Searching For a Great Horned Owl Nest

Woodman Fen is a gorgeous example of a (now) rare wetland habitat in southwest Ohio.

Where 90% of Ohio in pre-settlement times was comprised of wetlands and prairie, now wetlands have become an important ecosystem to conserve. Fens, bogs and marshes are home to many native flora and fauna that depend on them for survival.

It was mid-April of 2019 and I was on photo trip at nearby Hills & Dales Metropark in the Oakwood area of Dayton. Some passerby hikers told me of some nesting Great Horned Owls in Woodman Fen, they didn’t know specifically where though. With a credible piece of advice, this became my first real attempt at “owling.”

In less than a week I make my way to the fen, scouting out the area in the late afternoon light while asking several other visitors if they’ve seen them around yet to no avail. Every local seems to be aware of owls yet no one knows where to find them.

While waiting for dusk I find myself at a large patch of invasive plant species called Garlic Mustard that are growing along the shaded loop trail around the fen. Their name comes from the aroma given off by the crushed leaves. Macro photography keeps me occupied while I like high up in the trees with every step.

Typical owl nests can be over eighty feet high in the trees, making a good look at them difficult from the fen’s wetland floor. Every semi-large bird flying overhead catches my attention, yet none are the owls.

Great Horned Owls may nest in tree cavities such as this one. This is a hole over seventy feet up in a tree that I looked at through binoculars for a while. I swear I saw an Owl’s face in there!

About 45 minutes before sunset, exhausted and sweaty from the hike, I set out one last time to search for them as they come out to hunt. Going out again with no expectations of sighting any owls, morale was fairly low.

I decide that the better vantage point for viewing would be to hike the very muddy loop trail instead of going straight through the boardwalk. No sooner than five minutes back into the fen, I witness a very large bird very high up on the trees.

My heart sinks, this has to be it. This is an owl.

This is an adult perched with a possible rodent kill, with their excellent hearing, This one is already staring me down. As my first sighting of a Great Horned Owl in the wild, I will never forget that look it gave me. (seen in the images below)

Not long after this sighting is when I hear an immature owlet’s call and see it. The juvenile looked to be almost all grown up and the adult male was helping catch food for it to eat. My assumption is that they were out so early in the night due to a lack of food?

The adult male had some sort of small rodent in its mouth, and as the two images above suggest, must’ve almost dropped it as it struggled to regain its balance on the tree branch.

As the fen grew darker and darker, all I could see was their three silhouettes perched on the same tall tree branch as they waited. I had a few minutes to leave the fen and so I packed it up and left. Under the cover of the night sky and the owlet’s wheezy call in the distance. I drive home with a successful batch of photos, a compelling video, and some memories to last a lifetime.

Fast Forward to 9:26 to hear my in-the-moment reactions to spotting the owls.

All of the photos were taken at 600mm so it goes to show just how far away these owls were!

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Finding Your Photographic Style

A photographic style, kind of like finding your life purpose.

Same day, same sunset. It pays off to turn around for another look!

Style is defined as “a distinctive manner of expression.”

Over the years, I have narrowed my style down to a particular set of guidelines or standards.

To make a metaphor. I see all the muscles as parts that make up your creative style, but they always will flex on the same arm, also known as your body of work.

Like muscles, you have to train and develop those points of interest over time.

Some Ohio naturalists and biologists wanna simply document living species, regardless of the quality of light.

An experiment with panoramas. While the lighting isn’t too exciting, this surely documents the area for future visits with better light.

There is nothing wrong with this! To me photography is the perfect artistic medium where “anything goes.” Nature photojournalism has a powerful niche within that place. Some of my favorite photos do just that, documenting the living things around us.

But one has to wonder when the photojournalism is elevated to an art form.

Personally I want my body of work to stand between these lines. Further blurring fine art and nature photojournalism.

Over the years I realized that I don’t wanna just simply document, at least not always.

I wanna show nature artfully while keeping true to its’ roots.

Describe Your Process of Seeing With Words

I have noticed that I describe the photos to others using one word a lot: juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition is defined as “the act of placing two or more things side by side to compare or contrast to create an interesting effect.”

I enjoy conveying the calm and collected fragility of nature, while sometimes switching it up with jagged and “intense” leading lines. This is one example I noticed throughout my work, a strong use of these straight lines, interwoven with vanishing points and curves.

The above two images were taken in different months, two different locations, two different seasons. Yet I captured them in the same way. Upon seeing the two photos together as prints, the connection became clearer.

