Burrowing Owl Shot Progression


I wanted to share a bit about my thought process as I progressed through a shoot with the always cooperative Burrowing Owls of Florida. My wife and I arrived a bit before sunrise to a location right in Cape Coral with houses and buildings all around the burrow.  This was my first time at this specific location so I didn't fully know what to expect as far as lighting and backgrounds.  When we first walked up there was a pair of owls standing outside their burrow and another single owl in another.  We decided to concentrate on the pair since they were more visible. 

As always I didn't know how long the owls would be above ground so with a slow approach I began taking some photos. The first shots were well before any sun was shining and the soft dim light made the owl's pupils huge which is a funny look. I was just getting started so there were a lot of buildings and vertical poles in the background, I had not yet found an ideal shot.  This is my normal approach with birds, I start taking some shots because I don't know how long the subject will be available and hope I'll be able to progress to something better.

After a bit I began crawling around and changing my background and foreground.  I found a position that had a background of bushes on the opposite side of the small field.  I had now found a background free of most of the surrounding buildings.  

While looking around waiting for the light to change I thought I had one of the best backgrounds in the area so I stayed put.  The sun had risen and was finally starting to shine on parts of the background.  There was a large building keeping the owls and their burrow in shade.  At this point I started noticing cars and other things reflecting in the background that made some interesting bokeh so I started to include them.  


I had mostly been concentrating on the owl that was standing further out of the burrow. I eventually moved my attention to the one sitting lower in the burrow and tried to include some interesting foreground blur to draw your eye right to the bird's eyes.  From the angle I was at there was no way to get both birds in focus, even if I had shot at f/16, they were just too far apart so I continued to shoot wide open and try to isolate the individual owls. 

Below I was trying for eye contact, I didn't quite get it but I managed a shot where the main subject seemed to be looking towards the other which I thought sort of worked. By now the sun was really shining on the background and made for a wonderful warm golden brown.

I realized I was having trouble completely isolating the bird out of the burrow so I decided to slowly move in for a close portrait.  I was laying on my stomach and the owls were both very comfortable with my wife and I being around at this point. We had been laying there for nearly 30 minutes. I began slowly inching forward on my stomach, watching the owl's behavior, making sure I didn't scare or disturb it.  Both owls continued their never ending scanning of the surrounding area looking for danger. I was able to move in close enough to fill the frame with the bird using the 500mm lens.  Once I was that close the background really smoothed out and gave me a nice blue to yellow gradient.  I didn't stay that close for long and slowly inched my way back, the owls never seemed to be bothered which is usually the case if you stay low and move slow. 

Eventually the sun finally crested over the nearby building that had been blocking it and began to shine on the owl.  At this point I had a few options for lighting but I knew what I wanted to try for, backlight.  I moved around and positioned the sun behind the owls.  At first I was trying to keep some bushes and trees in the background for a more natural look.  That mostly worked as in the shot below but it wasn't giving me the exact look I was going for.  That is when I realized I might be able to use a large building as a background. 

Normally I try like hell to keep from including manmade objects in the photo, especially backgrounds.  As I mentioned in the beginning that was a tough chore at this location since it was surrounded by homes, other buildings, roads, and cars.  In this case though, because of the strong backlight, I knew if I set the exposure just right I could make that building go almost if not entirely black. I moved into position and took a few shots. After a quick look at the LCD I could tell it was working out just right. I backed up a bit and composed the shot below with a heavy offset to the left. I also dropped the lens down into the grass to included a decent amount of glowing grass in the foreground.  If I had lifted up a couple of inches I would have lost all that golden glow in the bottom of the frame which I really liked.  I did remove the wooden perch that was on the left side of the frame in post since it really stood out. 

I took a few more backlit shots, even moving in for the close up below. I got what I needed then slowly backed away again.  My next move was to go around to the opposite side and shoot a few front lit portraits. It was now about 45 minutes after sunrise and the light was already starting to get a bit harsh on the completely clear morning.  Heavy shadows and strong highlights were all I was getting so I didn't like the look of them as much. 


The last shots I tried for were with some strong side light.  I found another dark background and waited for the higher up owl to turn its head right into the sun.  The sun lit up its eye and made for quite a dramatic final portrait for the morning.  My wife and I wrapped it up roughly an hour after we arrived with a great variety of looks and photos from these two cooperative Florida Burrowing Owls.  I hope you enjoyed a bit of insight into my thoughts and how I progress through a session with a cooperative subject.  

Nature photography has become a very passionate hobby of mine and whenever I get a chance I love to get outside and enjoy being outdoors. I am also the co-owner of KGM Expressions, a wedding and portrait photography business, with my wife Kim. This is how we make our living and I love that we get to do that together.