Short-eared Owl – A Matter Of Breaking Another “Rule”

Plus another example proving beyond doubt that Utah state government has lost its collective mind!

On a recent blog post the subject of breaking photographic “rules” came up. Here’s another instance of doing exactly that.


1/400, f/9, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this handsome Short-eared Owl in early June of last year very close to the border between southwest Montana and Idaho. The light was extremely low (at least for photographing an active, moving bird) but that made the lush green background quite dark and I think the owl is simply gorgeous against that backdrop. The detail on the owl is excellent (to the point that we can even see the “fringing” on one of the left wing primaries that allows silent flight in owls) and the soft light is evenly distributed over the entire bird. And I enjoy the pensive gaze as the bird looks out of frame to our right.

However there’s a potential problem. One of the many lessons I learned years ago when I was extremely active on a bird photography critique forum (Nature Photographers Network – NPN) was that if the perch is too large relative to the size of the bird it often has negative aesthetic consequences and perhaps that’s the case here. This owl chose to perch on a large old wooden fence post and the massive size of that post may dominate the entire image for some. For that reason when I posted another image of this bird last year the owl was looking to our left so I cropped it vertically and that composition allowed me to crop out almost half of the right side of the post so it wasn’t so large relative to the size of the bird.

So, what say ye? If you have an opinion you’d care to share I’d be interested in knowing how you feel about the aesthetics of the image as it involves the relative sizes of the post and bird. If you do please be brutally honest because I’d really like to know.



PS – I’m so angry I could spit (or worse)! 

We learned yesterday that the Utah Department of Natural Resources is exploring the possibility of allowing ATV (all terrain vehicle) use on Antelope Island State Park. I simply could not believe what I was reading when the Ogden Standard Examiner broke the news in this article yesterday.

If there’s anywhere in the entire state of Utah where ATV’s should be banned it’s Antelope Island! Those noisy, dust churning, habitat destroying and wildlife disturbing contraptions should have no place on the island with its teeming wildlife and the quiet, natural sanctuary it provides for anyone who visits. Period, end of story!  ATV’s have already ruined large chunks of our natural habitat so I have to ask publicly – What in the hell is DNR “thinking”?

The same mentality dominated the Wildlife Board several years ago when they approved state sanctioned hunting of American Crows. They had to officially and disingenuously reclassify crows as “upland game birds” (gimme a break!) in order to do it and they approved the measure knowing full well that scientific research didn’t support the move and that no one eats crows so their carcasses would simply be abandoned in the field. That decision was an excuse for killing and nothing more.

 Our state government, DNR in particular, drives… me… nuts!  



58 comments to Short-eared Owl – A Matter Of Breaking Another “Rule”

  • Zaphir Shamma

    When I saw the owl, I was immediately struck with how rich and beautiful it was as well as that creamy yummy background. I never even looked at the post. I just stared and stared at the owl and how clean the entire shot was. I didn’t give the post any thought until I read what you had written. Hope that helps…killer shot Ron!! f/9 at 400 isn’t your norm…it really did this bird right 🙂

  • Owl photograph. Gobsmacked. That absolutely gorgeous bird against that lush, dark background – simply magnificent, Ron!
    I’m in favor of letting the birds continue to make the rules. If one chooses to get into selling images or submitting them for artistic presentation, then one would need to attempt to adhere to a set of guidelines.

    ATV’s. The only people who should own them are prisoners. And they should never be allowed beyond the prison gates. Total insanity, Ron.

    Hunting crows??? Seriously??? Welcome to the 18th century.

  • Alice Beckcom

    Ron, I’m very late to the party, and assume you are resting up for tomorrow’s shoot….hope so.

    I love the owl on the perch. I didn’t notice any issues with the perch size vs. the owl until you or your readers pointed it out and I still don’t. This is a beautiful photo.

    I agree that ATV’s, are obnoxious. Perhaps some people think that off-road jeeps are a menace, but I don’t think they ‘hold a candle to the ATV’s….we’ve encountered ATV’s on the jeep trails and find them to have no respect for others….it is a shame.

    Thank you, Ron

  • Shirley

    Sorry so late in replying to this post, Ron. Love the SEO the way it is, even though the post is large and has an interesting appearance it doesn’t pull my eyes away from the main part of the photo. Now about ATV on Antelope Island, to me it sounds as if they have no place there. Is it a Wildlife Reserve? If not maybe it should be and maybe a petition should be started to have it deemed a Wildlife Reserve and also we need to vote against the ATV issue.

