It has been written that a picture is worth a thousand words. This adage holds true on many levels, but gaining an understanding of what was involved in capturing an image, the thought process of the photographer, or why the image was taken in the first place, are often unknown tangibles to the viewer of art.
My idea for “Behind the Camera Lens” is to share the elements that were involved in taking a specific image, including the technical aspect of the photograph, but more importantly my thought process, and what transpired prior to that click of the shutter.
The image chosen for this first column is titled ”Solitude.” It depicts a Great Gray Owl, captured during a brief snow fall in the heart of Algonquin Provincial Park. The light, pose, and mystique of this bird seem a perfect fit for the title.
“Solitude” – March 7, 2013
I left my home in Ottawa the morning of March 7, 2013 and made the two-hour and forty-minute drive to Whitney, Ontario – and the eastern entrance to Algonquin Provincial Park. My goal for this two-day trip was to capture on film moose, pine marten, and owls. The latter I knew to be a strong possibility, as the reports I had read suggested that a number of Great Grays were visible throughout the highway 60 corridor.
I arrived in Whitney at 10:35am. After checking in to my motel room, I traveled the five-kilometres to the east gate and purchased my day passes. My adventure had officially begun. I began driving along the highway that traverses the park, scanning the treeline and topography for both birds and mammals. My plan for this first day was to travel the full fifty-six kilometres to the west entrance. I felt this would give me the best chance of spotting my intended quarry.
I only made it a fraction of that distance. Less than eight kilometres into my trip, I passed two vehicles parked on the east-bound shoulder. Standing metres away, and up on the snow bank were two photographers. In Algonquin Park this sight generally signifies a moose spotting, but as I drove slowly past, a Great Gray Owl was visible perched in a tree, down in a slight valley off the side of the road.
Since I didn’t expect to see anything so soon, my snowpants and winter boots were not on me, but instead, sitting in the back of the truck. Not knowing how long this owl would be visible, though, I opted to grab only my camera gear and leave the winter clothing behind. As I crossed over the two lane highway it became obvious that getting images of this owl would not be an easy task. Trees obscured its view from the roadside snow bank, and climbing down the steep bank for a better shot didn’t seem the easiest of tasks. Noticing a photographer at the bottom of the bank already, I chose to follow his path. It quickly became obvious how inadequate my clothing was at this point. The snow depth was half way between my knees and crotch. Certainly not the best for the jeans and summer hiking boots I was wearing. And although it was a relatively warm day in winter terms, leaving my gloves in the truck was also not the smartest decision.
I took my first image of this Great Gray Owl at 11:19am. For the next fifty-two minutes I would watch it fly to various perches, actively hunt, and provide me with a variety of pleasing back drops for the photos I was shooting. In terms of photographs, I took 574 up to this point. As I climbed back up the steep bank I realized how wet both my pant legs and feet had become. My fingers were also starting to feel the chill.
After chatting with the two photographers present, and debating about leaving, the owl swooped out from its perch and landed very close to us. Of course, I began shooting images once again. This lasted another twenty-five minutes and brought the image count up to 984. At this point I realized I needed to get out of my wet clothes, and bid farewell to those photographers present and walked back to my truck. Wet jeans and saturated cold feet make for an unpleasant feeling, and I was forced to strip down at the side of the highway and change into dry clothes and my winter gear. And yes, while stripping down to only my underwear a lady photographer made a joke about taking some snapshots. Funny bunch photographers can be.
Now, the next part of this story highlights how going with your gut and acting on a hunch is something that should never be doubted. As I sat in my truck with the heat on high, I had a quick snack and reviewed some of the photographs I had just shot. Ten minutes went by and I noticed in my rear view mirror that the only photographer that remained was Art. He was set up on the snowy bank, camera aimed on the owl as it perched in a birch tree. It was then it struck me. Chances like this are few and far between. I told myself what I needed to do was get back out there and take more photos. Clad now in my snow pants and winter boots, I walked back over to the owl and set up close to Art. His first comment made to me was, “I thought it was crazy that you’d leave when you did!” And he was right. The time was now 1:31pm. Twenty-six minutes later I captured a series of four images – showcasing the owl dive-bombing out of a birch tree for a meadow vole it had detected. I was set up perfectly and those shots alone were a significant achievement for my owl portfolio. The two of us continued shooting together for the next short while, at which point we were joined by Karen and Len – two friendly photographers that belong to the same photo club.
The owl at this point flew out to a far treeline, then took off parallel to the road, but along the edge of the lake and line of trees. I confess, at that moment I believed the shoot for this owl was done for the day, and realistically speaking, I had already shot 1,375 images. A good day in most photographers books. But, Art had a different plan, and began trudging eastward along the edge of the shoulder in search of the owl. He made it some 200 yards down the road before waving his arms back at the three of us. Recognizing he had found it again, we made our way over to him. This is when a number of cool things came into play. First, it began snowing rather heavily. Not really light, fluffy flakes, but more so snow/hail showers. Also, the owl was magnificently perched at the top of a dead tree trunk, almost at eye level and only a short distance from where we stood. Lastly, the Great Gray had positioned itself against an uncluttered background. I began feverishly shooting.
The snow lasted no more than three minutes. The owl stayed perched on this stump for nineteen minutes, during which time I took 241 images. However, I only captured it in the pose you see above in two photographs. “Solitude” was taken at exactly 2:38pm and was one of 1,927 images I took of this one owl. To crunch the numbers even more, this image happened after shooting for three hours and three minutes. It was image number 1,421.
So what makes this an interesting image in my eyes? The snow falling gives this picture both a feeling of stillness and tranquility. The old stump imparts a barren look, or really, a sense of isolation. The colours and texture of the back ground – which showcase the washed-out forest situated on the other side of the lake – make the subject prominently stand out. But, it is the owl that steals the show for me. The pleasing curves of its body and head. The furled feathers being lifted by the wind. And if you look closely, the isolated snowflakes that have collected on the delicate feathers of the face.
As for the technical side of this image, here is the equipment used and settings:
Canon EOS 7D
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 OS Telephoto Lens
Focal Length – 500mm
Setting – Aperture Priority
Perhaps there is more to an image than what meets the eye. In this case, it was a combination of team work, a gut feeling, environmental conditions, and shooting a tonne of images in hopes of capturing that single shot that makes it all worthwhile. And also to a friend named Art for finding the owl in the first place.
Thanks for reading…and allowing me to share my views of nature and the wilderness around us with you all.
Yours In The Outdoors,
(click on image to view full size)
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