ARTICLE

Moonlit and majestic:
photographing birds of
prey in low light
with the Canon
EOS-1D X Mark III

Wings outstretched, a great grey owl swoops down towards the forest floor.
A swooping great grey owl is captured in flight by wildlife photographer Markus Varesvuo deep in a forest in Kuhmo, Finland. "My main target on the shoot was the charismatic great grey owl. The goal was to test the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III's focusing and ISO capability in challenging light situations," says Markus. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 400mm, 1/3200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO20000. © Markus Varesvuo

When Markus Varesvuo went on a shoot with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III on its release in February 2020, he decided to push the camera's capabilities to the limit. He wanted a technically challenging situation in which spectacular results depended not only on photographic skill, but also on the camera being capable of meeting that challenge.

As a wildlife photographer who has been specialising in bird images for more than 40 years, Markus knew that shooting birds of prey flying at high speeds can be tricky. What's more, if you're photographing species that are most active in the evening and at night, then the twin challenge of a fast-moving subject and very low light makes it difficult for any camera to capture them in sharp, high-quality, low-noise images.

So, he packed a kitbag that included a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III body, together with Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM and Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lenses, and headed for remote forests in eastern Finland and Finnish Lapland in search of demanding subjects.

Here, Markus talks about the species he photographed, the obstacles he faced and how the kit performed in the field.

A great grey owl flies above a Finnish forest as snow falls softly.
On the hunt for food, a great grey owl flies low to the ground in Kuhmo, Finland. Among the largest owls in the world, these beautiful birds can have wingspans exceeding a metre and a half. "The great grey owl is not especially fast in flight, but it normally comes out to hunt in the twilight, in low light conditions," says Markus. Taken on a EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/1250 sec, f/9 and ISO12800. © Markus Varesvuo

Which bird species were you aiming to photograph on your shoot with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III?

"My main target on the shoot was the charismatic great grey owl. We searched in the woods in Kuhmo, eastern Finland, and managed to find some confident individuals. The goal was to test the camera's focusing and ISO capacity in challenging light situations, and also to find out how well the focusing could follow the super fast and erratic hawk owl in its flight.

"I travelled with fellow wildlife photographer Ville Heikkinen, who lives in rural Kuhmo and is very knowledgeable about owls. He knows the woods around his home like his back pockets, and if there are owls to be found, he finds them. It took us about a week to find the owls, four altogether, and we were able to work with three of them."

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How fast are these birds when in flight?

"Hawk owl speed in predatory flight dive, for example, is about 60-70kph. The flight is often undulating and the bird sways from one side to another unpredictably, making it really hard to keep the owl in the viewfinder. The great grey owl is not especially fast in flight, but it normally comes out to hunt in the twilight, in low light conditions."


What was the weather like in the locations you chose, and how many hours of daylight did you have?

"It was February. I spent some time in Kuhmo, where the daylight lasted just short of eight hours, and some in Utsjoki, Finnish Lapland, where the day was about five hours long. This winter has been unusually mild even in the north, and the temperatures ranged from 0 to -25°C during this shoot.

"One evening, I got to shoot a great grey owl in flight about 40 minutes after sunset. ISO51200 gave me 1/500 sec shutter speed, just enough to freeze the owl. I was amazed to find that the focusing system could follow the owl in what was indeed very low light."

Its talons poised and ready, a great grey owl prepares to pounce.
Markus relied on the expert local knowledge of fellow wildlife photographer Ville Heikkinen to locate the owls, among them this great grey owl about to pounce. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 400mm, 1/5000 sec, f/3.2 and ISO4000. © Markus Varesvuo
In darkening conditions, a great grey owl glides low to the ground causing snow to fly up.
This image of a great grey owl on the hunt was taken about 40 minutes after sunset at a very high ISO. The hint of a shadow that can be seen on the snow comes from the moonlight. "I was amazed to find that the focusing system could follow the owl in what was indeed very low light," says Markus. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 400mm, 1/500 sec, f/2.8 and ISO51200. © Markus Varesvuo
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What difficulties did you encounter on the shoot?

