Little Owl Photography Tips by Elliott Neep

Little Owl Facts

Little owl on tree stumpIntroduced to the UK in the 19th century, the little owl is one of the few owls that can be seen throughout the day. The adult little owl is white-speckled brown above, and brown-streaked white below. It has a large head, long legs, and bright yellow eyes, with a white ‘eyebrow line’ give it the engaging ‘scowl’. The little owl is a small ‘stocky’ owl, measuring approximately 22 centimetres in height – roughly the same size as a song thrush. Little owls have long rounded wings and rapid wingbeats and can be seen with its undulating woodpecker-like flight as it follows fence lines post to post. The little owls at Eastbrook Farm can usually be seen perching on fence posts, tree branches, buildings or even my hide – anything that gives them a good view of the ground.

“Breeding Bird Survey data suggest that little owl numbers are declining, with the UK population estimated to be down by 24 per cent between 1995 and 2008.” (Little Owl info from RSPB). I am pleased to say, there are several pairs of Little Owl on the farm and they have enjoyed a successful breeding history, regularly nesting at the old Shepherd Hut and downland barn for the past ten years.

The little owl is often found in open country like our downland farm. Favouring the short grass of grazed fields, they prey on invertebrates and earthworms, but also small birds and mammals. The current pair (2015) are often seen with small rodents, like mice, voles and even rats. I haven’t seen it, but they are known to attack much larger birds like partridge and pheasant. Our little owls live on an active, working farm and have grown used people working close by. They often perch in full view and remain on the perch even when tractors rumble by.

Photographing from the hide…

Essential Kit:

  • Camera body (there is room for two side-by-side)
  • Minimum 400mm EQV focal length lens with lens hood
  • Tripod head
  • Fully-charged batteries
  • Empty memory cards
  • Small torch (a wind-up torch is supplied)
  • Food & Drink (something to pee in)
  • Dark clothing and hat (ideally layers as it can be chilly early morning and late evening)
  • Fully-charged phone

Recommended Kit:

  • Back up body or second for video
  • Teleconverter if using less than 400mm lens

Owl Behaviour

The hide was gradually installed over a period of several weeks. The owls are now very used to its presence. The male especially is  totally at ease with the clicks of a camera shutter, whereas the female can still be a little cautious. The adults are only noticeably wary of lens movement or unusually loud noises. Natural noises, such as coughing and sneezing are fine. The hide is surrounded by farm animals and lots of noises. When photographing the adults, I adopt a very reserved attitude and move the lens only when the owls are looking the other way or have flown inside the farmhouse. Their eyesight is exceptional and their peripheral vision is brilliant. It is extremely unwise to move the lens quickly when they are looking at you. They will become highly suspicious and stay away – taking a perch to watch you from afar. Avoid using laptops and tablets as they illuminate the interior of the hide, so be please be cautious when reviewing images on the back of your camera, using Live View and video.

Exposure

The owls perch on the window sill of the farmhouse window approximately fifteen metres away. The background can be very dark, but averages out with brightness of the window reflections. With Evaluative Matrix Metering, use [+/-] exposure compensation and dial in -1/3rd to 2/3rds stop. With Manual exposure mode and take a ‘spot meter’ reading from the mid-tone grey fence posts or wall render in front of the hide – remembering to retest your exposure as and when the light changes.

Some camera bodies, like my Nikon D800, link the spot meter reading to the active focus point. I find this very useful and accurate. If the light is strong and there is heavy contrast, I will add +1/3rd to +2/3rds to the exposure, using the exposure to clipping-point so I can get more detail in the heavy shadows. I then correct the tonal exposure in Lightroom during post-processing.

Focussing

DSC_1669The little owls are very inquisitive and can move around constantly for short periods as they seek out the food on the perches. This can mean constant refocussing for you as you try and follow them around. I use Continuous focus (AI Servo) and manually move a single focus point, targeting the owl’s eyes. If a subject’s eyes are sharp, it gives the impression of sharpness throughout.

