Over the years at Photography Life, you’ve become accustomed to reading reviews of cameras, lenses and other equipment. We regularly teach you how to photograph various common subjects. And now, in a planned series of interviews with inspiring and successful photographers, we would like to let you into the secrets of professional photography as told by photographers who managed to make it in this competitive field.
Ondřej Prosický – Nature and Owl Photographer
In today’s “Secrets Of Professional Photography,” I will interview a nature photographer Ondřej Prosický. Ondřej is a geologist by profession, but if you look at his extensive portfolio, you will see that most of his photographic subjects are of the living side of nature.
Ondřej has been a serious nature photographer for almost two decades. In that time, he has visited many places in Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. You can find him with camera in hand photographing snow leopards, chasing hummingbirds, or searching for packs of African wild dogs.
Over the years that Ondřej has been shooting professionally, he has accrued all manner of awards and magazine covers for his work. Ondřej also lectures and writes articles about photography, travel, and nature. Last but not least, for many years he has been leading workshops on nature photography around the world and in his home country, the Czech Republic.
Ondřej’s range of subjects is rather broad, and we agreed to narrow it down a bit in today’s interview and dive into one topic in detail. Today’s Secrets of Professional Photography takes us into the dark world of nocturnal feathered predators – into the subject of photographing owls.
Ondřej, as I looked at your beautiful work, it seems that among the wide variety of living creatures you photograph, hummingbirds and owls are the most prominent. Let’s leave aside hummingbirds, because they certainly deserve a separate story. So my first question is – why owls?
Thank you, Libor. Owls interest me because of their hidden way of life. A person without an intense interest in them has little chance to meet them in nature. I always prefer to document species and situations of animal behaviour that one would never normally see. Photographing them in their attractive habitats suits me and their “twilight activity” in the early morning and late evening suits me as well. I also like them because of the way they look. It is probably no coincidence that owls are said to be wise. They usually look like they are deep in thought.
You have travelled around the world in search of animals. Did you ever go on an expedition primarily focused on owls?
There was only one expedition focusing primarily on owls. Last winter, when it was almost impossible to travel anywhere abroad due to the pandemic, a friend and I went to Sweden to see the Northern Hawk-Owl and Great Grey Owl. We spent a week scouting places that were suitable habitat or where particular species had been observed in the past. However, our owl expedition was only 50% successful, since we only found the Northern Hawk-Owl. But that’s the way it goes sometimes on wildlife trips.
More often, on each trip I pick out locations based on the types of owls that could be photographed there. A perfect example is my repeated winter returns to the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where I can’t ignore the chance to photograph the world’s largest owl, Blakiston’s Eagle-Owl, even though the main attraction there for me is Steller’s Sea-Eagle and Red-Crowned Crane. I do something similar on my annual trip to Bulgaria where I always photograph Little Owls and Eurasian Scops-Owls, even though I’m mainly there for the wolves, jackals and vultures.
You mentioned Japan and Scandinavia. If someone shared your passion for these nocturnal predators, where would you recommend as top destinations for owl photography? Are some places better than others?
Personally, I would recommend owl species that are used to living around humans (AKA synanthropic) and species that are active in daylight. I think the Burrowing Owl and Little Owl are two good options. The Burrowing Owl is found in some places in North and South America, and the Little Owl is found in Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Balkan regions.
The literature occasionally recommends the area around Oulu, Finland for owl photography. Although I’ve been there a few times, I’ve never photographed an owl there. But it was more likely that it was the wrong time of year and that I was concentrating on other animals. It will never be a specific place. All owl species have a very scattered distribution.
Speaking of locations, how do you find places to go?
