Great grey owls are elusive, majestic birds that are on many photographers’ bucket lists. Even with a great subject, however, it takes more than an average photo to grab viewers’ attention and evoke a response. Ann Kramer’s image of a great grey owl in Yellowstone sparked nearly a thousand reactions, 85 comments, and 48 shares from members of the NANPA Facebook Group. So, what is it about this photo that connected with so many people, so strongly? What drove social media engagement? Not long ago, Kramer shared some of her thoughts with us.
My photography journey
I think it all began when I became a backyard birder about 10 years ago. Feeding and birdwatching became my own therapy after providing individual and couples therapy all week in my private practice as a marriage and family therapist. I went on field trips with my local Audubon chapter to learn about birds and began to read books about birds. Most of my life I have worked long hours in office environments, although I had a great love for animals. My husband encouraged me to take up photography once I retired but I was hesitant. I knew the technical side of a camera might be foreign to me and difficult to master. I had taken painting classes in my 20’s but the logistics of a camera intimidated me. Still, I began to photograph birds in the backyard with a point and shoot camera. For several years I watched a webcam of an osprey nest at Hogg Island, Maine, through Explore.org and Audubon. Hogg Island is also the home of an Audubon center offering summer workshops. It just so happens that, in 2015, conservation photographer Melissa Groo won the top Audubon photography contest honor and was the instructor of a photography workshop at Hogg Island Audubon Camp. I signed up for the workshop and headed out to Maine with my new Canon 7Dmkii camera and the Canon 100-400mm lens. The decision to fly to Maine and take that workshop changed my life.
As my first wildlife photography instructor, Groo left an indelible imprint on my photographic philosophy and awareness. Many of the principles I learned from her influence me today and the photographs I was able to obtain of the great grey owl. What I remember most was what she taught our group about ethical photography, about how to respect the birds and wildlife we were photographing, and to notice our effect on them. She taught us about a “sit spot,” and how to sit patiently and let birds relax as you become part of the environment. (Click here to learn more about ethical nature photography.)
The workshop built a valuable foundation that I take with me whenever I photograph. I learned patience and reverence for the life of the birds I was photographing. I continually notice how they are observing me as much as I am observing them. Birds have remained my favorite subjects to photograph. My love for wildlife, for their beauty, their spirit, their struggle to survive and regenerate is something I hope comes through my images.
Photographing the great gray owl
For years I have been going to Grand Teton and Yellowstone and, although I love the bears and other animals in these national parks, I have often just missed seeing the great grey owl. I once had a couple of hours photographing one from a great distance away on the day I had to leave Grand Teton. The eyes of these owls are just so amazing!
I had hoped to again find a great grey owl on this trip. I had learned from several friends and contacts that one had been seen in an area. I finally found it and learned there were several owls in this area after a productive nesting season. I had high hopes and felt it would be fruitful to scout the area daily. I spent five days finding and photographing the great grey.
This was the first time I had been able to find and photograph an owl for so many consecutive days and the experience reaffirmed my early photography education from Melissa Groo and other ethical, respectful photographers. On three occasions, I was able to spend about an hour observing the owl hunting with another respectful, patient photographer or group of photographers. Those were the days I captured the best images. On other occasions, I saw photographers chasing the owl and flushing it back into the forest. Those photographers got a lot of “flying away” shots, or flying sideways shots. Worse, they were preventing the owl from hunting and feeding itself.
On two of the occasions when I was with another patient photographer, the owl was able to hunt and eat and I captured the most interesting and beautiful photos. One of the photos I posted on the NANPA Facebook Group was of the Great Grey emerging from a field after an unsuccessful hunt (or a successful hunt that had already been eaten). During that afternoon, I captured over a dozen shots of the owl flying right toward me. Although the great grey continually watched the other photographer and myself that afternoon, it was able to relax. That day I came home with the most wonderful images!
The capture that drew the most buzz was taken at dusk on another day, with another photographer. The owl had been sitting on a pole in a campground and I positioned myself behind it, as the sun was setting on the other side. As the owl left the perch, he flew out of my sight onto the ground. I kept my camera on him hoping he would land in a spot where he was visible again. He did. Earlier that day I’d photographed chipmunks snuggling and when the owl landed on the branch of a tree perched to my left, he had one of the chipmunks in his talons. It was a little sad. As the light was fading, I didn’t realize I had captured the prey in his talons until I looked at my camera later. The golden sunlight landed on the owl’s face as he looked toward me. He stayed on the branch for a moment and then flew further back into the forest to enjoy his breakfast.
What makes this photo special?
The warm, sunset light touches the owls face and eyes just right. A lucky landing! I think having clarity and sharpness on the face and eyes of a bird or animal is important for a good image. The prey in his mouth adds another element of interest. The chipmunk is visible and clear. Often, when a predator captures prey the image is bloody and gory. That gruesomeness isn’t as evident in this photo, allowing people to like it without the negative emotional reaction that sometimes comes with photos of predators and their kills. Although the prey is evident, there is beauty and softness in the image still.
I guess I don’t really ever know what exactly drew someone to any photo I took. Art is subjective. I’ve been surprised that some of my favorite photos don’t get a great response while other images, surprisingly, do.
It was a wonderful experience to have so many positive comments and likes on not just this one but also on many of the other photos I posted of this beautiful owl.
Posting photos on NANPA’s Facebook page has given me the opportunity to learn more about what people like in a photograph. I posted a black bear reaching up to grab berries from a huckleberry bush and an image of two Sandhill cranes squabbling. Both were received very well. I think I often underrate myself and when someone writes something like “I love your work,” it shocks me. It also encourages me. Realizing that some “know” my work is so affirming. It’s a very nice thing to read.
Although I like a sharp photo, I think I’m drawn to the artistic element in a photo or something unusual in an image. I’ve learned how to clean up my images to help the viewer see the point of the image without distraction. My camera club has helped me to see those things more clearly. NANPA members Tin Man Lee and Lisa Langell have taught me a lot about creating a great image as well as many invaluable skills.
What have I learned on this journey? Be patient with nature. Be prepared and wait for the right moments. Know that you may not find something worth shooting every time you go out, but nature will often surprise you with something unexpected. So it pays to be prepared! Get instruction from good teachers who care about their students and wildlife. Think about how to get more impact from your images by eliminating distractions. Get out there and shoot as often as you can. Learn what your area of weakness is and work the hardest on that. Talented photographer and writer Paul Bannick once asked a workshop class, “What drew you to photography—the subject, the art ,or the technology?” About a third of the class raised their hands for each area. He said, “You must work on the one that’s most difficult for you.” Great advice!. Thanks NANPA, for all the opportunities to learn and grow as a photographer.