If you’re not comfortable, moving the focus point quickly, then use the centre focus point and Single focus lock (One Shot), remembering to refocus every time the owl moves, or even looks round. If you are shooting with a telephoto, at this short range, the depth of field will be ultra slim (just a few cms) and even the slightest movement from the owl can leave it out of focus – hence why I shoot Continuous (AI Servo). Remember to rotate your camera and shoot both vertical (for portraits) and horizontal. I know it sounds obvious, but it is amazing how many photographers are so rigid in their approach that they hardly ever rotate the camera.

Photographing the owls in flight won’t be easy as their flight distance is so short and they fly very quickly. I would recommend capturing the owls as they land on the fence posts rather than shooting when they take flight – as the moment they take off, they are moving out of focus. If you prefocus on the rear edge of the perch and start firing as the owl lands, it is constantly moving into focus and you stand a much better chance of capturing a sharp shot.

Depth of Field (DOF)

As the window perch is 15m away, you can happily shoot wide open and have sufficient depth of field for a crisp shot. The perches are only 7-8m away. At such short range, depth of field (DOF) can be an issue, especially when shooting with a 600mm telephoto. For example, using a 600mm with a full-frame DSLR, shooting on f/4 at a subject of 6m gives just 2mm DOF! Even at f/8 this only increases to 4mm! So, you have to be accurate with your focussing as the light may not always allow you to close down the aperture for more DOF. Below is a table for DOF. On the plus side, shooting wide-open will give you wonderfully diffused backgrounds.

Typical DOF values on full-frame cameras like the Nikon D800 or Canon 5D mkIII at a focus distance of 6.0m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm9mm13mm18mm37mm
500mm3mm4mm6mm13mm
600mm2mm3mm4mm9mm
Typical DOF values and on 1.6x crop factor cameras like the Nikon D3200 or Canon 7D mkII at a focus distance of 6.0m
Focal Length Vs Aperturef/4f/5.6f/8f/16
300mm6mm8mm12mm23mm
500mm2mm3mm4mm8mm
600mm1mm2mm3mm5mm

At short distances such, it’s better to focus accurately and shoot wide open, especially when the light-levels are lower at either end of the day. Trying to get more DOF by closing the aperture down to f/8 will mean a significant trade-off with much lower shutter speed and for a gain of just 2mm! If light is low and you need more DOF, make sure you use a higher ISO. A sharp shot with a little noise, is far better than a blurry shot that’s clean. Click here for more information on our Little Owl hide

Remote Camera Set-up

DSC_7221We now allow remote cameras to be set-up at predesignated locations near the hide and farmhouse. We have installed photogenic rocks with deep holes for the mealworms. The Little Owls visit these rocks very frequently! Our approach is to use cameras with wide-angle lenses, position close to the rocks. The shutter is fired with either a remote shutter release (radio is best) or a camera trap sensor/infrared beam trigger. We need an extra 20-30mins to set these up with you. Firstly we put everything together by the car to test it all works, before heading around the farmhouse to install it. If your kit it doesn’t work for whatever reason, we’d rather discover this out of sight from the owls.

Remote Kit:

  • Camera body
  • Wide-angle lens (14-24mm range)
  • Remote shutter release or infrared trigger
  • Support for camera and camera-trap triggers
  • Charged batteries
  • Memory Card
  • Weatherproof covers

Little Owl at FarmhouseThe cameras will be positioned within 1m of the rocks, ideally just 30-50cm away. The best methodology is to manually focus on the closest edge of the rock and set an appropriate aperture to cover a good area of the rock – f/5.6 to f/8 seems to work very well. We also suggest using Auto-ISO if your camera has this function, just to cope with fluctuating light levels, especially if photography for the full day, dawn to dusk. If you don’t have this feature then use ISO400 to ISO800. With Auto-ISO, you can also set the minimum shutter speed. This entirely depends on whether you aiming for portraits (60th sec) or to capture the owl landing (250th+ sec). Next, connect your remote shutter release or set-up the camera-trap trigger, test the set-up and then enter the hide. Once you’re in, you’re in. It is entirely down to you to make sure your setup works, before you enter the hide.