The most important thing is to study everything you can about specific owl species, their behavior, and activity during the year. That way you can focus your efforts at the perfect moment. Location is also important, studying the ideal habitat. The “national birding databases” where observations of each species are recorded are excellent helpers. Of course, specially protected species will not show precise locations on sites like eBird. Which is good. Too many visits would disturb them during nesting, for example…
You should also contact and help out people involved in conservation. Personally, I learned the most about owls when I helped with Little Owl monitoring in the Czech Republic. And the more you know about each species, the better your chances. I would listen for their calls during mating season (in Europe generally at the end of winter) and often succeed in my search.
It is likely that they (or their offspring) will inhabit the site for many years. An owl-occupied cavity is easy to locate by the fresh pellets on the ground below. A rock outcrop occupied by an Eurasian Eagle-Owl can easily be pointed out by bright fecal stains.
Let’s say I have the time, the money and the wandering shoes. I want to photograph owls in Africa, North America, Europe, or South America. How do I do it? Is it even possible to plan such a trip to get what I want on a memory card in a limited amount of time?
When I travel outside of Europe, every owl is always a special event and actually a surprise for me. It is hard to plan. All I do is go through birdwatchers’ trip reports from the places I’m going to so I know which species I might encounter there. And I equip my phone with a recording of the vocal utterances of different owls.
The frustration of my efforts to prepare for photographing owls in the tropics can be demonstrated in Costa Rica. Although I have certainly been there more than a dozen times, and have been preparing thoroughly for owls for the last few years, I could count the successful photos of Costa Rican species on the fingers of one hand. Many times you can even hear an owl, but there’s no guarantee you’ll find it in the dark.
Although I don’t usually do it, I would probably recommend a local guide/photographer and arrange a paid owl tour, or show up to a known location for owl photography.
What would one of those locations or tours look like? Are they just shelters where you sit and wait for an owl to perch in front of you?
Some photographers may like that, but then it would lose the magic and joy of uncertainty of observation that goes with any owl experience.
In fact, I can only recall one place for “owl tourism” where the reality on the ground was very close to the description in the advertisements. About three kilometers north of the port town of Rausu on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, there is a three-room accommodation where you can take pictures of Blakiston’s Eagle-Owl fishing in a stream from the windows. And that’s at night, by the light of street lamps.
I think 95% of the photographs of this species were taken there. Unless there is a snowstorm and there is no noise from other owl watchers, the chances of getting a photo are very high. Unfortunately, the last few years before the pandemic, the place was heavily frequented in the winter months, and many photographers were unruly, making noise, so the owl didn’t fly in.
I always stayed there until deep into the night when everyone had left. Once it was quiet, all it took was a few minutes for the eagle to come to the creek. I knew the owl would come because even with the noise of the people and the creek, I could hear it in the distance. Most visitors didn’t have that skill or patience.
Let’s forget the mainstream idea of owls as mail deliverers, based on the Harry Potter books. Most of us probably picture an owl sitting somewhere hidden in a woodland thicket. Let’s shatter that image. What’s the most bizarre environment you’ve ever encountered an owl in?
I think this idea – an owl in the woods – is disrupted by most of the photographs accompanying this text. Many species are much more photographically accessible outside the forest. And in fact, even a typical woodland owl such as the Ural Owl I usually photograph at the edge of meadows where it is easier for them to hunt their prey.
Unfortunately, many owl species have had to adapt to the cultural landscape or directly to the urban environment due to changes in the natural environment. Photos of, for example, a Little Owl sitting on a traffic light in the middle of a railway station are no exception.
I’m fond of photographing wildlife in high altitude environments. To me, the most bizarre environments for owls I’ve seen were also two of the highest owl nesting sites ever documented. I photographed a Little Owl at 4620 meters of elevation (editor’s note: 15,150 feet). I photographed it near Tso Kar Lake in Ladakh in search for Snow Leopard.
In second place is the photo below, which shows a Cape Eagle-Owl in an abandoned quarry in Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia. This was at 4120 meters (13,500 feet) and taken last year.
You mentioned urban owls. We know how tolerant common urban birds like blackbirds, pigeons, and cockatoos (if anyone in Australia is reading this) are of human presence. What about owls? Is urban owling a specific branch of birdwatching?
