How To Find And Photograph Owls With Good Field Ethics

The art, ethics and technique of documenting one of nature’s most elusive subjects

Many wildlife photographers want to photograph owls, one of nature’s most prized subjects. There’s just something about these elusive creatures that sends us into a frenzy. Is it their large, forward-facing eyes? Their mysterious, silent flight? The way they swiftly seize their prey? They’re simply captivating, whether they’re perched in a tree, framed by branches or hunting on spectacular, silent wings.

Photograph of a great gray owl

A great gray owl in pursuit of prey in a meadow in Jackson, Wyoming.

Finding Owls

There’s definitely a science to finding owls. Enhancing your naturalist skills will greatly increase your chances. Do extensive online research into the different species. Learn about each species’ habitat, preferred trees to roost or nest in, and their hunting strategies. What time of day or night are they most active? Look at photos online and observe how different owls blend into their environment.

Study owl sounds. I once found a young barred owl deep in the woods because I recognized her begging call (which sounded nothing like an adult’s call). Also be attuned to the mobbing sounds of other birds, especially songbirds and crows, which raise a fuss if they detect an owl. I’ve used their vocal scolding to locate owls several times.

Look for clues like owl whitewash (excrement) and pellets (regurgitated matter) when walking through woods. These are found under owls’ roosts, nests and hunting perches. When searching trees, know that some owls, such as long-eared and saw-whets, perch close to the trunk among dense branches in coniferous trees in slim, cryptic poses.

Pay close attention to the weather and light. On sunny days in winter, head out to search for screech owls visible in tree cavity openings, basking in the warmth. Their cavities often face south to maximize exposure to the sun. In general, very windy or rainy days are unfavorable conditions for finding owls, as they’re often less visible and active.

Consider traveling to a spot that’s owl-rich in winter. The premiere destination for many owl photographers is Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota, just north of Duluth. It’s famous for great gray owls and northern hawk owls. Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park can be fruitful for those in search of great gray and boreal owls. For snowy owls, head up to Canada, particularly Ontario.

Interestingly, owls are more tolerant of people in some parts of the country than others. Great horned and barred owls, for example, are mostly elusive and shy in the northeast but practically tame and acclimated to humans in Florida and other parts of the south and southwest.

Avoid Lures To Photograph Owls

Never use live or dead animals as a lure to photograph owls. Predatory birds baited with rodents very quickly habituate to humans. They begin to approach people—and sometimes cars, knowing they produce food-bearing humans—begging for food. Owls and other raptors are often fed near roads because people don’t want to walk a distance or through deep snow. They are often hit by cars because they fly so low. Many owls die this way.

Avoid any owl-focused photo workshop that guarantees you owl shots. The only way they can make such a promise is because they’re bringing along a cooler full of live mice. That being said, there are ethical photographers out there who offer owl tours in owl hot spots, but they are honest in admitting there are no guarantees; they simply offer expert help in finding them.

Some photographers use audio playback of owl calls as a lure. This can disturb owls from their ever-important life activities: resting, hunting, protecting nests. It also alerts other birds to the owl’s location. Smaller birds may then harass it, while a larger raptor might attack it or even prey on it.

Avoid shortcuts; they are always at the expense of the owl. Use your eyes, your ears and your feet. If you come up empty in your quest, consider that you’ve been immersing yourself in nature, and that’s never a loss.

Field Technique To Photograph Owls

The most important gear to photograph owls includes a camera body with high ISO capability, a long lens and a quality tripod.

Owls spend much of their time perched, resting or hunting from a lookout point. In winter, we’re often dealing with low-light conditions, and when you factor in that many owls don’t get active until dusk, it’s essential to have a camera that can handle a high ISO setting without producing too much noise.

Owls are elusive and shy. Telephoto lenses are critical for maintaining distance so that they don’t flee. Focal lengths of at least 500mm are best, though a 300mm or 400mm may suffice, especially if you have a teleconverter for added length. Also bring a lens that gives a wider view, as owls are usually large enough that you can depict them as part of the greater scene that tells the story of their habitat. A zoom lens like a 70-200mm or 100-400mm offers versatility.

