How to Photograph Barn Owls
Despite having photographed barn owls for over two decades, they are still one of my favourite subjects, and never fail to excite me. Catching sight of one gliding like a ghost over a meadow at dusk still gives me goosebumps every time.
Capturing compelling images of these beautiful birds can be tricky, but with some patience and perseverance- and some guidance from this article- you should find it possible to capture stunning images of one of Britain’s most loved birds.
Locating barn owls
Despite their relatively elusive nature, barn owls are widely distributed and can be found up and down the country. Their preferred hunting habitat is open countryside, meadows, field edges, and even roadside verges. They will roost for much of the day, usually in the shelter of old farm buildings.
If you have found a likely barn owl site, one way to be sure of their presence (without sighting the bird itself) is to look for pellets. A barn owl will typically regurgitate one to two pellets a night. They are black in colour and measure between 30-70mm in length.
These pellets contain the remains of small mammals, such as bones and fur- basically anything that is not digestible. If you are lucky enough to find a pellet or two, you have found a barn owl roosting site. Although barn owls are a nocturnal species, they will still hunt during daylight hours.
Barn owls are typically wary birds, and can be difficult to approach closely. So, you will need a lens with a fairly long focal length: I would recommend at least 400mm. If I am not using my trusty Canon 500mm f/4 lens, I will usually opt for the Canon 100-400mm L IS II. A teleconverter can be used to increase the focal length by 1.4x or 2x, but bear in mind you will lose one or two stops in light respectively. For lenses of 500mm upwards, a sturdy support will help prevent camera shake.
A gimbal tripod head is especially useful for flight photography, as it will eliminate all of the weight from the lens, whilst allowing complete freedom of movement. I use a Benro Gh2 which is less expensive than the Wimberley, but has never let me down.
As with any wild subjects, avoid wearing clothes that are brightly coloured. Full camouflage isn’t always necessary, but choose natural, muted colours, such as browns and greens. Owls possess exceptional hearing, so avoid noisy materials and keep your movements slow and steady.
Once you have found a suitable location, your next step is to spend as much time as possible simply observing your subject. Keep your distance at first, and watch for behavioural patterns.
I will usually park somewhere close by and watch with binoculars until I learn the owl’s hunting habits. Barn owls usually stick to a fairly regular routine, so you should soon start to be able to predict your subject’s movements.
Take a notebook along and note down the time and location at which the owl is spotted. Through this, you will begin to build up a log of its behaviour. Your next challenge will be finding a way of approaching the owl, close enough for a shot.
Time and time again I have found that, when it comes to photographing barn owls, my car makes the perfect hide- provided, of course, that I can park it close enough! When shooting from a vehicle, a beanbag placed on the windowsill will make an ideal support. Camouflage netting is relatively inexpensive and can be used to cover the window to disguise any movements from inside the car. Most species of bird do not perceive a vehicle as a threat, so will venture close without sensing any danger. Step out, however, and your photography opportunity will likely come to a very abrupt end!
There are of course times when using a car as a hide just isn’t practical. Maybe you cannot park close enough, and you need to make your way on foot. This is when you will need to test your stalking skills. Keep your outline low and make slow, measured movements, stopping every now and again to let your subject grow accustomed to your presence.
Pop-up hides can be useful too, but placing one in an open field will undoubtably arouse suspicion. Instead, look for a tree line or hedgerow to situate it against, in order to break up its outline and help blend it into the surroundings.
As with any type of photography, light is critical. It is a photographer’s chief resource, and one that should be exploited to the full. One of the benefits of a barn owl’s hunting hours is that they usually happen around dawn and dusk, when light is at its best. During golden hour the wavelengths of light are much longer, creating a warmth and richness to the light that is completely absent at any other time. This is a great opportunity to capture atmospheric images.
My favourite type of lighting, especially for barn owls, is backlighting. Contre-jour photography can evoke atmosphere and be used to accentuate shape and form. Golden light, streaming through the wings of a bird in flight, creates a wonderful effect, which is enhanced even more when shot against a dark background.
Pay careful attention to your surroundings and your shooting angle, and try to shoot towards an area of shadow. Exposing can be tricky in such conditions, so you may need to adjust your exposure to compensate for the tones in your image. Make a habit of checking the histogram to ensure that you are not losing important highlight detail. A small amount of highlight burnout is often unavoidable, but you should try to capture as much detail as possible.
Whilst backlighting is most effective when creating dramatic images, overcast light should not be overlooked. Soft, even light is particularly effective for portraits, especially when photographing a white subject. You will also have more freedom when it comes to choosing your shooting angle and potential backgrounds, as there will be no harsh shadows to contend with.
Your primary aim should be to separate your subject from its surroundings. Search for a distant background and use a wide aperture to blow it out of focus. You may find it possible to include some natural foreground, which will give an immediate perception of depth. Look for grasses or another element of the landscape to place in front of the subject, and use a shallow depth of field so as not to distract the viewer’s eye from the subject. Don’t be afraid of shooting a wider view. Showing your subject in the environment will give your images a sense of place and will help to tell a story.
A barn owl’s flight is graceful and completely silent. Mastering the capture of any bird in flight is difficult. Success demands plenty of perseverance, not to mention the tolerance of many failures. However, practice some simple techniques and you will soon find yourself capturing successful action shots of barn owls in flight.
Ideally, you will need to shoot in relatively bright light, since this will allow you to use a fast shutter speed. This is paramount if you hope to freeze the movement of your subject.
Read more: How to photograph birds in flight
A fast lens will help, especially in low light. I often use a Canon 300mm f/2.8 L for flight shots, as it has great low light capability due to the wide maximum aperture and fast focusing.
Shooting during the first and last hours of sunlight on a clear day will give the best results, as the low sun will light up the underside of the bird, revealing important detail that would otherwise be lost in deep shadow.
Aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th second, and select the predictive autofocus setting on your camera. Expanding your focus points to a group is a handy way of increasing your margin for error when it comes to tracking your subject. You will lose some accuracy, however, so you may need to stop down to a smaller aperture to increase depth of field, in case the focus point picks out the wing instead of the head.
A good panning technique will result in a greater number of sharp images, and obtaining critical sharpness is perhaps the trickiest aspect of flight photography. The key to successful panning lies in smoothness and anticipation. To adopt the correct posture, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and tuck your elbows into your sides to increase stability. As your subject passes, swivel your upper body smoothly, matching the speed of the bird. Wing position can make or break a shot, so fire a burst of frames using the high-speed drive mode to give you a sequence to choose from.
Read more: Conveying motion in a photograph
Barn owls are a tricky subject. They are elusive, easily spooked, and are most active during unsociable hours! However, put in some groundwork, some patience, and a lot of perseverance, and huge rewards are there for the taking.