Snowy Owls in Ontario

pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,679 moderator
edited February 21, 2017 in Wildlife

My spouse and I spent last week in northern Ontario to photograph snowy owls in a Muench Workshop. The ambient temperatures were in the high teens and low twenties Fahrenheit, the wind was from 5-30+ miles an hour, and we received about 15-20 inches of snow in the area over the course of four or five days. It was rather cool and brisk in the field, unless you were dressed well for arctic weather. Our leaders' Jeep got stuck in a 3+ foot drift of snow, but my trusty 4Runner, yanked him free, and didn't charge him. These owls were photographed on privately owned farms. The grounds are not open to the public.

The sun rarely came out, but the owls were hungry and quite entertaining. Our guide even had names for some of them, as owls are quite territorial like many raptors, and our guide had learned to recognize many of them intimately.

This is Christine - notice the dark eyebrows over her eyes. She was always waiting eagerly for us, weather notwithstanding.

This is Hip Hop, named because she dances from side to side on the ground. Notice the lack of "eyebrows" on Hip Hop

This is a young female interloper who tried to enter Christine's territory - needless to say she was driven off quickly by Christine, who was much bigger and heavier.

This is Hip Hop on the ground in the blowing snow - I include this image so Puzzled Paul will know that I spent many hours laying in the blowing snow - notice how I am shooting up at her.

These images were all captured with one of several Canon bodies, usually at 1/3200 sec. f8, and and ISO varying from 800 infrequently to 1600 or 3200. Some were shot as high as 12800. We all tried slower shutter speeds, despite our guides suggesting that 1/3200th was the lowest we should use, which necessitated the high ISOs. I found myself shooting in late afternoon sunlight in a snow field at 1/3200, f8 at ISO 4000 or more at times!! I never dreamed I would use an ISO that high in a snow field with full sunlight, but I did occasionally. I actually shot in Manual Mode, 1/3200th, f8, AUTO ISO, with 1 full stop of positive exposure compensation

I have more images here -

Comments and critiques are wholeheartedly encouraged. I will try to answer any questions about this trip. Owls in flight are faster than you might think. Certainly faster than eagles I have photographed. And the conditions were harder as well, with heavy garments, hoods, and windy blowing snow. I used a Canon 100-400 for most of these images, but I also used a 500 f4 and a 70-200 f2.8 at times. The 500 f4 was tripod mounted, but most of the other shots were all handheld.

Pathfinder -

Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin


  • denisegoldbergdenisegoldberg Administrators Posts: 14,127 moderator

    Thanks so much for sharing both the photos and your experience. I love that the birds have names, and the photos are wonderful.

  • JAGJAG Super Moderators Posts: 9,087 moderator

    Beautiful birds and photographs!

  • pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,679 moderator

    Here is another interesting pose I think

    Pathfinder -

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • Cygnus StudiosCygnus Studios Registered Users Posts: 2,294 Major grins

    That must have been quite the experience. Such beautiful birds.


  • StumblebumStumblebum Registered Users Posts: 8,480 Major grins

    Amazing series Jim! One for a lifetime!

  • MitchellMitchell Registered Users Posts: 3,503 Major grins

    These are really great. That second one at 200mm!! Did you have to duck as it flew over your head?

    Was the Muench workshop worthwhile? Who were your leaders? Andy? Juan?? Mark???

  • pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,679 moderator
    edited February 22, 2017

    Hi Mitchell,

    Juan Pons and Kevin Pepper were the official Muench workshop agents. We also had the services of Len Sylvester who managed the access and availability of the owls. Len has been doing this kind of workshop for many years in Ontario, and has close relations with the local land owners, and the Canadian wildlife regulators and conservators who watch out for the owls quite closely.

    I used a 70-200 mm f2.8 IS L on a full frame body for much of the first day - I have done this with eagles as well - if the birds are going to be close enough, nothing focuses faster than this lens in my hands. The 100-400 comes close in good light, but when the light drops the f2.8 aperture really makes a difference in AF speed. I lost a lot of frames due to slow AF due to the speed of the owls and the low contrast of the overcast skies and blowing snow at times, even with my 1DX MK II.

    I have never been on a Muench workshop that I didn't truly enjoy, and I have been attending them for over a decade. Andy and Marc are dedicated to doing things right, and serving their customers well. This is my fourth workshop with Juan and my third with Kevin and both are helpful, entertaining, and a lot of fun to be around. I will be seeing Marc and Andy in the fall, and Juan and Kevin next winter probably.

    There is no way I could ever have achieved this images on my own effort - Len Sylvester has access to properties and wildlife that I could not begin to duplicate without years of work. I am very grateful to him for these images and for this experience. My wife wants to return again next winter.

    Here is Friar Tuck again in monochrome

    Pathfinder -

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • dlplumerdlplumer Registered Users Posts: 8,081 Major grins

    These are all awesome. Great work.
    Did you have to use bait?

  • StumblebumStumblebum Registered Users Posts: 8,480 Major grins

    Another wall hanger!

  • kdogkdog Administrators Posts: 11,679 moderator


  • HathingtheHathingthe Registered Users Posts: 19 Big grins
    Thank you for sharing your experience with birds. It seems a person must be very patient to become a wildlife photographer. But it definitely worth it.
  • double_entendredouble_entendre Registered Users Posts: 141 Major grins

    Lovely photos. It has to be hard to find a good contrast with a snowy owl on show. How do you even find a line between lost highlights and a white bird on snow? Astonishing resolution.

    Sounds like a brutal environment to take photos in. Maybe a battery-powered vest? Friend of mine has one for golf and loves it.

  • pathfinderpathfinder Super Moderators Posts: 14,679 moderator
    edited April 18, 2017

    The white on white can be challenging, and causes one to keep their histogram to the right but to try and not fry the highlights. Actually I shot in Manual Mode, 1/3200, f8.0 Auto ISO with + 2/3 stop Exposure compensation. It may take some finagling for some camera to do this as Exposure compensation and manual mode combined are an oxymoron. But my camera does allow it, and it was fairly accurate most of the time. As I said in my opening post, the shutter speed seemed higher than we initially thought needed, but we found it was pretty accurate, and slower was not better.

    It was always nice if we could capture an owl with a dark patch of woods behind it for contrast, but that only occurred some of the time near the fence posts - most of the time we had bright grey cloudy skys and falling snow to deal with. Or blowing snow. It wasn't really that cold if you dressed for it - usually near 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so long underwear, fleece sweaters and down coats with gloves or mittens, hats, and usually with hoods over our hats. Keep the head warm and the body will stay warm.

    Bringing the white bird out on a white background depends on the curve in the final image editing to a certain extent. Not that hard, usually.

    Pathfinder -

    Moderator of the Technique Forum and Finishing School on Dgrin
  • MoonMan04MoonMan04 Registered Users Posts: 69 Big grins
    Awesome captures @pathfinder!

    Kyle C. Moon
    Portfolio: Moonman.Photography

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