Speed and Agility:
Photographing Great Grey Owls
with the Sony α9
Living in a remote corner of Norway, photographer Floris Smeets has a love of nature in his blood. “Both my parents are biologists. My grandparents were biologists. My sister is a biologist. My love of nature is embedded in me,” says Floris. His first love was always nature, with photography giving him the opportunity to capture images of the species he saw outdoors.
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/8000s @ f/2.8, ISO 100
“Where I live there are certain species that I have easy access to, and they are all seasonal. In the autumn I photograph the Musk Ox and the Reindeer, when the colours are just incredible. In the winter I get the white snowy landscape as a blank canvas for photographing the Musk Ox, and in the spring, the Black Grouse makes an appearance. The summer months are all about the Great Grey Owl, which breed in the forests near my home.”
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/5000s @ f/2.8, ISO 1250
Dedicating each season to just one species gives Floris the opportunity to get to know the individual pairs of owls. To capture his incredible images, it is as much about his fieldcraft as it is his photography; he must get himself and his Sony α9 cameras into the right location.
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/1600s @ f/2.8, ISO 1000
“I will go to their hunting sites”, he explains, “which are old woodland clearings with plenty of fallen trees. Then I try and find a pair that are relaxed with me shooting. The camouflage of the owl is amazing but makes it hard to spot them. One minute you’ll be sat there searching for the owls, not seeing anything, then suddenly you see the owls head turn and you realise it has been sitting there the whole time. So, I have to do a lot of scouting.” Floris continues, “I may find 10 or 20 pairs before I come across a pair that I can work with. Then I will keep going only to that pair of owls for the rest of the season to maximise the images that I can get.”
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/320s @ f/4.0, ISO 1000
Going along with Floris is a Sony α9, which he pairs with the FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master lens. A second α9 and FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G Master lens acts as his second camera for when he needs the flexibility of a zoom lens.
“I had used a DSLR for almost 20 years before I switched to the α9. After I used the Sony α9 for a few weeks I knew I would never be going back to using a DSLR.”
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/400s @ f/2.8, ISO 1000
With a background in ecology it is very important for Floris that he respects the animals. “I never use bait,” he explains, “all of the images show natural behaviours of the Great Grey Owl.”
Getting close to the owls to capture incredible images with the FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master lens, means getting to know the habitat of the owl: “They often have fixed perches where they sit. They fly from perch to perch to perch and they often do rounds in the air on their hunting ground, so you can often predict where they are going next. I get in position and wait for the owl to come to me. You will never get as close if you walk towards them.”
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/1000s @ f/2.8, ISO 1600
Once Floris is close, the speed of the Sony α9 comes in to play. The autofocus and 20fps shooting rate without black-out enable Floris to capture incredible images of the Great Grey Owls in flight, no matter what obstacles are between him and the birds.
© Floris Smeets | Sony α9 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/1250s @ f/2.8, ISO 1600
“With a DSLR you always have to keep a flying bird close to the centre of the frame to keep the autofocus working. With the Sony α9 having 693 AF points, almost across the entire sensor, I can set the AF area to Expandable Spot with focus tracking and I know that if a bird makes a sudden movement the AF will keep tracking it” says Floris. “This, combined with the ability to hold focus even when an animal briefly moves behind obstacles is why I’m able to capture the images I do and is why I love to work with my Sony Alpha kit.”
The constant change in nature makes nature photography so attractive. You can visit the same location every day and still come back with a different image every single time.