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Owl and Falcon Studio Photography Shoot

Last autumn I tried something I had wanted to do for a few years; to photograph raptors in a studio environment. I was able to photograph several different species of owl and falcon on the day, but I was particularly keen for the opportunity to photograph my favourite bird of all; the great grey owl.

I took these photos with Miles Herbert at Liberty's Raptor Centre. All of these birds are captive-bred, and photographed under controlled conditions, using two remote strobe/flash lights. This means that I'm able to get the kind of low-light, black backgrounds I'm fond of, without having to coordinate the angle of the sun and a natural dark backdrop, which I normally do for wild/free-roaming outdoor subjects.


Great Grey Owl

My main motivation for this shoot was to see and photograph a great grey owl up-close, so I'm really thrilled with these photos, especially the first one, which is everything I wanted, going in.


A great grey owl perched on a tree stump with a black background, photographed in a studio
Great Grey Owl Portrait On Black

After securing that great grey owl portrait, everything else I got was a bonus!

I've written before about how much I love great grey owls. They're colossal in size, subtle in colouration, elegant of posture, and to me they embody the spirit of the north. For all those reasons, I find them utterly compelling subjects.


Great grey owl photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Great Grey Owl In Thought

My only regret is that I didn't take the opportunity to get a real close-up of the face. All of my great grey owl photos are full-body portraits. I like the way they came out, but it would have been nice to capture a detailed head shot too. But there are lots of factors to consider in the moment - including where the bird is looking, my angle in relation to the lights, the space around the bird, and keeping the focus spot on the bird's eye. I guess the difficulty of juggling all these factors is what keeps us coming back to try again. There's are so many options available, and so many ingredients for a good photo.


A great grey owl looking down with intent, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Great Grey Owl Stare

The controlled conditions of studio photography can be used to create photos that look like they were taken in the wild, but that isn't the intention in this case. Primarily what I want to achieve from a shoot like this is a similar aesthetic you'd expect from a human portrait session. I want engaging portraits, which show the form, character, beauty, and details of these incredible creatures in a way which is not possible to achieve in the wild. Obviously owls photographed in the dark can look relatively natural, so it does help that this aesthetic is complimentary to the subject - but it's important not to take that further and dupe the viewer into believing you just happened upon this bird in the wild. On the contrary - I'm looking for images where the bird is comfortable, acknowledging the camera (viewer), and actively engaging with the shoot. That's what creates a strong connection between subject and viewer, and it's something I look for in most of my favourite nature photos.


African Spotted Owl

I love the dynamic pose in this one. The owl is present and involved, and the engaging eye-contact is about as close as I'll get to the magic of the famous 'Afghan Girl'.


Full-length portrait of an african spotted owl perched on a tree-stump, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
African Spotted Owl Portrait On Black

This close-up is also reminiscent of another photo. Many years ago I photographed an African spotted owl on white, so this makes photo completes a complementary pair of contrasting portraits; one on black and one on white.


Close-up portrait of an african spotted owl, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
African Spotted Owl On Black

As you would expect, the welfare of the birds was of priority during the shoot. All of these birds were hand-raised and used to people, camera flashes, etc. Each bird was accompanied by a falconer, who is responsible for the bird's wellbeing, and would make sure that each individual was only used for as long as it felt comfortable in our presence. This is an essential part of any ethical animal encounter, and it also ensures that the photos I captured represent an authentic moment, and have a positive memory associated with them.


Tawny Owl

Tawny owls are native to the UK, and they have a very distinctive call. Sometimes I can hear them from home, which always feels like a treat. Like hearing something from the wilderness, in the middle of suburbia.


Side-on profile of a tawny owl, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Tawny Owl Side-On

OK, I'll unleash my favourite owl fact here; You can tell what time of day an owl is active by the colour of it's eyes. Birds like the great grey owl and African spotted owl, have yellow eyes, and are active during the day, when the sun is yellow. Owls with orange eyes (e.g. long eared owl), match the colour of the sun at sunrise and sunset, so are crepuscular; active at dawn and dusk. Owls with dark eyes like the tawny owl, are nocturnal; active in the dark.


A tawny owl, perched on a tree stump, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Tawny Owl Portrait On Black

For this last tawny owl portrait, I experimented with an 'autumnal woodland' backdrop. It's not really what I set out for from this day, but it offers something slightly different from the other, more stark images against the black.


A low-light portrait of a tawny owl, photographed with a flash in a studio
Tawny Owl Close-Up


Barn Owl

In fact this photo wasn't from the studio. We did have some time with a barn owl in the studio, but he didn't seem to want to play ball for me. He was a bit fidgety, so as mentioned previously, if it seems like the bird isn't onboard with it that day, then that's fair enough. But I did capture this photo later in the day, as I wandered around the bird enclosures. It doesn't have the dynamic lighting that the flash provides, but the back background is still achievable using a shaded aviary.


Close-up portrait of a barn owl photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Barn Owl On Black


Peregrine Falcon

I'd seen a peregrine in the wild for the first time just a couple of weeks prior to this, so I got a real buzz from seeing one up-close. I found it tricky to photograph, but this close-up shows his features well.


Close-up of a peregrine falcon photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Peregrine Falcon On Black


Kestrel

Everyone loves a kestrel. They're short-winged falcons, and very agile. They're small enough not to be intimidating, and common enough to see regularly in the wild. This first portrait looks a bit like a corporate head-shot to me. He looks like a very professional business-kestrel. A real go-getter.


Close-up portrait of a perched kestrel, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Kestrel Close-Up On Black

In the next one he shows his softer side, with a little sideways glance.


A kestrel perched on a tree branch, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Kestrel On Black

Visually, I love the combination of the red wing feathers and grey-blue head feathers.


A kestrel turning to look at the camera, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Kestrel Back On Black

I was keen to capture some with a good view of his back and wing feathers, like these, as they're one of the species' key features, in my eyes. Also the black feathers in the wing tips.


Portrait of a kestrel, with red back and black wing-tips, photographed low-key in a studio against a black background
Kestrel Portrait On Black

That's all for now.


I must say a huge thanks again to Miles for helping make this happen for me - especially for fulfilling my request for the great grey owl, which was never a certainty. You can find Miles on Instagram, and I recommend the studio bird photography experience as something completely different to that of pure wildlife photography.


For more of my raptor photography see check out my Nature gallery, or my previous blog posts on the subject.


-

George

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