Photographing Barn Owls - Advice from a Photographer

April 15, 2018  •  1 Comment

Welcome to this short blog post where I will explain my techniques to capture my best Barn Owl photographs to date. 

Now, first of all I am extremely lucky to live in an area of countryside that has untouched areas of grasslands. The Yorkshire Wolds are a patchwork of large arable farming fields. However, there are areas of grasslands that are unable to manage large agricultural machinery. It's these areas that voles and mice are feeding a thriving owl community. All within 1 mile from my home. 

I've photographed Barn Owls before. But only off the cuff, 'spray and pray' images usually from the warmth of the car. However when the opportunities were  so close to home, I decided to spend more time learning their behaviour and trying different techniques.

Peeka Hoo!ISO 1000, f6.3, 1/500 sec

1. Location.

You'll most likely spot a Barn Owl sat on a post or a hedgerow by the roadside when passing in the car. Take a note of the local fields. Is there a large area of long grass near by? Is the owl hunting the roadside verges? Owls will hunt the same areas and locations if they've had success. Return the next morning or evening and see if there's a pattern of visits. There could be more than 1 owl that hunts the same location.

Owls about that1/500 sec, F6.3 ISO 1000 @ 600mm

2. Blend In. 

Camouflage isn't essential but will help. Wear dark colours and a dark hat if you can. Try and blend in with your surroundings. I always try and sit at the base of a tree or at the foot of a hedge. Even a car will do, but for a more submersive and better experience, get outside! 

Frosty Fence1/640 sec, f6.3 ISO 640 @ 600mm

3.  The Camera, glass and equipment.

It's not all about the camera, I'm fairly sure images like mine can be achievable on a budget DSLR. What makes these images possible is the telephoto lens. The super lens I use is the Sigma 150-600 f5-6.3 Contemporary. It's not the most expensive lens on the market, but it's been so good for me. Having the extra reach on the lens, with the built in lens stability ensures you can get sharp images at even at slower shutter speeds.


Once I'm set up, I attached a monopod to the plate on the telephoto lens. This allows me to manoeuvre without too much restriction. Particularly when photographing owls in flight. Owls fly quite low when searching for voles in the grass. For birds that are higher in the sky, a monopod won't be so useful.

Super Owl1/500 sec, f6.3, ISO1100

4. The Settings.

Settings are always the debate of photographers. Ultimately it all depends on the conditions and the outcome you want. It's subjective.  This is what my 'go to' settings are: On my Nikon I set the camera to S -Shutter Priority Mode. This allows me to control my shutter speed and the camera to determine the aperture. When shooting wildlife I find you need a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second for a sharp images. I then set my ISO to 1000 and take Auto ISO OFF. This may sway a little either side depending on the conditions but I'll dial in 1000 even in sunny conditions. Here's why...  With my exposure set, and my ISO fixed I can now photograph an Owl when it comes along. If the light is good, the camera will pick out smallest aperture possible. With a smaller aperture the bigger the focal range. Therefore I can get more of the owls in focus. I keep an eye on it, but I find f8 to f11 in good light to work best.

Focus points have been trickier to tweak and everyone has their favourite methods. I tend to use Continuous shooting with 21 point focus, in the middle of viewfinder. I then lock that in using the L switch on the back of the camera. 

When photographing Owls into the low sunlight for backlit images. I switched the cameras metering mode to Centre weighted metering and upped the exposure compensation by about one stop. This allows the camera to meter the Owl in the sky and not the glaring bright sun you're pointing towards. The metering compensation just brightens it up a bit more, so you don't lose details in the shadow of the owls.

Brown BeautyISO 1000, f11, 1/500 sec

5. Waiting and getting the shot!

Ok, so now you're ready to photograph an Owl. Patience. Patience. Patience. Watch the owls behaviour. Are they searching in a certain direction? Once you get an owl in your viewfinder just wait until it's nearer and fills up more of the frame. I find that the eye naturally draws in to your specific subject however the camera doesn't and you'll lose vital pixels.

Don't be afraid to change angles. My advice is to have the sun on your back to start with. Once you've gained confidence try backlighting the owls. This way you can achieve really good illumination of the primary feathers.  Eyes DownISO 640, f10, 1/500 sec

Think about the backdrop too, try and get hedgerows and trees behind your Barn Owl. This makes all the difference in contrast for image. Unless you want an urban wildlife feel to your image try and keep houses and cars out of the background. Try and photograph different shapes of the owl too. Try and create images that distinguish themselves from "just another barn owl". 

HoverISO1000 f6.3 1/500


My final piece of advice is to keep observing and continue learning. The smallest amount of understanding the subjects behaviour goes a long way to achieving great photographs. I owe many a pint to a gent called Allan in the village who knows a whole lot more than I do on the bird world. Without his knowledge these images wouldn't have been possible. 


Flat WingsISO1000, f7.1, 1/500 sec



Great read and great shots
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