Barn owls are popular and photogenic birds; however they are a protected species. Oscar Dewhurst explains how and when to capture them with minimal disturbance
About the barn owl
Easy to identify, barn owls are one of the UK’s most-loved birds. They are great to photograph too, but they are protected as a Schedule 1 species so be careful not to cause any disturbance during the breeding season.
- Location Found over much of the UK, except some upland areas like the Scottish Highlands.
- Size Length: 33-39cm; wingspan: 80-95cm.
- Nest Usually located in holes in trees or undisturbed buildings. Less often found in mines, cliffs and quarries. They will also use nestboxes.
- Diet Small mammals such as rodents and shrews, as well as occasionally some larger mammals and birds.
Instantly recognisable with their heart-shaped face, buff upper parts and white under parts, barn owls are very popular birds, whether you’re a wildlife lover or not. They are widely distributed across the UK, where they inhabit many areas of open countryside. Listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, during the breeding season it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them at an active nest site or to disturb dependent young. It is important to bear this in mind if trying to photograph them during the breeding season. Don’t be tempted to go too close to the nest site. If your presence puts the adults off from bringing food back to the chicks, that would classify as disturbance. The best way to photograph them without causing disturbance is to find where they hunt so you can get into position early and minimise your impact on them.
Barn owls are primarily nocturnal, although at this time of the year when they may have chicks to feed, they can be seen out in the early mornings and late afternoons/evenings. With the long daylight hours we have in the UK during summer, you will need to be out either extremely early or fairly late in the day to maximise your chances. Favoured hunting areas include field edges, riverbanks, roadside verges and rough grassland. Spend some early mornings and evenings scouting for them with just a pair of binoculars from a distance so you can work out which areas they tend to use, and where you might be able to position yourself to avoid disturbing them.
Being largely white, barn owls’ plumage can confuse automatic exposure modes on your camera, so I tend to use manual exposure. I take an exposure reading off a neutral area, like grass, then dial this in. Take a few test shots first and check the shots as you go; it is sickening to get home and find all your images over- or under-exposed! Although barn owls often fly fairly slowly as they quarter across the ground, I still keep my frame rate at its highest, and will almost always be using single-spot AF, to get the focus point as close to the eye as possible.
Time of day
As you will probably need to be out early or late in the day to photograph barn owls, the sun will be low in the sky, giving you nice soft light and reducing the risk of losing detail in shadows and highlights that come with shooting in harsh light in the middle of the day. When the sun is at its lowest you can experiment with different light angles. Images can look gorgeous when shooting into the sun when it’s low, with light coming through the bird’s wings and a rim-lighting effect. If the sky has some colour, you can also try silhouettes.
- Portable hide To minimise disturbance, you could think about using a portable hide if you have access to land where it is permitted. Once you have identified the owl’s preferred feeding areas, get in position early and conceal yourself, either in a pop-up hide or in a more portable bag hide.
- Binoculars If I’m photographing wildlife, I never leave home without my binoculars. They are much lighter and clearer to look through than a camera, so make finding the wildlife so much easier. They’re great for scouting locations before going back with your camera.
Oscar Dewhurst is an award-winning wildlife photographer from London. Currently a postgraduate Biology student at Durham University, he has photographed a wide range of subjects, ranging from urban foxes and bitterns to rainforest wildlife in the Peruvian Amazon.