  • Sandy Tibbs

    Beautiful creature captured beautifully.

  • Susan Stone

    First the Owl. When I first looked at the photo, what my eyes were drawn to was the bird. Not until I went back to look at the photo again after reading your comments, did the fence post become large. Once I saw it that way, it became pretty much impossible to go back to seeing it as not so large. I’m sure the photo would be better if the post were smaller, but the bird is so gorgeous that I’m happy with the photo the way it is. Then to the ATVs on Antelope Island. The situation makes me very angry, too, even though I’ve never been there. The people who make stupid decisions like that clearly either have no clue about having a restorative place in nature to visit, and no clue about the value of wildlife and wild habitat, or there is some way they will line their pockets with the extra money the park takes in. In my old age I’ve become quite cynical about the reasons for stupid decisions like this one. (I just noticed Steve’s comment, and I have to agree with him, especially since I went out climbing on rocks today after re-injuring my hip yesterday, and my hip is very much better in the aftermath. Go figure.)

  • Allan Brooks

    Hi Ron,

    I usually just “lurk” on your blog and enjoy your marvellous photos, but this time I just had to respond to your concern about breaking the rules.

    When it comes to composition, I don’t believe there are any rules, only guidelines. Some of the most effective compositions occur when you violate the guidelines and I think this is a good example. There are two visual masses in this shot the bird and the post and, against a background that lacks any detail, they balance each other perfectly – thats what makes the composition work. If the post were narrower I would be very uncomfortable with this composition. I would probably want to crop in portrait format or place the Owl much closer to the horizontal centre (and break another rule in doing so).
    I love it just the way it is.

    • “I don’t believe there are any rules, only guidelines”

      I’d largely agree with that, Allan, which is why I put “rule” in quotes in my title and elsewhere. Thanks for your take on the composition of the photo.

  • Art

    On the perch: For me, this is a non-issue. I didn’t even know about the controversy until you mentioned it. To me, the bird is the thing. The photo is great, very aesthetic, and the perch does not in any way detract.
    On ATV’s: I’ve spent much of my life fighting to keep ATV use restricted to outside of near-wilderness and new places. There are literally thousands of miles of dirt and ATV roads in Utah. We do not need a single damned one more. Correction: the environment and wildlife do not need one single damned more mile.

    • “We do not need a single damned one more. Correction: the environment and wildlife do not need one single damned more mile”.

      Exactly, Art. And thanks for your efforts to keep ATV’s under control in areas like that.

  • DianefromZion

    My first time to express startled gratitude. You unleashed a memory of the waft of wing air across my too slow to turn up winter cold face as a snowy owl flew so spooky-silent over my head. How can they fly so silently- your picture now reveals the magic of the stealth fringe. Many thanks to you.

  • barb rumer

    post gives a sense of scale of this smaller owl.. so I like it – better than barbed wire perch, too

    I don’t live in UT , but no on ATV obviously, glad you can get political on your site (as the Audubon obol wont let one) hopefully the
    environmentalist will win out and be active on this one!!

  • I would give the owl the final decision. And he/she made it.
    What an amazing photo.
    Hitting and spitting up a storm at yet another place being despoiled in the name of recreation.

  • Betty Sturdevant

    The email address you posted didn’t work but I tried a different one ( I found it on their website.

  • Robert (RJ) Davis

    I think the perch size is fine. The owl chose it voluntarily, perhaps for its scale and size, or convenience within the territory it prefers to hunt. This is not a “set up” situation and there is nothing artificial about such a great photograph, even if the post is “human-made”. Perhaps it does not meet photo competition criteria, and maybe for that reason the standards for judging should be revisited and amended. I’m not a photographer, but I like the size of the post because it showcases the size of the owl. The owl looks completely natural in this setting/composition.

