The Making of "I can see what's in your soul"

How the winning photo of the "Best of 2021" contest was made

By Weevil in Photo Contests on Feb 27, 2022

"I can see what's in your soul..."

I am very honoured and grateful being voted - by photographers like me - as the winner of the PentaxForums' "Best of 2021" January 2022 contest. It is also an honor to be in the great company of all those nominated images in the contest; those were a delight to look at.

The story behind this image:

At the beginning of 2021 a Boreal Owl was often sighted in the Boucherville city parc, just south shore of Montreal, Quebec. There was a craze about that bird because it is very rare around the big city. I think the big crowds are also caused by the multiplication of wildlife photographers over the last decade not to mention the pandemic that restricted lots of other activities. Getting out to shoot was adopted by many additional enthusiasts who are very well connected to the social media.

This event was covered by the local media at the beginning of February 2021. Even though getting this beautiful owl in a picture would be a lifer for me, I wasn't really interested to join the crowd so I passed my turn (I took my image on another day than the event). The event is reported on here (sorry I can't find an English media reporting this. It's in French):

Des anateurs d'oiseaux qui dérangent
Quand l'ornithologie devient un zoo

After that event I saw so many pictures of that owl when browsing in the social media (FB, flickr, etc). It was indeed crazy, but it faded out a bit after a couple weeks.

We have a couple of friends that live near that city park and while the lady is pretty new to photography she is very passionnate about birds and she frequents that park almost daily.

A couple weeks later, after the craze was almost over, or, let's say, "under control", I had a free weekday from work on a Friday, and I and my love wanted to get out, me especially for photographing something. It happened that I asked the lady over there if the owl was still present at the park and if there was still a crowd of "shooters". She answered affirmative and negative accordingly. OK, sounded good! Like said, I had never captured that species of bird before, so the decision was easy to get out and take some fresh air in this cold afternoon. youpi! :-)

I brought my gear listed below, 2 Pentax bodies, the long lens, the tripod plus head (I certainly brought some other gear with me, but I can't remember. I always seem to bring more than needed, lol), my camo coat and bibs, warm boots, a little something to eat. With all that I drove to the Parc de la Frayère, which is about 40 km from home (and oh yeah, I brought my love too! :-) ).

Here's the gear list in detail:

Upon arrival around 2PM there weren't so many people visible on the site, but perhaps a dozen vehicles were already in the parking lot on the other side of the street. The weather wasn't the best for light: It was cloudy and colors were somewhat deflated, but I didn't really care. I coupled the Sigma 500mm with the K-3 II first, mounted that on the tripod and we were ready to go!

We didn't really know where the featured bird was located. We started walking the main trail and looked at the birds around the feeders. I took photos of a couple of birds, plus that fat squirrel that looked to be familiar with humans. It was a great opportunity to practice my technique.

(Click any image to enlarge and browse. Some additional images are on flickr)

We asked about the owl and someone told us where about it could be. We continued our walk and arrived at a site where a couple of photographers had found the owl standing on a twig in the middle of a bush. It was hard to get an angle with a nice point of view because there were shrubs all around the place. I managed to put my tripod pretty high in a spot and I found an opening with a good view of the owl and I was able to take many shots. I was maybe 10-15 meters away from the bird, waiting for it to turn its head toward my camera.

The light was still not great, but contrast was OK. At some point I also took some shots with my K-1. After maybe 30-40 minutes, more and more photographers arrived at the site. I saw some trying to approach the bird a bit too close and what had to be expected to happen happened: the bird flew away (photo taken during that time is on flick here.

I decided to leave and go look for something else. I knew there was also a Barrel Owl and an Great Horned Owl reported in the area, so we decided to walk a bit in the hope of finding a new subject. We didn't find the other owls, but in another pathway, the Boreal Owl was spotted by a couple of photographers (much fewer than before) and I could see it isolated from the bushes at the tip of a dead trunk. It stayed around for a dozen minutes and I was able again to take some (nice) shots with both the K-3 II and the K-1. That was a wonderful moment!

After it flew away again I continued my walk in search for more subjects to shoot. After a while we decided to get back to the car and on our way back I met one person who looked familiar to me. It was a member of our local Bird watcher's club. He was also getting back to his car. Anyways, the light was becoming dimmer and dimmer and the snow started to fall.

At the moment where we were crossing the street I noticed a bird to my left. It was the Boreal Owl at the tip of one of the spruces by the street. OMG! That is our last chance to capture this owl and with the snow I understood it would make an incredible ambiance if I could get a nice shot! I was pretty excited and started to approach, but we stayed on our side of the street.

I deployed the tripod and started to shoot with the K-1. I looked at the photos to validate and since the snow wasn't really visible I thought I'd need a darker background than the busy tree branches and white faded sky.

There was a really big tree behind the owl on the other side of the street (a big oak or maple, I don't remember). I moved to my left and aligned the owl with the big tree to get a darker background and took some additional photos. I was able to take maybe 40 shots during the 10 minutes it stayed there. The image I submitted is one of them when it turned its eyes at me (under normal circumstances its head is always moving from side to side). So what you see in the background is a tree trunk. This is the original out of the camera photo:

The Image EXIF are 1/500s, ƒ/5.0 and ISO 800. I suppose I used the TAv Mode with max ISO set to 1600 (that's a user preset for wildlife in my camera).

Post Processing
For PP I use Lightroom v6.14 (last available standalone version).

You can see from the original image above that I had to crop significantly in order to magnify the subject enough for the composition, but the good news is that the K-1 has so good a resolution that I was still able to get 7 megapixels out of the 36 the K-1 is providing.

Spot Removal
I used the spot removal tool to remove two twigs at the bottom left because I thought they were a bit too distracting in that tight crop (I know many won't be agreeable to do something like that, but this is the most extreme PP I  sometimes do to "purify" an image).

Image Treatment
I applied basic color treatment, a bit of everything, as shown in my Lr screenshot (Exposure: +0.10, Contrast +5, Highlights -65, Shadows +45, Whites +40, Blacks -30, Clarity+25, Vibrance +12, Saturation +2), plus some light sharpening and NR in Lr.

In case you were wondering: I also made some shots in portrait orientation, which gives another perspective of the scene.

Final words: thank you to all of you who appreciated my picture and congratulations to all the nominees and the winners, and a special thank to you the organizers of this contest! In a way you add motivation to our lives to push us to do our best in a hobby, profession, or whatever reason we practice the art of photography. I do this on my spare time, and I can't wait to get to retirement to spend more time into photography. And I whish that I will continue to enjoy the exchange and sharing with the best community on the net: the PF!

Thank you and I wish you all the best!

- Weevil

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