Likewise, I enjoy making aimless and meandering pieces of art. The minimalism clashing with the chaotic. Balancing the two in a single image.

The photos display inner details and ideas, while others show everything no matter how beautiful or ugly.

You Won’t Figure This Out Overnight

In order to find your photography style, keep shooting!

I am several years in and just now starting to see patterns and connections in my entire portfolio.

The more you shoot good and (more likely) bad photos, your trained eye will gain a sense of perspective.

Certain people enjoy specific compositions more than others, that same goes for focal lengths, colors, lighting conditions, etc.

Now I personally don’t narrow my portfolio down to a certain white balance and color tone, other photographers achieve this so well. Is a moody color palette with a warm splash of red or orange more of your thing? Own up to it!

It goes without but “what do you like to see?”

More so, “what do you want to see more of?”

What is lacking in the art and photography world? Find a way to carve a definitive niche in the industry.

Your peers and viewers of your work will admire your desire to stand out from the crowd.

One last idea, and this is more of a writing prompt to try.

Write an Artist Statement

Yes, an artist statement can be an oft-forgotten part of the photography world. Typically written by fine art photographers only, I recommend creating your own regardless of genre or niche.

Clearly you shouldn’t copy another’s statement, but read a few others before embarking on your own writing. Get inspired!

Diagonal lines, reflections, horizons. This is a big part of my way of seeing.

Like how this writing piece began, a photographic style is like finding your life purpose.

Never give up that search, those who seek it will eventually find their style.

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A Nature Photographer’s Workflow

Workflow is a topic of debate among many photographers (and any working professionals).

The day starts with a shutter capture…
…and ends with a beautiful photo or a print.

Workflow is by definition; “the sequence of steps involved in moving from the beginning to the end of a working process.”

To put it simply, there is no right or wrong way to approach this.

Every (nature) photographer will have their own unique set of circumstances and steps to the process. Like any well-oiled machine, that process is fine-tuned over the years to suit their needs.

So allow me to briefly list out my way of operating as I currently am. Naturally this entire workflow is flexible and has changed many times over the years. Because of this, I wouldn’t recommend following it verbatim. I am merely looking to show you how I work in order to inform you of ways to improve your own workflow.

This is all about sharing ideas and knowledge, so let’s begin..right at the very beginning.

Planning a photo trip

Decide what you need to bring vs. don’t need.

I research the location(s) I plan on shooting days or even weeks in advance. Searching tooth and comb on resources like Google Maps and the websites of local park districts for my next location. I then look for my next big window of time off I have and I follow through with my plans. It’s important to stick with your plans and not blow it off for friends or because of the weather. Now I’m a bit of an oddity as I plan locations but don’t always plan subject matter. Maybe this is to safeguard any feelings of failure, but I like a nature space to “show me” the subjects I want to shoot. So instead I go there with an idea in mind of what I will see (spring wildflowers, warblers, etc) yet will not be dead-set on a single point of interest.

For example if I’m more than likely shooting wildlife, the telephoto lens will already be attached to the main camera body, ready to go. I will then pick out the clothes from my wardrobe (in this case some Realtree camouflage works well) followed by searching up that location on eBird for whatever sightings have come up recently. Do your research! I bring field guides with me to leave in my car or bag in case I need to quickly identify a species. However, I would much rather use my time out in the field photographing than thumbing through pages, so read up on likely-to-see subjects beforehand.

Wildlife is a special case, however my typical kit includes small telephotos and wide angle lenses for anything else. Landscapes, macro, flowers, insects all require this gear and I wear more “pedestrian” clothes for these cases. Invest in a good pair of waterproof hiking boots! ? A lot of physical and mental prep is needed to make a trip happen. I very rarely just go out at the drop of a hat. If I set aside a day to work on writing or editing, then I do that, regardless of how amazing the weather is outside.

The time it takes

When out in the field. I typically spend half-days (8-10 hours) in the field and full days for trips farther out. Yes, that is dawn to dusk. Trust me, I really don’t feel like getting out of bed at 5am either but once I’m out hiking under the beautiful twilight, then I am reminded why I do this. Typically the half days are either before sunrise to midday noon when the lighting gets very washed out and harsh. I will also wait the morning out and leave home around noon to begin, being out until sunset. These trips work best when I use those first several hours of overhead sun to scout out locations and compositions.

The photo op

This is where the magic happens. The real reason we do what we do!

