Great Gray Owl in Snowfall

While parked at a pullout in Yellowstone I had a brief conversation with another photographer. He was very generous to tell me a location where he had been seei...
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While parked at a pullout in Yellowstone I had a brief conversation with another photographer. He was very generous to tell me a location where he had been seeing a Great Gray Owl. Seeing one of these birds was a dream for us so the next morning we drove to that spot. And we immediately spotted this owl. We only had a short time with this bird as it soon disappeared into the woods and we were unable to track her and couldn't stay long. But it was awesome to be in her presence if even for a short time. The Great Gray Owl is the largest Owl in the world based on length and wingspan. It can be found throughout Boreal forests and in the Northwest US in dense coniferous forests near meadows. They prey on small rodents such as Voles by listening for them and often diving into the snow to capture them. According to Wikipedia: "Their large facial disks, also known as "ruffs", focus sound, and the asymmetrical placement of their ears assists them in locating prey, because of the lack of light during the late and early hours in which they hunt."

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13 Comments | Report
Snooky June 15, 2016
OMG...truly inspiring...what a fabulous shot...your so lucky to have captured this....truly amazing
CWphotos5 June 15, 2016
Beautifully captured! ( Thanks for the info on this owl and the story behind the image, too! )
DebbieKMiller81 PRO+
DebbieKMiller81 June 15, 2016
This picture is absolutely gorgeous.
Alidowd June 19, 2016
Treecy August 12, 2016
This is incredible...fine focus on the owl AND the snow takes skill
Ralest42 August 12, 2016
Great picture, nothing else to say other than great
Witmar August 14, 2016
Amazing shot
Ch3Rpi August 14, 2016
Shoulder turn ;-)
catherinethompson PRO
catherinethompson August 30, 2016
Stunning. I love capturing birds and painting them. This is amazing.
rushewallace PRO+
rushewallace January 06, 2017
Excelent capture !
kellielaw March 24, 2017
Stunning shot
Trotts Premium
Trotts April 28, 2017
Alwolfe Premium
Alwolfe May 08, 2018
Awesome capture!

Behind The Lens

I photographed this Owl near the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The previous day I had been parked at a pullout in Lamar Valley when I had a brief conversation with another photographer. He was very generous to tell me a location where he had been watching a Great Gray Owl. Seeing one of these birds was a dream for me so the next day we made it a priority.
We started out from Montana early in the morning on October 29, 2015 to look for Bighorn Sheep. We didn't get down to the owl site until late morning. As we drove the route suggested by my fellow photographer I remember thinking, "How are we ever going to find this bird?" But sure enough, right off the main drive, at approximately 11:40am we saw a couple of cars parked alongside the road. I looked further to see this owl perched on a snag. In my excitement I very nearly jumped out of the car while it was still moving. When we stopped I grabbed my gear and a jacket to hold over the camera for protection from the snow. I mounted my lens on a tripod for stability and went to find the owl. As I arrived I saw that the owl had moved and went to find it, which I did very quickly. The owl was hunting and moved frequently from perch to perch. I only had four perch opportunities with this Great Gray and each for a very brief time, long enough for a total of about 30 photos. I'm shutter-happy so that is an extremely low number for me. After it disappeared we tried to track it for an hour with no luck. We could not stay longer so left after that. But it all worked well and I am very pleased with the results.
The day was very overcast and as we drove south toward the Owl site the snow began to fall. I thought, especially given the poor lighting conditions, it would be fantastic to catch a Great Gray Owl in snowfall. I always shoot in manual mode. But in preparation for this opportunity I set my ISO to auto with a -1 exposure bias. I occasionally use auto ISO just to get an idea about the lighting. When I do that I always put it down a stop because cameras tend to select exposures that are too bright. I set my f-stop to f/6.3 to provide enough depth for the bird with a little background atmosphere. For birds I would normally use a faster speed, between 1/1000 and 1/2000 sec, but the lighting was not ideal so I started with 1/500 sec. I didn't have time for any changes since the owl was not visible for very long.
I shot this image with a Canon 1D X using a 500mm f/4 IS II lens. The one thing I really wish I could change about this image is that I did not have my 1.4x teleconverter attached. Because of this the image had to be significantly cropped. Considering that limitation I'm thrilled with how well the image turned out. I used a sturdy, Gitzo, tripod for stability because conditions were so dark.
Great Gray Owls are the largest owls in the world based on length and wingspan. I have always wanted to see and photograph one of these magnificent creatures. And for the very brief time while I watched and photographed this owl I felt in awe and extremely grateful to be in its presence. I have two other images in which the owl and I make eye contact. To make that brief connection with nature is truly magical. However, I prefer the mood of this image with the owl looking for prey. I believe it adds to the dark and wintry tone of the photo.
Since I was without my teleconverter the owl was smaller in the image than I would prefer. This required significant cropping. In addition to that I increased the contrast to pull out the colors. My goal is to shoot a perfect image so that I don't have to rely on post-processing. That isn't always possible to achieve but I worked to get as close as possible.
In my camera bag
I typically shoot with a Canon 1D X as my prime camera and Canon 7D Mark II as my backup. I always carry my Canon 500mm f/4 IS II lens and keep my 100-400 IS II in my backpack and mounted on the 7D II. When I anticipate possible landscape opportunities I will also include my Canon 24-105mm IS lens. I also commonly carry the Canon 100mm IS macro lens. I use a Gitzo tripod with a Wimberley mount. My canon 1.4x III teleconverter is a must and is typically attached to my 500mm lens. And I have a 2x teleconverter as well that I use but infrequently.
There are many things that I learned from this experience. Here are my four top recommendations: Always be prepared; visualize your desired image; in dim conditions, when photographing wildlife, consider using a tripod for stability; and remember to savor the experience. You never know how quickly your opportunity will arise or how long it will last. My time with this Great Gray Owl was incredibly brief. As I mentioned above, I had time for only 30 shots. Every single frame counted. What made this chance a success was that while we drove through the snow I envisioned the shot even before I spotted the owl. My camera settings were nearly optimal. And I chose to use a sturdy tripod. The one thing I would change if I could go back would be to attach the teleconverter in advance for better image clarity afforded by the higher magnification. Last, but most important is to appreciate the moments you share with your subject. As I watched this bird I felt a deep reverence for its beauty and power. And I thought about how lucky I was to share space, and even brief eye contact, with this amazing animal. Even if my photos hadn't worked out so well I would have still been forever altered by the experience.

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