It's Not Always Wilderness

“Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.”
   Aldo Leopold

Snowy owls on a fence

Friends on a fence on a foggy morning. Not exactly a wilderness setting, but the fog made a lovely soft background, and added interest frozen on the barbed wire.

A couple of months ago I wrote about photographing birds. In that article I mentioned the local irruption of snowy owls and my efforts to photograph them. The owls arrived in late December, 2011. They stayed until 25 April, 2012. During those months I made the 20-mile (32km) round trip dozens of times, hoping to come home with a great photo. I shot several thousand frames overall, many of which I've yet to review and cull. This site now has a gallery of my snowy owl photos; I'll continue to add keepers as I work through them. Of those I've been through, I'm very happy with a few; I've also thrown away hundreds of exposures. This is the usual routine, especially with bird photography.

As mentioned in the January article, the owls made their temporary homes in a neighborhood, a residential street of houses high above large, open fields and the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge. Good hunting, no doubt. But the birds spent much of their time resting on houses, deck railings, lamp poles, a pair of large water tanks, and a line of antenna towers—not exactly a wild and untamed setting. Early on, hoards of people visited the area and snapped away with cameras and cell phones, taking home snapshots of owls on rooftops and chimneys. Those crowds eventually dwindled. Through March and April, especially when the weather was cold, foggy, windy, rainy or snowy, I'd often be up there alone, or with one or two other determined photographers with their tripods and long lenses. When the weather warmed and the birds were perched on exposed shingles and other objects previously hidden by the snows of a long winter, I frequently left my camera in the car; I've no interest in photographing roofing materials or electrical service boxes. Still, one could hope for flight shots as the birds moved around. Occasionally the owls would find more natural resting places; on the ground in the fields, on boulders, etc. The ancient posts of a broken-down fenceline also made attractive settings. More often than not, however, the owls spent their days on the houses.

Photographing an Ancient Truck

Snowy owl on a water tanker

This old tanker truck, long parked in an area that may one day have new houses, seemed to be a favorite perch for one of the owls. The reservoir of the Pablo National Wildlife Refuge can be seen in the distance.

With some exceptions, I generally avoid the “hand of man” in my pictures. I don't want to make documentary or textbook illustration types of photos. Like many outdoor photographers, I'm willing to do the work necessary to make photos in wild and untrammeled places. But sometimes the subject won't cooperate; sometimes one is forced to work with what one has. The snowy owls provided a perfect example.

As in much of the U.S. now, housing construction has all but stopped here in western Montana. Below the houses on which the owls frequently perched is an area of several tens of acres in which a contractor laid out lots for new construction, but nothing has been built. Among the piles of dirt and boulders is rusting water tanker truck. A couple of the owls seemed to favor this truck as a perch, often sitting unmoving for hours.

Snowy owl on a water tanker

The “keeper” photo before cropping.

These owls seemed especially tolerant; the photo here was taken through my car window, showing the truck, its setting, and an owl. The truck is perhaps 120 feet (37m) from the road. With my long lens, that's too far away to get a useful bird photo. The soft morning light was lovely, so with an owl “portrait” in mind, I spent about an hour slowly moving closer and closer to the truck. I moved a few feet and then stopped, planted my tripod and waited several minutes, and then moved in another few feet. Eventually I got within about 25 feet (8m) of the bird, which seemed completely uninterested. I positioned myself east of the owl so my composition could take advantage of the direction of the light.

Head 'n' Shoulders

The owl looked pretty sleepy. It never really opened its eyes as I'd hoped, but again, one has to work with what one has. These are magnificent birds, and this one was a lovely example. The morning light, soft-filtered through high, thin clouds, was perfect for photographing a white bird. There was little wind. The owl wasn't stressed by my presence. My upward shooting angle gave me a perfectly pure background. With all that, and a little crop-tool magic in Photoshop, I got what I hope is an interesting owl portrait.

Snowy owl portrait

The final owl portrait. As close as I was to the bird, this is still a significant crop from the full frame. However, it's a quality capture and low ISO (200); it needed little processing other than the crop and my usual print optimizing. I think it'll make an excellent print up to Super A3 (19" high x 13" wide).

Over the span of four months I had a wonderful time photographing the owls, even when they were on houses, fence posts, or decaying trucks. Sometimes, a wild and natural setting is what you make it.

Thank you, my golden-eyed friends. Please come again.

April, 2012