Behind the Lens with Barred Owls

Behind the Lens with Barred Owls by Jared Lloyd

I am on the Florida coast right now pressed up against the Gulf of Mexico. This is the American tropics. Air plants and bromeliads and orchids and Spanish moss drip from the branches of trees in forests who hold the likes of sable palms and ancient live oaks. The left side of the state is different from the right. The Gulf dominates life here. It dictates the climate, making it warmer, more humid, and hints of Caribbean culture and climate.

I. Love. This. Place.

As is my habit, I came down here a week in advance of my workshop so that I could get some shooting in for myself. More importantly, I like to arrive early so that I can scout and prepare and get my finger on the pulse of the wildlife in the area before clients arrive.

One of the many targets for this workshop are sandhill cranes. Come April, these prehistoric looking birds, American ostriches if you will, are now running about with their newborn colts (chicks). The sandhill cranes of Florida are a unique subspecies that is non-migratory and lives here year-round. These are quite different from the greater sandhill cranes you see in places like Bosque del Apache or the Platte River. The Florida subspecies is smaller, slighter, and I swear the colour is distinctive.

Whether were talking about the Florida sub-species or the great sandhills of the west, these birds prefer to nest and rear their young in bulrush marshes. And here, in Florida, these marshes can be found ringing places, like Myakka Lake or the various watery recesses and holes and swamps and even retention ponds around the area.

I had caught word of a family of sandhills that were hanging out along the edge of one such lake. Access is a short hike off-trail through what is known as a tropical hardwood hammock. These are endangered forests, and host species of vascular plants more typically associated with the West Indies. I love these forests. They are dark. Erie. Primal. And scream tropical.

As hammocks, these are places of higher ground. During the wet season much of this area is flooded out. The lake itself spills out into the forest much like the Amazon does during the rainy season, and high ground becomes places of refuge for all manner of wildlife. Hiking through here, you are as likely to find whitetail deer fawns bedded down as you are the beautifully coloured coral snakes.

Notice that despite how cluttered the background is, and how disctracting the canopy is from the subject, I was able to pull off a few relatively pleasing shots of mom before she flew in closer to me. The key here was trying to find a composition for all of those branches and then shooting the photograph as a high key image. And by high key image, what this really means is that despite the bright background, I properly exposed for the subject and composed in such away to allow the blown out background to work in this composition.

Making my way through the forest, I noticed movement from a low hanging branch in front of me. Live oak trees send out sweeping branches that stretch out to impossible distances and often time mere feet from the ground. This one was covered in resurrection ferns – which look dead but suddenly spring to life in all the verdant green of spring immediately following rain. But nestled down inside of this resurrection fern was a juvenile barred owl.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

These are secretive animals. To have stumbled upon one like this is kind of like hitting the wildlife photography lottery.

Scanning the area, I noticed a far larger owl high in the trees at a distance. This was mom. And her eyes were burning holes in me.

Within seconds, mom was aloft. Silently she moved through the forest, the sound of her flight muffled by the unique fraying of the ends of her feathers that all owls maintain so as to perpetually operate in stealth mode. Mid-flight she twisted sideways, her wings at 12 and 6, as she slipped expertly between branches coming straight at me.

I have had my hat knocked off my head by owls before. Full disclosure though, I didn’t even know I was near a nest when that happened. Hiking along with a camera over my shoulder in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, suddenly there was a flurry of brown in my vision and then POW.

As I stood watching the owl swoop towards me, this scene replayed in my mind. “Here we go again,” I thought.

But instead of attacking me, she suddenly lifted back up and landed in a branch next to me. She made no noise. She did nothing to show agitation. She simply landed closer to keep an eye on my actions.

At that moment, I didn’t realise that there were actually two juvenile barred owls on location. I had only spotted the one, but would soon pick up the faint sound of another in a tree as it shuffled around to find a better view of the human below.

For nearly 10 minutes I remained almost motionless. By body posture was relaxed. And I simply watched. I had stumbled into the inner sanctum of a family of barred owls and I wanted to make sure I was welcome before I set up my camera.

