Some people absolutely love owls. I have to admit that they don’t really hold any special fascination for me. Still, I like any nature photo subject so when I had the chance to photograph an owl recently, I was psyched. The species featured here is the black and white owl (Ciccaba nigrolineata), an inhabitant of rainforest and drier forests in the lowland areas of both the Pacific and Caribbean slopes in Costa Rica. Black and white owls subsist primarily on large beetles and bats and have a bizarrely haunting call. They are active strictly at night, usually roosting in tangled thickets in forest and mangroves (when near the coast) during the day.
Owl pictures taken during the day can be very nice, but most tropical owls reveal themselves only at night, and I like pictures of nocturnal animals taken at night. Nonetheless, I’ve recently seen lots of pictures of nocturnal owls that are taken with full, direct, frontal flash. Granted, unless you’re working with a barn owl that comes back predictably to an accessible spot that allows you to set up multiple flashes, it can be difficult to obtain pleasing light, but that doesn’t mean that direct, on-camera flash is a great solution. On the nature photo forums, shots taken with on-camera flash as main light often elicit comments such as “great flash work.” This may sound a bit blunt, but I really don’t understand how setting up and letting your flash blast away from on-axis constitutes great flash work. It’s the same effect you would get from a disposable camera at a cousin’s birthday party!
Using flash as main light but having it come from on axis — that is, from a pop-up flash, from a hotshoe flash in the hotshoe, or even from a hotshoe flash in a bracket attached to your camera — is a recipe for a flashed looking picture. Why? Direct flash obliterates texture and in the case of birds, it conceals the fine feather detail created by micro-contrast — the shadows between the feathers. Besides, it just looks “flashed.” Direct flash also will make most owls look like they have the eyes of Satan (I mean Lucifer or Beelzebub, not Miroslav Satan, the Czech hockey player).
My 300 mm f2.8 prime lens was my choice rather than my 70-300 zoom because I thought I might want to use a 1.4x teleconverter. I ended up shooting at straight 300 mm though because I wanted to include the tuft of leaves in the composition. The decision not to use the TC was clinched when the owl happened to land on the exact branch for which I had hoped. Since this happened, it’s true that I actually could have used my Canon 70-300 mm L zoom, but as good as that lens is wide open, the sharpness of the 300 mm f2.8 stopped down to f5.6 is about as good as it gets in modern photography – why not take advantage of it?! The Canon 1D Mark IV was the obvious choice for the camera as I figured the 1.3x sensor would be useful, and I knew the Mark IV would give me great image quality.
For the camera settings, things were fairly easy. Since flash would be the only light source for the exposure, I simply needed to set things such that no ambient light entered the picture. Since this was at night, that was not a problem. I went to manual mode and set my aperture at 5.6 because it would give me the depth of field that I needed, it would give me super sharpness on my f2.8 lens (on many lenses, stopping down two stops from wide open gives optimum performance), and it would be a wide enough aperture to give me the flash power that I needed. Remember, my main light was going to be about 30-40 feet away from the owl. I set ISO 800 because this is reasonable in terms of noise on the Mark IV and would give me a little effective boost on the flash power. (Only aperture and ISO have an effect on effective flash power; shutter speed does not affect it.)
I could have put a Better Beamer on the off-camera flash to gain some flash power. But, I had just come off leading an 11 day photo tour, and I was pretty exhausted. I thought briefly about it but was too lazy to go back to my room to get it. I was also a bit afraid that the owl might fly off in the meantime. It turns out that he stayed for a while. Had I been thinking clearly, I should have come prepared with my Better Beamer. Lesson learned! Finally, the shutter speed just needed to be somewhere around but not higher than the sync speed (the Phottix transmitters don’t do high-speed sync flash, and in any case, going to high-speed sync mode would have robbed me of about two stops of effective flash power). So, I chose 1/160.
The flash work was really the big consideration here. As soon as I heard about the possibility of this owl showing up, I was thinking of ways to avoid the direct flash look mentioned above. If the scene didn’t lend itself to off-camera flash, I had decided I would simply call it an early evening and get some rest. Luckily, when the staff on the grounds of the lodge where I was staying told me which tree it tends to come to (it’s near a security light, and the owl comes to feed on the moths and beetles that are drawn to the light), I knew that off-camera flash was a possibility. My first thought was actually to try to clamp a flash up in the tree as I really like flash that comes from above. But since I didn’t know which branch it would land on and where exactly it might perch, that strategy was out the window. To be honest, this would have been a bit difficult, and my energy level wasn’t up to the task even if it had been a practical possibility! That meant the only option was to get my flash off to one side and slightly lower than eye-level with the owl — not ideal but I thought I could make it work.
