Great Horned Owl Framed By Old Wood

This owl cost me a lot of dough!

By the spring of 2007 I was a budding bird photographer. I’d spent what I thought was an exorbitant amount of money (about $1200 I believe) on a Canon 100-400mm lens and my goal was to get stunning, high quality, close up photos of birds. Occasionally I succeeded but birds generally aren’t easy subjects to approach and my success rate was abysmal at those relatively short focal lengths. And I was learning the hard way that cropping a photo too much wreaks major havoc on image quality.

In May of 2007 I visited the Montana family farm for the first time since my cousin Ken Dudley died (he owned and operated the farm by then). It was an incredibly poignant visit because Ken and I were so very close (we grew up together on the farm), I had visited dozens of times over the years so we had become even closer and now I was alone on the empty farm for a week with only the memories and my dog to accompany me.

So I spent much of my time stalking owls. A pair of Great Horned Owls has lived on the farm for many years and I was determined to get some quality images of them. They haunt the various old and abandoned granaries and barns (most built in the early 1930’s). They spend most of the daylight hours in the dark depths of those buildings but in the evenings and early mornings they like to roost in the auger cutouts. My goal was to photograph them up close in those cutouts and framed by old barn wood with the black backgrounds that appeal to me so much.

In almost a week I succeeded one time with one owl.


1/200, f/9, ISO 400 Canon Rebel XTi, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, not baited, set up or called in

And this is that bird.

This is the larger female of the mated pair perched in an auger cutout of one of the granaries. For some reason she let me get close without turning and flying into the deep, dark recesses of the granary. Perhaps it’s because it was evening, she was on the shaded side of the granary and the light was poor and that made her feel more secure. She was drowsy most of the time but when I took this shot she’d spotted something of interest in the grasslands over my right shoulder and she really perked up for a moment. I’ve posted another image of her previously but I really like this alert pose (I took this image in jpeg rather than in RAW – at that point I didn’t know any better).

But for the rest of the week I was owl-skunked. I got a fair number of shots of them from a distance but they just wouldn’t let me get close enough for quality images with my “little” zoom lens. And even at this early point in my photo career I hated knowing I was disturbing them whenever they flew back into the depths of the granaries. Bird photographers reading this must know how incredibly frustrated I was.

Weeks later I’d spent $5400 on a new lens!

It was version 1 of Canon’s 500mm f/4 and with that lens I made many trips back to the farm for the owls and succeeded admirably – usually without disturbing them. With that lens I could use a 1.4 teleconverter and still have autofocus so now with my cropped frame camera I was shooting at an effective 1120mm instead of 640mm – quite a difference.

That was an expensive bird!


PS – Apologies for being so verbose, especially since some readers have heard part of this story before. But when it comes to Ken, the farm and those owls I do tend to get on a roll. You know how memories are…

40 comments to Great Horned Owl Framed By Old Wood

  • Laura Culley

    Thanks for that laugh…yep, these birds are But oh the payback!!

  • Sherrie M.

    I absolutely love your blog and stories! I related to this post a lot with the memories and also the “And I was learning the hard way that cropping a photo too much wreaks major havoc on image quality.” I am still working with a 200mm and cannot wait much longer to upgrade. I’ve given up many shots because I didn’t want to disturb the bird. Thank you for your continued dedication, information, and lessons.

  • Joanne O'Brien

    Great photo and I love the story!

  • Jean Haley

    Love this shot Ron. She is a beautiful bird. Glad she cooperated for you. I don’t mind hearing about the farm. Reminiscing is always fun, and good for the soul!

  • Gary W Wilson

    That first image may have been frustratingly difficult to get but it was a beauty. Your stories and observations are a delight and inspiration to us all.

  • Marty K

    Ron, she’s beautiful! And so was your description. I can picture you and your dog wandering the farm and I imagine all the memories evoked. Your description brings a tear to my eye. I want to know more about your family farm. You have a genuine skill with words as well as with the camera.

    • Nice of you to say so, Marty. Thanks you. My dog and I did our share of wandering but I had to leave him behind when I went out looking for the owls.

  • Money well spent. Very well spent. I would be surprised (shocked even) to find you begrudge it.
    Love the owl – of course. And the expansion (not too wordy at all) of the back story.

