Owls. One of the most sought-after subjects for Wildlife Photographers across the world. Their large front-facing eyes, sharp talons, and elusive behaviour make them so intriguing to both find, and photograph. No matter how many times you find an Owl, that feeling of excitement never goes away. They are truly remarkable animals.

Due to their popularity, owls are often disturbed and harassed when roosting by photographers and birders. This type of behaviour can be extremely detrimental to their health and well-being.

In this post, we will explain how to tell if an Owl is stressed by your presence, some ethical considerations to keep in mind during your next owl encounter, and a few tips about photographing these incredible birds.

Great-Horned Owl – 1/400s, f 5.6, ISO 400, 500mm

How to Photograph Owls – Is this Owl Stressed?

Most owl species are nocturnal, which means they sleep during the day and are awake at night. During the evening, night, and even the early hours of the morning is when these birds exert most of their energy hunting, and in some cases protecting their nests. When the sun starts to rise and the day goes on, this is the time for Owls to rest! I think I speak for most of you when I say I do about 99% of my hiking during the daytime. This means most times you come across an owl, they are most likely roosting (resting or sleeping in a specific spot) and hoping to get some well-deserved rest.

Think of those Saturday mornings where all you want to do is sleep in and hope nobody wakes you up after a long and stressful work week – Owls want the same thing! If you do happen to get too close, they will let you know in a number of ways. The most common thing to look out for is an Owl who is super slim and still, pulling in its feathers to its body and standing straight up. Many Owl species do this when they become alarmed and uncomfortable with something around them. This is a sign to put more distance between you and the bird, and ultimately respect its space. Check out this comparison:

Another way to tell that an Owl is disturbed by your presence is if it continuously flies away to new spots as you try and get closer, or in a better position to view. This is often referred to as flushing an Owl. These are very shy and elusive birds, and oftentimes they want nothing to do with us, humans! If you notice this type of behaviour, keep your distance and stay in one spot. By remaining calm yourself, the Owl will see you as less of a threat – sometimes they will even come closer, resulting in more photo opportunities!

How to Photograph Owls – Ethical Considerations

Here are a couple things to keep in mind during your next Owl encounter:

Keep your space! There is a reason we spend all this money on long telephoto lenses – so we can photograph animals from a distance. Check out our Gear Recommendations post if you are in the market for a new lens.

Try not to flush Owls from their roosting spot. Just like us, they need their rest! Be patient, and you may be lucky to witness some hunting!

After you find an Owl, take some pictures…observe their behaviour…watch it for a bit, then – move on. Even if you think it doesn’t look stressed, it’s best if we limit our time.

PLEASE refrain from disclosing an Owls location on social media. Time and time again, I have seen Owls (particularly in larger city parks) get harassed and chased around by an overwhelming amount of birders and photographers after its location had been posted somewhere on social media. Don’t be that person! Even though you might be a respectful viewer yourself, you cannot control what other people do.

Lastly and most importantly – DO NOT BAIT OWLS! This is a very controversial topic in the world of Wildlife Photography. In my eyes, it is

Barred Owl – 1/640sec, f 6.3, ISO 800, 600mm

totally unacceptable. Baiting Owls with live mice can be extremely detrimental to their health. From harmful bacteria in pet store mice, getting too close to roadways with the potential of getting hit, and the association of food and humans they will develop. Just don’t do it. Period.

How to Photograph Owls – Tips!

Like many Wildlife Photographers, Owls are one of my absolute favourite things to find. I just love their unique look and secretive behaviour. Although popular, Owls can be quite difficult to photograph. Oftentimes you come across these birds at times of the day with little light and in tough spots. This is part of the reason why photographing these amazing birds is so addicting, especially when you come home with some great shots! Here are my top 3 tips to keep in mind when finding your next Owl, with ethics in mind:


Northern Hawk-Owl – 1/1000s, f 5.6, ISO 1600, 500mm

If you happen to come across a roosting Owl in the daytime, the best advice I could give is to wait! Countless times I have located an owl during its afternoon nap. Find a spot to hang out at a distance where you can keep an eye on it with a pair of binoculars, and get ready to wait it out. Like I mentioned before, Owls can sometimes be seen hunting during the beginning and end of the day. By waiting it out, you may get lucky and the Owl may wake up and start to become more active and comfortable by your presence.


Owls can be found in some pretty difficult spots. For example, Great-Horned Owls are often found in thick patches of coniferous trees and tuck themselves tight to the trunk. While keeping your distance, discreetly move around and find some spots where you can point your lens through an opening in the trees. It can make for some nicely composed photographs. There are many beautiful shots you can get that aren’t up close and personal. BE CREATIVE!

Snowy Owl – 1/1000s, f 6.3, ISO 1600, 600mm
Great-Horned Owl – 1/400s, f 5.6, ISO 400, 400mm

Other times, you just can’t get close to Owls at all. For example, Snowy Owls hang out in spots that are often not accessible to the general public, such as cornfields on private property. Take some photographs from the road! Pull out those binoculars and watch from afar. You never know what photo opportunities you may get.


Owls often sit high in trees, which can make for very difficult lighting conditions. Sometimes you get lucky and find them at eye level or even lower, but thats rarely the case. The first thing you should do is find where the sun is. Generally speaking, shooting with the sun at your back is ideal. Of course in Wildlife Photography, ideal doesn’t happen that often. Be prepared to move around to find the perfect spot.

Another thing I do is look to see if I can get to higher ground. Shooting at as close to eye level as possible is always best. If I can’t make that happen, I typically move to where the light isn’t shining directly into my lens and start shooting!

Remember, try to limit your time and keep your distance. Be respectful of their space, and admire from a far. Good luck!

Barred Owl – 1/100s, f 5.6, ISO 3200, 400mm


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