    I would lose my mind if ATVs were allowed on the Nature Reserve that surrounds my small rural community. Allowing visitors to exercise their dogs off-leash over sensitive barrens and coastline ecosystems is bad enough. Even worse are so called nature-lovers, out for a day of hiking over a growing web of informal trails, that leave doogie poop-bags, plastic water bottles, and picnic debris behind them. Then, there are the “inukshuks”! I have personally kicked over 35 beach-stone inukshuks in 30 minutes, left by our sentimental, but clueless visitors. When did Nature Reserves become dog parks, and when did people stop respecting the naturalness of those areas they wish to visit and claim are worthy of protecting? If we can not ban the “free-for all” public access that currently exists in favor of more controlled access, let’s at least agree to leashing our animals and to “leaving no trace” that we were ever there. It is hard to sound considerate and understanding about so much inconsideration for a uniquely natural area full of beautiful animal, insect and plant life.

  • Betty Sturdevant

    The reason I so enjoy your art and experiences is they real wildlife and places I may never get to or have the sharpness of eye to catch. The post could have easily been a dead tree or something else that naturally occurs in nature. I think the owls choice is the ultimate judge of size or shape. Great picture and comments.

    I will email the state concerning the ATV. How stupid can they be?

  • Sabine janke

    Wow…speechless!!!! Love your owl😃

  • Marina schultz

    I agree they are nuts .. they don’t care about welfare if animals and birds just they’re pockets.. you need to get a petition going!!! To block that !! Those ATV s run right over burro owls nests

  • The other option for this gorgeous SEO, so as not to break or bend so called “rules”, would be not to create the image in the first place. I think that having both hands cuffed to the steering wheel would be the only way for you not to image such a beautiful creature and I’m sure that isn’t going to happen. If you were to compete in wildlife Photography contest, I know you have a hard drive or two (or six) full of images that would fill the judges needs for staying within the lines of preferred image characteristics. Having technically flawed images posted on your blog doesn’t diminish the enjoyment others find in your work. Most don’t notice until you point out the perceived shortcomings and those of us that do, really don’t care. I’d rather view your shortcomings than most folks best, not to berate anyone. You know what the rules are and you choose to put before us images that are compelling, well crafted and educational, if not perfect. We, the viewers, come back for more because thats what we expect from you. Square, man made post be damned!

    “Our state government, DNR in particular, drives… me… nuts!”. I don’t know where to start!

  • Mikal Deese

    Clearly, this perch is bird approved, judging by the “whitewash” streaks. That’s the only expert opinion that matters.

  • rick

    Though I live near Chicago and have never been to Antelope Island, this is a problem whatever state you visit.
    I have volunteered to help on our yearly hawk watch, you can hear those things over the border at Chiwaukee Praire Wis. That can drive the birds west since Lake Michigan is the eastern border. Many years ago I was on the committee to make that area a nature preserve and we fought a losing battle to keep them out.There were remanets of native prairie there that have since beeen lost.

  • Pat Henson

    Being a bird lover and watcher, my eyes are immediately drawn to the bird! For me, the fence post is simply supporting the owl and not dominating the photo! No matter what you say about andy drawbacks in your photos, I only see the birds and love them!

    You take such beautiful photos and I enjoy getting your blog post everyday! Thank you!

  • Patty Chadwick

    The perch size rule is, in my eyes, ridiculous! It is what it is…this is a beautiful photo…I love the perch(which gives a clue as to the size of the bird), the bird itself and the darker background…BEAUTIFUL. I am appaled at the very idea of ATV’s on Antlope Island and, after the reclassification of crows as “upland game birds” ( who eats crows.), I wonder about the sanity of Utah’s officials. WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY THINKING???

  • Frank Sheets

    Hi Ron,

    I looked att your owl image several times this AM. At first I didn’t have an issue with the size of the post in relation to the bird, but now that I look again after about an hour, if I was on the picky side, in the best of worlds, a smaller post would have beeen preferable. But, we don’t live in that perfect world so I can say, “great image!” On the other subject, if you want to take experience crazy state governments, come to California. There are places for ORV’s and there are not. From what I understand about Antelope Island and sensitive habitate, that is not a good place for this type of activity. Nor is coal mining on the Grand Staircase. Good luck!

