Arctic Snowy Owls in Washington – Guest Article by Steve Russell
I have long admired Paul Bannick’s photographs of Arctic Snowy Owls and, living in the Pacific Northwest, it never occurred to me that I would ever get the chance to shoot them myself without heading north. But the opportunity came my way when I discovered that the owls were making one of their “irregular” winter migrations to the Washington coast this year in search of food.
The Arctic Snowy Owl is among the largest owls in North America often over two feet in height with four foot wingspans. One of their migratory haunts on the years in which their prime food source (lemmings) is scarce in the Arctic is Damon Point at Ocean Shores, WA. On two separate weekend days I trekked a couple of miles in the sand with camera gear on my back to find 10-15 of the owls on scattered driftwood in the low grasses or on low tree branches.
I brought my Canon 7D camera and 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens with 1.4 extender. Many other photographers around me had monster telephoto lenses that I envied, but I compensated by scooting a little closer to the owls and my lighter load allowed me to move around more freely to get different perspectives. My first day I used a tripod with Wimberley Sidekick (gimbal head) but found it too restrictive, so on my second visit I propped my camera on a small Giottos ball head screwed into a Primos Trigger Stick, which is a rifle monopod with a one-handed spring height-adjustment mechanism. It gave me a better combination of flexibility and stability especially when I could prop it against a log.
I shot with a wide-open aperture (f/4 with the extender on) except on one occasion when I wanted to get more detail of a mountain in the background and shot at f/16. When the sun was out I was able to keep the ISO low (100-200) and still shoot at 1/1000th or faster.
It didn’t take long to learn (again) that the quality of light is everything. I was happy to get the mid-day front or perpendicular light, but when that magical golden hour just before sunset finally came all the colors warmed and saturated beautifully. I was thrilled to get the photos I got, but my dream of a Paul Bannick-like, in-focus shot of a golden-eyed Arctic Snowy Owl flying toward me with outstretched wings is still just a dream. Reason enough to keep coming back while I still can.