  • Patty Chadwick

    One of my favorite birds in one of my favorite settings…silvery, weathered wood and a Great horned owl, framed by the dark, dusty interior of a large barn! All reminding me, very poignantly, of the one I raised!!!

    • Thanks, Patty. That old wood has a chameleon-like quality. In the shade (like this shot) it looks very cool but when the sun’s on it the warm colors are just beautiful.

  • It’s a lot better shot than my work ten years ago. Handsome bird, too.

  • Kris Eberhard

    I can see how that photograph gave you encouragement that it would be worthwhile to invest in your vision and your passion. Maybe there was even a little “goose” from your wonderful memories
    of the place and of Ken mixed into the motivation……….altogether, that trip contributed to a wonderful direction in your life, and I’m glad of it !

  • Frank sheets

    My problem is that I’m addicted to full frame cameras, guess its a hangover from my sheet film and envy of the f/64 group (Adams, Weston, and others). As such, needed the length. Almost considered an 800, but decided that was overkill. Shoot, got myself thinking again and getting a little GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). Another plight of being a photographer. But we should all remember what one of your followers essentially said in this post, it ain’t about the gear, it’s about the person behind the camera.

  • Frank sheets

    Expensive, yes, but worth it. It definitely can be hard to pull the trigger on those long lenses, but the necessity of them is one of the many plights of choosing to photograph birds. It took me some time to commit to a 600 mm is II, but once I did, I never looked back. Wonderful Great Horned Owl by the way. Another boon of bird photography is making the investment in time. But again, once you make that investment, you can get the reward as you did here.

  • Bill Lindner

    There was a GHO that I often saw on the same tree in a wooded area about 3 blocks from my house in a relative suburban area. It was used to seeing people on the trail I guess because it was only amout 20 yards away. As long as you stayed on the trail it just watched you as only a GHO can. Didn’t want to spend the money at the time so no pictures! Now I have a camera but the wooded area morphed into houses. Often wonder what happened to the owl. Your decision to get the glass was far better than mine. Thanks for sharing your memories. Bill

  • April Olson

    Still puttering around with my “little” zoom. There are times I wish for more but then I am often on foot or 2 wheels rather than 4 and am greatful for the “little” zoom.

  • Charlotte Norton

    Fantastic shot Ron!

  • Linda

    This could be one of my favorite shots of yours and the story just adds to it. There is something majestic about the Great Horned Owl. We have a pair in our neighborhood and I was fortunate to observe one yesterday morning at daybreak but don’t have the gear or expertise to try to capture an image. Thanks for sharing not only your photography but also your world with us.

  • D.Gusset

    Sometimes you don’t need the most expensive gear to get the best shot, beautiful photo! All the more for the story behind it 🙂

  • Mitch

    Hey, Ron–I can relate to each and every component of this story. Thanks for the ride, buddy. Best…Mitch

  • Judy Gusick

    It’s GREAT photo of the GHO! 🙂 Expensive yes, but I’m sure it gave you a “lift” in your photography journey. The GHO’s can be a challenge given they are usually in low light and may or may not sit still! The pair nesting in our yard is “talking” this morning and, no, it’s WAY too dark to even attempt it. Luv watching how the male REALLY stretches out when hooting. 🙂

  • Ron: you have an amazing way of getting stunning photographs whatever the handicap! I LOVE that great horned owl shot! Thank you for sharing it.
    As for the “expensive bird,” all I can say is “Amen!”

  • Zaphir Shamma

    I very much enjoyed the story and didn’t think you were being verbose at all. Lovely picture too!! I think we all grow in whatever it is we invest ourselves in. That’s part of the fun…we challenge ourselves to become better by way of techniques and gear acquisition. I think if given an honest 20/20 appraisal, most photographers can look back in time and see photos from years past where we would have done something different today. It’s part of the journey. And now, when we look at your Great Horned Owl, we’ll not only see an owl, but we’ll see and perhaps know a Ron Dudley 7 years past a little better. That’s nice 🙂 Speaking of growing, I sold my Canon 400 & 500 primes on Sat along with the 1.4TC and the 1DX. Hoping to save money for a Nikon 600mm.