A quality tripod is a must to photograph owls, given your distance from your subject and frequent low-light conditions in winter and at dusk. A tripod will allow you to use a very slow shutter speed to bring in as much light as possible. Having your rig on a tripod also helps you to minimize your own movement. This is especially true when using blinds.

Hiding or minimizing your presence can be a great aid in capturing more natural, relaxed behavior. Shooting from your car can be much less threatening to an owl than approaching on foot; just make sure you have something to support your lens, whether it’s a beanbag or a window mount.

Pop-up blinds, from the most basic hunting blinds to those made expressly for photographers by brands like Tragopan are extremely useful, especially at nests. A ghillie suit or body blind is also an option if you plan to be stationary. Note that a camera with a silent shutter is a real asset in these situations. 

Another way to remove yourself from view is to control your camera remotely. Set it on a tripod in view of the owl’s roost or nest, hide yourself somewhere in view of your camera, and then use a remote trigger like CamRanger or Tether Tools to operate the camera’s controls. Many camera makers now offer smartphone apps that allow similar remote control over your camera.

In terms of camera settings to photograph owls, use continuous autofocus mode and high-speed continuous shooting. Push your ISO as high as you can and raise your shutter speed if possible, so that you’re prepared for an owl’s flight in pursuit of prey. Shutter speeds of at least 1/1600 sec. are a good starting point. If you’re fairly close to a perched owl, increase your depth of field enough to ensure the bird is sharp from head to tail.

If you have a cooperative subject, make sure to try different depths of field, and move your own position up or down, and side to side, to vary how the background will look. Your background is just as important as your owl.

Photograph owls: image of a short-eared owl.

A short-eared owl hunts from his perch at the edge of an upstate New York grasslands preserve.

Ethical Considerations With Owls

Although it’s a controversial issue, I believe the use of flash on a bird in flight is unethical. It just makes sense that a flying bird with dark-adapted vision will be temporarily “blinded” by a flash of light in its eyes. As for perched owls, I believe we should err on the side of caution. One or two flashes may not matter very much, but repeated flash, and the cumulative effect of numerous photographers flashing an individual owl, could be significant. This applies to torches (spotlights) as well. Red filters on torches can be a way to lessen the impact on owls’ extremely sensitive retinas.

As with so much of ethics, it comes down to empathy. If you were a nocturnal screech owl, flying back with prey to your chicks, how would you feel if a flash went off in your eyes? Wouldn’t it cause a momentary loss of vision? What if you were to fly into something and injure yourself? 

Never flush owls from their roosts, which they’ve carefully chosen for seclusion and cover from the elements and from predators and harassing crows. Be constantly on the alert for signs of stress as you approach an owl. This, of course, is also in your best interest; if the owl takes off, you’re out of luck. Some clues to look for: owls raising their wings up and out as an attempt to look bigger; clacking their beaks; elongating their bodies; and raising their ear tufts. When you see these signs of alarm, freeze or back off. If they continue, it may simply be best to leave.

Limit your presence to a reasonable length of time, particularly if near nests. We cannot know the full effect of our presence, but it’s always possible that an owl’s stress level is raised—even though we can’t sense it—or that it is inhibited from leaving or returning to a nest because we are there. Perhaps we are disturbing the ground prey they’d been hunting before we arrived.

Protecting Our Subjects

Don’t disclose an owl’s location on social media. All it takes is one inconsiderate or careless person to disrupt the owl and jeopardize its safety and survival. Cumulative effects are a factor as well, not only on the owl but the people who live with them. Several years ago, a northern hawk owl, an extremely rare visitor to Washington state, was killed by the man who owned the land the owl was located on, as he got so fed up with the press of photographers and birders assembled along his property. We can control our own actions, but we cannot control the actions of others.

Remove any location information from your image metadata if posting on Flickr or other photo sharing sites or on your own website. (Social media strips metadata, so those platforms are not a concern.)

If your photo reveals a location that’s recognizable or an owl that’s rare or nesting, consider not posting the images on social media for a week or more to avoid other photographers pressuring you for the location and to lessen the potential impact of additional visitors to the site.

As always, remember that these are just photos to us. To wild animals, every moment is about survival.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.