When the magic happens: photographing owls in low light

Bird photographer Jonas Classon shares his passion for night photography and reveals the techniques behind his award-winning images of owls and other nocturnal wildlife.
A large owl is captured in flight, wings outstretched, against a forest backdrop.

Bird photographer Jonas Classon is a long-time fan of the low-light performance of the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, but has been delighted by the intelligent AF of the EOS R5, with its bird detection and tracking capabilities. "Before I got the EOS R5, this shot would have been impossible. It was a real wow moment for me," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/4.5 and ISO3200. © Jonas Classon

What's the best time of day for wildlife photography? Logically enough, it depends on when the wildlife you want to photograph is active. Bird photographer and Canon Ambassador Jonas Classon specialises in photographing owls and other nocturnal animals, so for him wildlife photography comes with the additional technical challenges of night photography. But far from being daunted by this, he loves it.

"For me, when the sun sets, that's when the magic happens," he says. "The colours in the sky turn orange and blue and purple, and a different world comes to life. It's when the animals come out that are hidden during the day. Here in Sweden we see moose and wolves, a host of animals and birds that just don't appear when the sun's up. The couple of hours after sunset and before sunrise are my prime time for shooting."

Jonas didn't take up owl photography lightly. He has been passionate about bird photography since around the same time that he started his own general photography business at the age of just 15. He has since tried to bring everything he's learned about commercial, news and wedding photography to photographing birds, portraying them and their stories in the same way as he portrays people. His characterful shot of a great grey owl titled Night Hunter has won multiple awards, and he has recently completed a series of owl images for an upcoming book.

Here, Jonas sheds some light on his passion for night photography and reveals his approach to photographing owls and other nocturnal wildlife.

An owl sits on a tree branch at night, staring at the camera. Bright orange lights are seen in the distance through the trees.

When shooting at night, Jonas advises thinking about locations and composition details ahead of time, so you don't end up stumbling around in the dark. "You need to work out the right location and the right angles for capturing the shot in advance, to give yourself a chance of everything coming together at the right time," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/4 and ISO2000. © Jonas Classon

What are the challenges for wildlife photographers working in low light?

"You get a fairly limited window of opportunity. With my great grey owl project, for example, the owls sometimes start to hunt only when all the light has gone. With some nocturnal creatures, you can use a flash, but not with owls. Either way, a flash will generally only scare creatures away. Really, nocturnal photography is a fight against the clock because I want the late-night colours and the bluish hue, but I have to get the shot before all the light is completely gone."

How do you personally prepare for a night shoot?

"When I'm out in the forest, tracking a bird like the great grey owl, I'll start well in advance. I try to learn the behaviour and the different hunting spots, so I can plan where I need to be when the time comes to shoot. When birds have chicks in the nest, you can work out their flight paths, from the hunting spots back to the nests. You know that once they've caught something, they'll always fly back to the nest with their prey. You can then think about how the light will be playing out at twilight and how it will be affected by factors like dense woodland, as well as what will make a good background. All of this will help you be in the best location, ready to shoot."

An owl flies low over a field, its legs stretched out beneath it and wings up above it.

Jonas was really pleased with his Night Hunter image, which went on to win multiple awards, although he observes, "It looks unreal, almost. It looks like a Harry Potter character or something." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 300mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO3200. © Jonas Classon

An owl flies low over a field, its legs stretched out beneath it and wings up above it.

Jonas suggests travelling as light as you can when photographing nocturnal animals. "I like to carry as little gear as possible, so I can be flexible and change position easily if I need to without worrying about bags and tripods and stuff," he says. "It pays to be as much a part of nature as you can." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 560mm, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2500. © Jonas Classon

It's often difficult to spot birds in the daytime, especially if they nest high up. How do you manage to do it in the dark?

"In the late summer, the chicks start calling for food. You can use this to help locate where the nests are. Sometimes it's not so easy and I use a parabolic microphone listening device to increase my range beyond natural hearing. The most important thing is to find them earlier in the evening because, when it's getting dark, it's already too late."

What kit do you take on a night shoot?

"Usually I just take a camera and lens, although occasionally I might also take a tripod if it's extremely dark. I don't carry a torch or flashlight because that would risk scaring creatures away. Also, once you turn on a torch, it immediately ruins your night vision so you're pretty much blinded afterwards and have to start acclimatising to the darkness all over again. Another problem with taking accessories is that if you put something down on the ground at night in the forest, and then need to take just a couple of steps, you can end up losing it forever. A camera and a good lens is pretty much all I want with me."

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An owl is caught in flight staring straight ahead, its wings curved down.