Owls do inhabit urban environments, but I think they keep their distance from people similar to how they would in the wild.
I must admit, though, that some species like Little Owls are easier to photograph in manmade places. They are easy to find on rooftops or on the ruins of old houses, and they don’t immediately fly away when trying to take a photo.
This cannot be said for one of the most famous owls found in human settlements, the Barn Owl. It is still very difficult to even see.
Some owls do get desensitized to people. The photo below shows a Northern Hawk-Owl that was very patient and easy to photograph near the Polish-Belarusian border this year. The site was heavily visited by Polish ornithologists, sometimes by dozens of people. The Hawk-owl hunted mice undisturbed in their presence, and I could approach as close as I wanted without scaring it away.
So now we have a pretty good idea of where to look for owls and hopefully find them. But our readers are photographers, not just birders. You’ve said before that some owl species can be photographed in daylight, but what about photographing them in dark conditions, or photographing an active, preferably hunting owl? Is there a solution?
I’m an advocate of not influencing owls in their natural habitat in any way, so I hope you’ll forgive the low number of “action shots” in my portfolio. I know some photographers use baiting (mice) to create more interesting photos. The most I will do is play a recording of an owl’s call to see if I get a response or an approaching owl. Even then, I will play the call only briefly and judiciously.
The same goes with night photography. I try not to photograph owls at night so I don’t have to disturb them with an intense flash or flashlight. Probably the only way to photograph a flying owl at night is to set up an IR gate. When the owl flies into it, you can use radio-fired flashes to freeze its movement and produce a usable photo.
When I photograph owls at night, I use a flashlight that also shines in red light mode. The animals don’t see the red light, so it doesn’t disturb them. I use the red light to track it, frame the photo and manually focus. When everything is ready, I briefly use normal light to expose the photo. The animal is usually not disturbed and stays in place. If I searched for it in white light, many owl species would be disturbed and fly away.
Could you please say a few words about the ethics of owl photography? I suppose the excitement of an owl and photographer encounter is not always mutual. What about taking photos near the nest or using recordings? Is there any special camouflage required, or are the keen senses of owls not fooled anyway?
Owls can see many times better than humans, they always know about us. Still, I recommend wearing inconspicuous clothing in the wild, also for the sake of the other species of animals we may encounter. And it doesn’t have to be military or hunting-pattern clothing.
When taking photographs, we always run the risk of disturbing the species we are photographing, and we need to consider those risks. No photo is worth the risk.
Using recordings at appropriate times is helpful. Sometimes it can attract an owl to land closer to you. But personally I always recommend using this judiciously and avoiding it altogether in the cold months (since owls are short of food and unnecessary activity would further exhaust them).
I don’t think there has been any study on the negative effects of playing an owl’s calls in the wild, but I recommend using common sense. Simply put, don’t overdo it. Half a minute: The owl flies in, you take a photo, and that’s it.
Although I know a lot of photographers do it differently. Right now, a fellow photographer and I are are working with the Šumava NP Administration on a “see and don’t disturb manual” for one particular Ural Owl habitat.
We’ve already touched on lighting when photographing owls. You mentioned using a flashlight. What about flashes? I’m assuming that a flash plugged into the camera socket is probably not what we want, right? Do you have any secret tips?
I’ve never used a flash when shooting owls, and I don’t even like using the flashlight. Personally, I start photographing owls at sunset and stay with them until dark.
When the wind isn’t blowing too hard, with the lens on a sturdy tripod and using a remote shutter release (to avoid camera shake), motionless perched owls can be exposed in exposures of several seconds.
If there is wind, or the owl/lens are moving, don’t be afraid to use really high ISOs. I remember the first Eurasian Eagle-Owl photo I took. It was almost dark, and I didn’t want to go to that ISO 10,000, but that atmosphere is what made the photo.
