How I Shot This

Wise Choice: A split second in the life of a tiny Nebraska owl.



Photo By Michael Forsberg

Photographer Michael Forsberg has, for most of his photographic career, devoted himself to depicting the subtle and sometimes difficult-to-capture beauty of his native Great Plains. Formerly a writer and shooter for Nebraskaland magazine, he now maintains his independence by running a gallery and selling his photographs. He published his first book, On Ancient Wings, in 2005.

Q. Who is this little guy?
A. That's a burrowing owl. It doesn't live in a tree -- it lives in a hole in the ground. Unlike most owls, they're very active during the day.

Q. How close are you?
A. I'm about 25 feet away. Out on the prairie everything evolved with great eyesight, so photographing wildlife there is not like driving down a road and standing on the shoulder at Yellowstone -- these guys are very wary and very alert. Most of my time is spent in a blind, and not one you sit in, either. I built it out of garden fence and weaved it through with grass. It's just big enough for me to lie on my belly. Really, it's more like a sleeping bag.

Q. How long were you there?
A. Upwards of 8 or 12 hours at a time. Out on the prairie you have to be kind of comfortable being uncomfortable. Once I had a snake crawl right in front of my eyes. I've been surrounded by cattle eating the vegetation off my blind. I think that's why photographers don't shoot much in the prairie.

Q. What camera did you use?
A. My Nikon F5 with a 500mm f/4 lens on Fujichrome Velvia. Nowadays I shoot digital. In my blind, I can't use a tripod. I'm kind of cheap, so I bought a bag of bird seed, wrapped it with duct tape, and rested my camera on that. There are so many things out on the prairie that are really cool and small. I think it's a lot more intimate to photograph the animals at eye level -- on their level. So I shoot on my belly a lot. I try to get as low as I can.

Q. He looks like he'll attack!
A. He's only stretching. It's hard to stay sharp when you're in the blind for so long. You end up missing stuff because you're not "on." But when he started to stretch, I lay down on the motor drive. With wildlife photography, 99 percent of the work is in the lead-up. The more time and the more research you put in, the better the picture.

The Outtakes

1. Where's the other wing? In this part of the stretch, the majestic bird looks a little goofy.
2. That's a dour expression, but the photo doesn't have the impact of the full-on winged pose.

outtake 1 outtake 2