I knew I wanted two flashes for this shot. The main light would be the light set up to the side of the owl to give that texture and micro-contrast, but I also wanted just a touch of fill-flash from on-camera to soften slightly, but not kill, the shadows created by the main/side light. I originally thought about working in TTL and using my 550 EX Speedlite flash as master to trigger a 430 EX set up to the side. Unfortunately, the 430 was about 30 or 40 feet away from my camera, and the Canon infrared wireless clearly wasn’t going to do the job, something I learned after a couple of quick test shots. So, I went to a radio trigger solution, mounting one Phottix radio transmitter in the camera hotshoe and mounting my Canon 550 EX Speedlite in the hotshoe on the transmitter. The hotshoe in the transmitter is nice as it allows you to use an on-camera hotshoe flash as fill. I then set my Canon 430 EX Speedlite up off to the side and attached a Phottix receiver to it. This meant going to manual flash because I was using the radio transmitter/receivers (a limitation of the the Phottix gadgets as opposed to a luxury setup like Pocket Wizards but not a big deal). I set the on-camera flash at 1/32 power and the off-camera flash at 1/2 power. I did some calculations using the distance scale on the 550 EX flash to determine these settings and believe it or not, they turned out to be right on — always nice when that happens! (I will be discussing the use of manual flash in more detail in my forthcoming E-book The Guide to Tropical Nature Photography and also the Behind the Scenes E-book that will be a complement to my forthcoming coffee table book.)
This super cool lighting diagram by my son Chris (see www.chrisbascophotography.com for Chris’ photography) illustrates well the shooting situation and my lighting solution. Note that even though the on-camera flash was closer to the subject, it’s putting out less light than the off-camera flash. Again, this was by design and was meant to avoid red-eye and to create some shadows.
Below is a closeup crop of the owl itself, showing the nicely textured feather detail and the natural-looking eyes. The owl’s right eye has a shadow but I’m OK with it since it was in keeping with the slightly mysterious look I wanted for this picture. Too much fill from the front, and I would have started to lose the sidelit look.
This is the kind of picture where it helps to have a friend. In this case, I was out shooting with my friend Glenn Bartley, a well-known bird photographer from Canada. (BTW, Glenn and I will be visiting this lodge on our Costa Rica workshop next April!). So, I asked Glenn to hold the flash while I pressed the shutter. Glenn also held a flashlight while I focused when the bird flew in. I autofocused and then checked my focus in Live View (the owl was quite calm once he established position.) We took turns helping each other out.
Had I been by myself, I still could have pulled this off by setting the off-camera flash on a lightstand or extra tripod but since I was with Glenn it was just as easy to help each other out. Another option that might occur to people is to set the camera on a timer and then run around to hold the off-camera flash. This doesn’t work well for two reasons. First, you have no control over when the camera is going to take the picture. The owl might turn its head or look away. Second, though this owl was quite calm, in general it’s not a good idea to be sprinting around while photographing wildlife!
For the composition, I really wanted something more than just a closeup of an owl. When the owl landed on a clear branch with just one tuft of leaves (the tree is a Teak tree by the way), I knew I had something going on. By using the bare 300 mm lens I was able to frame so that the branch flowed through the image on a slight diagonal. Plus I had the two main elements (owl, tuft of leaves) on power points. Importantly, the owl is the brighter of the two elements, so the viewer’s eye goes there first (key since the owl obviously is the main subject). This composition, along with the textured lighting, made for what I think is an interesting studio-style wildlife portrait taken in the wild under completely uncontrolled conditions (that is, I wasn’t putting out food or bait or anything), which is a cool bonus.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Successful nature photography is all about previsualizing an image (even when shooting action or capturing a fleeting moment), analyzing the technical tradeoffs that your previsualized image entails, and then making choices. Hopefully this little article will give you some ideas for the next time that you’re out in the field photographing.
If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.
The image analyzed here is available as a poster print, an affordable and classy way to jazz up any space in your home or office!