Talking about the technical side of things, can you tell me what your owl photography gear is like? You used to shoot on a Canon for years, but that’s not true anymore. Could you elaborate a bit on how the change of system, but especially the switch from DSLRs to mirrorless cameras has affected your work?
I currently use the Sony A1 and Sony A7R III mirrorless cameras. Although Sony’s current range of mirrorless cameras is wide, high resolution cameras of 40-50 MPx are ideal for me (the A7R IV is 61 MPx, which is too much for me).
When photographing animals, the biggest benefit for me of switching to mirrorless cameras has been their absolutely quiet operation in silent mode. Silent mode can also be a problem on some cameras because of rolling shutter, but the best mirrorless cameras have mostly fixed that.
As far as switching from Canon to Sony is concerned, the big benefit for me was definitely the image quality on the newer cameras. I need high resolution and good image quality at high ISOs. The Sony A7R III is even a hair better than the A1 in terms of ISO performance, but as an older body it’s already missing a few useful features.
A much-discussed topic among wildlife photographers is the speed and reliability of autofocus. In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits of mirrorless cameras is focusing on the eyes of animals. With the release of the Z9, those of us who shoot Nikon finally got it. How about Sony? And can you still rely on autofocus when darkness starts to fall?
Although autofocus works perfectly on both of my cameras, I often focus manually as I’m focusing through vegetation. But currently with new cameras, the bird’s eye focusing function is a great help. And for me, the biggest benefit with mirrorless cameras, in terms of focusing, is covering the entire area of the scene with focus points.
When it gets dark enough, the differences between cameras disappear – autofocus stops working for all of them. Some cameras still have advantages over others, like digital viewfinders that “see” better than each other, and better than the human eye.
For night shots, I have the viewfinder brightness set to the minimum so as not to blind me (and the rear display completely off). But even with Sony there is room for improvement. For example, Panasonic mirrorless cameras have a special dim monochrome night mode so that the viewfinder and display don’t glare in the dark.
When the sun goes below the horizon, that’s when photographers with cheaper, slower lenses pack up their gear. In these conditions, do you feel justified that you invested in an expensive supertelephoto lens? What do you use as the main glass on your camera?
When photographing all wildlife, and owls in particular, the longer and faster the better. I used to use a Canon FE 400mm f/2.8 L IS USM II on my Canon, but now I have a Sony FE 600mm F4 GM OSS. Even though the 600mm f/4 has a stop lower aperture, when combined with the modern high ISO performance it reminds me of my old f/2.8 lens.
I also like using a 2x teleconverter. It extends the focal length to 1200mm without any loss of image quality that I see. And at least with the Sony teleconverter I still see excellent focusing performance at the new maximum aperture of f/8.
However, from my experience in the field, I can say that up to 70% of the owl photos in my portfolio could be comfortably shot with the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS. I would generally recommend any long zoom lens that has good optical quality at its longest end.
After all this, how do you set up your camera? How do you handle exposure?
For me, in the field, the easiest thing to do is to have a preset aperture in aperture-priority mode (Av mode on the Sony). I never stop down unnecessarily when shooting. Many times, I start at the widest aperture of f/4.
I shoot owls from a tripod in all cases. There is almost always enough time to set it up somewhere hidden. If the animal is not moving or the wind is not blowing, I can use long exposure times.
I choose a shooting angle so that the owl and the environment are similar in exposure, to make it as easy as possible for the camera. I may adjust the next shot by correcting the exposure compensation. With Sony mirrorless cameras, I very often shoot with significant minus compensation. Combined with raising ISO as it gets darker, I get quick, more secure shutter speeds that way.
The darker images work well for me when developing RAW images. Those tones suit the owls and how I want to portray them.
You say that you tend to develop images from RAW with rather darker tones. So that answers the question I had on my mind, i.e. the question of RAW vs JPEG. Could you briefly describe what your photo processing workflow looks like?
My goal when processing RAW is to make the resulting image as close to the given light as possible, which is usually low light conditions.
