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…