  • Laura Culley

    Government and our entire society, as a whole for that matter, has lost its collective ever lovin’ mind(s). ATV use around here is near constant. One young man recently chased a day-old calf until it could no longer run/escape and died. That happened near my front yard for pity’s sake! I wasn’t home at the time, otherwise, there would have been major consequences! I will never EVER understand what disconnects in someone’s mind to make it OK to do something like that, and the predictors for that young man’s future are dire. It literally made me sick (as so many other human actions have done in recent years). The bottom-line question is what do actions like this say about our (collective) personal ethics that extend into the personal ethics of our greater society that we would (collectively) allow things like this to happen. GRRRRRRRRRR! What’s WRONG with us? GRRRRRRRRR!
    On to other topics, for me, the size of the perch v. the size of the bird makes no difference whatsoever. I’m often flummoxed by what experts say. Yes, I can kind of see their argument if the perch took up the whole bottom of the frame, for example, but chances are excellent that would be a fence rail, which wouldn’t matter to me in any way whatsoever, either. OK, granted it could be a metal fence rail, but that would only make a skosh more difference. MY eye would still be drawn first to those lovely eyes, those amazing feathers and would linger on the overall bird before the background was even considered.
    Personally, I love the background of this image, but again, it was only considered AFTER taking in ALL details of the bird’s wonderfulness. Yes, I’m easily amused, but again, I find that experts do NOT often know it all!! So, at least in MY mind, it’s OK to break their silly rules when you get the chance. You are a seasoned professional, which means it’s your DUTY to make up your own rules just like I’m allowed to make up new words when our language doesn’t go where I need it to go! You are also an artist, which means there really are NO rules, especially when they’re just silly! Thus sayeth me, and watch out! One day, I just MIGHT be elected Queen of the World. When that happens, there SHALL be changes! 😉

    • That’s a particularly horrific story about the calf, Laura. Even for ATV’ers….

      I agree, this bird is so stunning that it would be hard for almost anything to compete with it.

  • Sharon Constant

    I don’t have any issues at all with the size of the perch and it seems a truly restricting “rule.” The bird in your case is certainly chunky enough that I don’t see any problem at all here. Besides…who makes these “rules”? I studied four years at a top US art school and never came across any “rule” of this kind with regard to composition. The questions we were trained to ask ourselves: Does the eye move through the piece comfortably? Is the viewer led through the piece in the manner you wish or does something of lesser importance draw too much attention to itself or hold the eye longer than you wish? Does the piece feel balanced? Does it look good?

    I can see advice from the more experienced artist/photographer to consider the size of the perch in relationship to the bird if, say this particular perch was less interesting and it had a bird the size of a bushtit on it–even then there could be instances where it might work.

    You have such a great eye, Ron, that I think you should trust yourself. You are always pushing yourself and experimenting and, thankfully, we are the beneficiaries.

    • Sharon, I’m not sure who made the rule and perhaps it isn’t a formal rule at all but images were often “dinged” by experienced and respected bird photographers when the perch was too large relative to the bird.

      I appreciate your thoughtful feedback.

    • Laura Culley

      What Sharon said!! Yes, you SHOULD trust yourself, and while you’re at it, pick fewer nits 😉

  • Judy Gusick

    Nice! Personally, it isn’t a distraction to me – they perch where they perch. How to ruin a peaceful place in one easy lesson….:( Tho the ATV’s are popular for work and recreation they have their place and this isn’t “it”. Of course, the “guided” tours are probably a money maker. Even so, if they are allowed for that they will be everywhere before long – just want to get their toe in the door – and they’ll be tearing around having “fun” with no interest or regard for the flora/fauna. Sigh……………

  • I think the size of the perch compared to the size of the bird makes a statement about the tenacity of the bird. I know that’s a bit poetic but it seems to say that no matter what man does, the bird will still hunt.

  • Ron: well, the post is large compared to the bird. It is also a man-made object, or at least shows the dread “hand of man.” If one is competing in nature photography, the rules must be followed. If one is taking photos for beauty and enjoyment (or education, as you so often do), then the rules do not apply. The rules that do apply in such a case are those the photographer wishes. Beautiful photo!!! I like it very much. Thank you.

    • You make some good points, Richard. That “rule” about the relative size of bird and perch would apply whether the perch was natural or not. I appreciate your feedback.

  • Do you have a name/department to whom to address public commentary on the issue of ATV’s on Antelope Island ?

    • Kris, here’s the email address of the Utah State Department of Natural Resources ( Once commenter said that when she tried to use this address it didn’t work but here’s one she said did work. –

      There’s no petitions about the issue yet but I suspect one may be forthcoming.

  • nikonsteve

    Great shot Ron…I don’t think the post detracts at all from the photograph…I even like the detail in the post..and the background is fantastic..sometimes rules are meant to be broken and this I think would be one of those times. As far as the quads go…people should use the quads that God gave them.