As far as specific adjustments, I will often take away saturation, develop darker, and then increase contrast in Curves. If I happen to be lucky enough to have nice light when shooting, I try to emphasize that in the resulting image.
Only rarely do I edit the image more heavily, perhaps by converting it to black and white. The advantage of having a high-quality full frame sensor and using RAW is that you can “touch up” the captured data in a very significant way without much negative result on the technical quality.
Let’s change the subject a bit. I asked you why owls in the beginning. Let’s leave aside their aesthetic qualities for now. You’re a pro, which means that you earn money from your work. Do owls make any sense from a business perspective? For example, do they sell better in licensing than other groups of animals?
Owl photos don’t sell any better in my experience. It’s just my hobby, without any desire to “market” their photos. But I believe that in a few years I will compile a nice author’s photographic book just about owls. That’s such a driver for me to keep taking my camera to them. Otherwise at this point, I guess just looking through binoculars would be enough. It would bring me the same joy.
Based on sales of your photos, could you estimate the popularity ranking among birds, or even mammals? What are your top sellers?
Among birds, the colourful species are clearly leading in sales. And the more colors, the more sellable. Ideally, the species would also be at least a bit “morphologically interesting” – such as large beaks or long tail feathers. Especially parrots, toucans, tanagers, hummingbirds and penguins (which go beyond the colourfulness described above). Of course, with its impressive tail and brilliant red-green colour, the mythical Inca bird, the Crested Quetzal, is a big hit.
Among mammals, it is probably safe to say that all the big beasts and elephants in particular have a chance of being a sales success.
Aside from the type of animal photographed, is there a characteristic or a rule that if I stick to, my photo will be commercially successful? And is it possible to say that a commercially successful photo also has the potential to appeal to competition judges?
Commercial potential and chances for success in a photography competition are mutually exclusive in my experience. My best-selling bird photos (whose licenses have been sold more than a thousand times!) have no chance to succeed in competitions. They are just technically perfect descriptive photos in ideal lighting conditions. Conversely, what has succeeded in competitions has, with a few individual exceptions, not sold even once. I am pleased, however, that although no licenses are sold, I often make commissioned photographic prints of images that have succeeded in competitions.
There is only one rule for commercial success – the photographs must appeal to as many people as possible. And here we go again with the colours and interesting shapes.
You have workshops in Costa Rica and Botswana coming up soon, and you’re also heading to the Arctic. Do you have a photo in your head that you would like to bring back from there? Or is there a species that keeps you up at night?
When I sit on a plane that brings me closer to the wilderness, it’s always the same. I’d love to take a photo of an interesting and rare species, in ideal lighting conditions, in the beautiful habitat it naturally occupies, with behavior that documents its life. Ultimately I hope that photo will get people interested in nature. And I hope, as a bonus, it will be commercially successful and win some prestigious awards!
Real conditions are not always so perfect. And this is what I try to convey to the clients of my courses, so that they learn something even when the light or environment isn’t ideal. It is difficult to plan something when photographing wild animals. I always do the hard preparation, but I always humbly accept on the spot what nature sets up for me at that moment.
To me, what makes a good photographer is that they can handle all conditions to bring back an acceptable photograph from the field. It’s all about making the right decisions: whether to shoot a close-up or an environmental shot, whether to keep the sun at your back or in front of you, or whether it is worth waiting around for some interesting moment of animal behavior.
While I’m dreaming, the Snowy Owl comes to my mind. It’s a rather exceptional owl. It looks very different from other species, and it inhabits locations in the Arctic that attract me a lot. I’m not too hopeful of seeing it anywhere in northern Europe, although there are a few, so I’m more likely to concentrate on North America.
I take this opportunity to ask readers who have read this far for some sensible recommendations on where to go to see this attractive species!
Thank you for the interview, Ondřej, and for giving us a glimpse into your secrets of professional photography. I wish you good light, cooperative animals, and successful plans!