snakes are swallowed head first like spaghetti.
Dad brings a beetle.
In the early evening dad will begin calling softly in the distance and this is the cue for the owlets to move to the side of the nest in anticipation, bobbing their heads and staring into the dark expectantly.
One of the owlets battling with a centipede that is still alive.
This was certainly a very satisfying and enriching experience and I hope to be able to do it again soon so I am constantly on the lookout for nests. I also hope to sort out the technical problems with using multiple flash in order to improve the lighting.
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