Studying mom above me, I noticed she eventually closed her eyes. This was my que. My presence was no threat, and all was right in barred owl world again. I began filming and photographing.

Of the three owls I now had to choose from, only one of the juveniles made for solid for compositions. You see, the challenge in photographing birds in the forest like this is two fold: light and background. Of course, light and backgrounds are always a major consideration with wildlife photography. But forested situations, scenarios where the animals themselves are in the canopy, take these problems to whole new levels for us.

First, the light.

In general, overcast lighting is the easiest lighting scenario to work with in a forest. The reason for this is that the clouds scatter the light. This removes the harsh shadows and highlights that are created in a forest. Everything becomes, more or less, evenly illuminated. Of course, this also means things are darker though as well. And so high ISOs and obsessively exact exposures are necessary to handle these situations.

For me, it was late in the day. Dark clouds prevailed as the Gulf threatened to hurl thunderstorms my way. From time to time, the sun would burst through, but it was at a low enough angle to work to my advantage. When it did shine through, it was diffused enough, and low enough of an angle, so as to look like I was using a flash set up on a light stand with a giant soft box.

The Background.

The problem with canopy photography is that our eyes are always drawn to the brightest areas in a photograph. If you're shooting into the canopy of a forest, then inevitably you will have patches of sky that are bleeding through the gaps in the foliage. Properly exposing for the darker recesses of the forest means that these gaps in the canopy are going to be extremely bright and can fall somewhere between being distracting and completely destroying your photograph.

To solve the problem of hotspots in your canopy backgrounds, you need to move around and explore different angles, heights, and positions in order to try and set your subject up with as solid of a mass of vegetation as possible. The less sky the better. The more uniform the background, the better.

If we can find a relatively decent background, then we want to shoot the situation with the shallowest depth of field possible so as to blur the background and make our subject stand out. Remember that depth of field is a function of distance. The further the background is from our subject, the softer it will be. But when we are photographing into the canopy like this, the background will inevitably be close and cluttered in most situations and therefore we need all the help we can get at minimising these distractions.

With my owls, mom was a no go. I managed to pull off a few photos of her, that might work for documentary style photography. But there was just too much sky and broken canopy to make the photograph I wanted. One of the owlets was situated perfectly at the top of a dead tree, a mere 10 feet off the ground, but given how close the leaves and offending sticks were behind him, and the amount of sky bleeding through those leaves, I just wasn't happy with this either.

Personally, I think that the shape and form of the owl in this composition is far stronger. I love how tough this little guy or girl looks! And the perch it was using definitely lent itself to a vertical portrait. However, the background is pretty distracting for my tastes.

For the owlet that did work, however, you can see very quickly how the background ultimately makes this photograph. This is hte photograph at the very top.

Having a relatively solid mass of vegetation is what was necessary to eliminate any and all distracting elements behind the bird. But the distance of the cabbage palm frond was absolutely perfect in my opinion. I am not always a fan of the solid green background you see in setup photographs – where a photographer sets up the perch and the background and lures birds in with food or water or calls. Don’t get me wrong though. These types of photographs can beautiful. However, the amount of detail that remains in this background is very attractive to me as it gives you a sense of place. The leaves of the palm very much become major players in the overall composition.

Just because you have found a subject in the forest does not mean you have found a photograph. Having a subject is just one very small part of the equation. Once found, you then need to go about finding the right background, angle, and composition. This can be incredibly challenging and sometimes there are no photographs to be found. But, if you keep all of these elements in mind, and you persevere at trying to bring them altogether, then you will find your bird photography catapulted into next level territory very quickly!

Keep an eye out for an upcoming video on all of this – the sandhill cranes and barred owls and my photography down here on the Gulf Coast of Florida!

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About Author

Jared Lloyd

Jared Lloyd is a professional wildlife photographer and environmental journalist based in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With publishing credits worldwide, Jared’s work takes him from the Amazon to Africa, but the open spaces and charismatic wildlife of Yellowstone lure him back to the Northern Rockies every time. At the heart of all things in his artwork is conservation.

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