"I need to use fairly fast shutter speeds to freeze action when birds are in flight," says Jonas. "The only way to do this in near-darkness is to boost the ISO setting, but cameras like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III and Canon EOS R5 still deliver really clean image quality." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO2000. © Jonas Classon

You recently added a Canon EOS R5 to your kitbag. What impact has Canon's full-frame mirrorless technology had on your work?

"The EOS R5 is just incredible. In a way, I'm sad I didn't have it 10 years ago, now I look back and think of all the shots I missed. With the EOS R5 I've taken images of owls in flight, in the darkness, and the bird-detection autofocus is unbelievable. It's always been a struggle with older cameras to move autofocus points around and keep them lined up with birds in flight but, with the EOS R5, it's as simple as 'point and shoot'. I have shots where it's picked out a flying owl against a busy forest background, locked on immediately and kept tracking it as it flew in and out behind trees and other obstacles. When I've shot a large burst of images with autofocus tracking, it's remarkable that they're pretty much all sharp. I'm just amazed at how the camera can do this in almost complete darkness.

"The exposure simulation option is another big help. It gives a bright viewfinder image which makes nocturnal creatures much easier to track, compared with the optical viewfinder of a DSLR. You can also be much more confident about nailing exposure settings. And I don't just use the viewfinder – the vari-angle screen also works brilliantly for composing shots. I can even rest the camera on the ground and just twist the screen up for a clear view and get a whole different perspective. Another thing I really like is the silent shutter. It's great for more timid creatures and shy birds that are easily scared away."

Rocky outcrops in Zion National park, Utah, USA, pictured at night. Blurred lights run along the road and the Milky Way can be seen in the sky above.

The dark side: low-light photography

Valtteri Hirvonen forged his technique during Finland's gloomy winters. Here he reveals his tips for shooting in low light.
A close-up of an owl's head and chest, looking to the side, with a blurred Moon visible through twigs.

Long telephoto lenses are essential when you want to take intimate bird portraits. "It's never possible to get as close to wild birds as I'd really like to, so most of my shots are taken at or near 600mm," says Jonas. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 560mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO3200. © Jonas Classon

An owl captured in flight as the camera pans with it, the trees behind it blurred by the motion.

Instead of aiming to freeze this owl in flight in the low light conditions, Jonas opted to use a slow shutter and pan the camera to convey an impression of the speed and confidence with which it sweeps through the trees. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM lens at 1/20 sec, f/11 and ISO400. © Jonas Classon

What is your go-to Canon lens for a job such as this?

"If you'd asked me what my favourite lens was a few months ago, I'd have said the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x without hesitation. But I began using a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM a couple of months ago and I've started to change my opinion. Naturally, it doesn't have the ability of a zoom lens to change perspective, but the performance is incredible and the extra f-stop in aperture width enables me to shoot further into the night.

"The zoom lens works really well for wolves and larger animals, but for owls and other birds you tend to work at the longest focal length anyway, because you can never really get close. The image stabilisation is so good in both of these lenses that I can shoot handheld at 1/50 sec and get consistently sharp shots."

Do you ever get lost or stranded while out shooting in the dark?

"Most of the time I take a smartphone with a mapping app and I store the location of where I left my car. But sometimes I have no reception and the map is just a blank page. There have been occasions when I've just had to wait for the sun to rise so I can navigate back to the car, but I don't mind. Sometimes it's nice to make a night of it and enjoy being part of nature."

Matthew Richards

Jonas Classon's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Jonas Classon's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

Re-think what you know about mirrorless cameras – the EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your photography and filmmaking. "The EOS R5 is just incredible," says Jonas. "The bird-detection autofocus is unbelievable."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The EOS-1D X Mark III is the ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 5.5K RAW video. "I take a lot of action shots and this camera is so responsive. Its quick autofocus is the key to success," says Jonas.


Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

A super lightweight 600mm f/4 lens, delivering outstanding image quality and a polished professional performance. Jonas says: "The performance is incredible and the extra f-stop in aperture width enables me to shoot further into the night."

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. "I took the Night Hunter image a day after I bought this lens and it was key to getting that shot. The ability to zoom was essential. It was meant to be," says Jonas.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The successor to the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM that Jonas favours is now even better in bright light, and engineered to perform in the most challenging conditions. Jonas says: "I use this lens a lot. It's a great all-rounder. When you want to show a little more of a bird's surroundings or their world, it's a fantastic choice."

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

Favoured by those wanting to carry a single lens on location, the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM delivers stunning image quality with advanced image stabilisation. "I use this lens for videos on expeditions because it has a really wide focal range. It's extremely useful when you can't carry everything in your kitbag," says Jonas.


Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

"You have to be incredibly careful using flash with birds," says Jonas. "Sometimes it can be extremely useful, however, so this accessory is handy to have in my bag when it's possible to carry it. Mixing artificial and natural light can take photos to the next level."

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