As you can tell, these trips can have long hours of sweating out in the middle of nowhere. Some days I may see two or three people at most if I’m lucky. A long time may be spent waiting for that bird to move in closer or to strike that fish out of the water. A lot of time may be spent studying the last bit of light in the day as the sun sets. Or when a stubborn wildflower stops moving in the wind so you can get one shot. In short, you have to be a little obsessed, well, very obsessed. You won’t improve much sitting at home, you gotta “get out there!”

The image

For this location I set out to photograph this specific waterfall after heavy rainfall came through the day before.

This is where the conception of an image may take place. A sunrise landscape, a morning heron eating a fishy breakfast in the mist. By noon I am typically either packing up for the half-day or scouting locations out for a full-day which I’ll shoot later on.

After capture

I get home and either immediately plug the cameras in the computer or wait a day or two to “see with a new set of eyes.” That all depends on if I was outdoors all day or not. Generally I want to make a copy or backup of my files soon after capture. Whatever suits you is fine.

Copy & Backup

I will open up my RAW files one by one in order. Carefully checking for things like (under or over) exposure or the focus. Delete the ones that a definitely not worthy of space on your hard drive. Then make a list of the ones you wish to edit and which ones get cut. Be ruthless! Only put time into your best shots and scrap the rest. I write the file names down on a small white board. Ex. if the filename is IMG_1234.CR2 then I will write “1234, the next file…” and so on until I’ve looked through the whole memory card once or thrice. Try your best not to let photos pile up on the memory card without backing up and editing them!

I have several means of storing my files, I recommend three separate storage spaces. Two of mine are local; the main computer hard drive and an external hard drive connected to the computer at all times. I have read of clogging up a computer’s HDD to slow down the entire operating system however I haven’t found that to be true. I manually sync a select number of folders a couple times a week to the external drive.

The third backup is cloud-based, and it’s my website. Fortunately Smugmug has unlimited photo storage space. Should either one of my other drives fail then I still have my best work up in the cloud. RAW files originals on the local end go into folders separated by year-month-location.

I typically need to decompress my head before looking at what I just took so I wait a bit. As said above I sometimes don’t get to editing the images for up to a week! However when I come back to them, all the joy and excitement comes flooding back to me of being in that moment. That means it’s time to edit!

Post Processing

Here is a video playlist of images I have edited.

I will open up my software of choice; Skylum Software‘s Luminar 3 for single images and Aurora 2019 for HDR brackets. Working through the images one at a time from my list. I stick to a select few adjustment sliders that work contrast, HSL (for saturation), exposure, sharpness, etc. Never spending more than five minutes on a single image. To me, the more time spent on a single file, the more overproduced it will become.

Cataloging & Sorting

Up on the website they go!

I typically edit way more images than I plan to upload to the website. This is to ensure I get a variety of perspectives and colors, including converting some to black and white. After exporting each one as a JPG file at 80% quality, I then use a software to reduce that file size without degrading quality. This helps with file transfers, long term storage space, and with website load times.

Next step is a matter of handpicking which of these narrowed down files will land a coveted space on the website. While I have unlimited storage space on Smugmug, I still only want to show my best work in the public portfolio. I upload the “keeper” shots on the website while all the outputted JPG files are moved to local folders separated by subject matter i.e. Macro, Landscapes, Water on the desktop computer.

Filenames are given in regard to the main subject. Typically this is the acronym followed by a number. A wildlife image with a specific species will differ from a landscape shot. For example, the fifth Northern Cardinal image I have edited ever will have a filename of NC_05.jpg or something along those lines. Find what works for you.

Keywords becomes another thing to consider, I only apply keywords to the website-bound images. Using a simple word document file with a list of keywords for each gallery, copying and pasting it for each respective photo. I fill in any other details like locations, subject scientific names (if it applies) and photo titles. Also to rearrange the flow of the galleries with these new tenants. Basically we want to make everything look pretty and uncluttered.

printing & final thoughts

One last step, and this is a big optional one, is to print your work.

I do a lot of printing myself and find it just as satisfactory as taking the image itself. Using a Canon iP8720 to print borderless as large as 13×19 and as small as 4×6. This is obviously not required to produce a photo.

For me, printing is something I mull over for a while (potentially weeks or months) before considering which photos get to grace the ink and paper. This is a whole other topic that is worthy of its’ own blog post, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Hopefully this has been a clear and detailed look into my workflow. Like mentioned at the beginning, this is a snapshot in time as the process is always evolving and changing.

If you’re a beginner, then don’t stress too much over finding a way to operate your craft. These matters will come naturally to you with time.

Until next time, happy trails and get shooting!

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