"The biggest challenge was finding the birds, because the forests were teeming with voles and this is where the owls prefer to be, deep in the dark woods. Great grey owls are active mainly in the twilight and darkness. In the heart of winter, though, when prey animal populations are low and extremely low temperatures put a strain on their energy reserves, they can also hunt in the middle of the day."


How did you find the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III performed in low light?

"The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III gives good results in darker conditions because I can select much higher ISO values. This means I can use faster shutter speeds to freeze movement. The EOS-1D X Mark III also focuses better than its predecessor in darker conditions. In the meagre winter light, with the Mark II, I could go up to ISO6400, but now, with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, I get the same quality at ISO16000."

Which lenses did you use and why did you choose them?

"The Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM is perfect for low light conditions and very fast in focusing. The Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM, combined with 1.4x and 2x extenders, is excellent for shooting skittish birds that are easily spooked, because you can keep your distance and still get the shot."

Against a snowy backdrop, a hawk owl glides elegantly through the air.
In Kuhmo, eastern Finland, a hawk owl glides across a snowy backdrop. This magnificent bird is capable of diving at speeds of between 60 and 70kph and often flies in an unpredictable pattern, making it very difficult to track in flight. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 400mm, 1/4000 sec, f/7.1 and ISO12800. © Markus Varesvuo

How does the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III compare to the EOS-1D X Mark II you've been using, and what are the features that will help you get better wildlife images?

"At high ISO settings, the images from the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III are more than one stop better than those from the Mark II – perhaps one and a half stops better, which is a lot. This helps you shoot in low light conditions. The images are also sharper and the colours more natural.

"The battery also lasts much longer compared to the Mark II. I didn't have many chances to gain experience with the AF in difficult situations, but it seems to work very well, especially using the 30-point Zone AF.

"I mainly shoot through the optical viewfinder with the mechanical shutter, and like this the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III is able to shoot 16fps. This is two frames per second more than the EOS-1D X Mark II, which is important in action photography. The buffer is also almost endless. Needless to say, this is very useful in wildlife photography, where action situations can't be re-shot."

A great grey owl, its yellow eyes alert, hunts for prey.
A great grey owl, its eyes peeled, searches for voles in Hyrynsalmi, Finland. "The Canon EOS-1D X Mark III gives good results in darker conditions because I can select much higher ISO values," says Markus. "This image demonstrates how ISO16000 looks." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 400mm, 1/3200 sec, f/3.2 and ISO16000. © Markus Varesvuo

Did you use the camera in Live View to shoot the birds in flight at 20fps?

"With long lenses you have to shoot using a tripod or, if in a hide, a video head attached to a shelf inside the hide in order to use Live View. In certain special cases it seems to be a promising feature to use. One example is a case when I was in a hide shooting golden eagles, and two magpies started to mob one of the eagles. The eagle made mock attacks towards the magpies to chase them off. In this situation 20fps is fantastic. And the silence of an electronic shutter is a big advantage."

What was the maximum ISO you used? And what were the images like at that ISO?

"The maximum was ISO51200 and with careful postproduction the results were surprisingly good for such high ISO. With ISO16000 the results are very good. I processed the files using Canon Digital Photo Professional software. It is very good at handling the high ISO noise – better than other RAW converters I've been using."

Will the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III be your camera of choice in the future?

"I've been super happy with the EOS-1D X Mark II but, when there's a camera that's even better in almost every respect, I must say I'll be changing to the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. I was really impressed by the file quality at high ISO settings. Every feature that's important for a bird photographer has taken a significant step forward in the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III."

Автор David Clark


Markus Varesvuo's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their low-light wildlife photographs

Close-up of a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III.

Camera

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The ultimate creative toolkit, with superb low-light performance, deep learning AF and 16fps (20fps in Live View mode). "Every feature that's important for a bird photographer has taken a significant step forward in the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III," says Markus.

Lenses

Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM

A fast-aperture super-telephoto lens that delivers a professional performance – ideal for sports, news and wildlife photography. "It’s perfect for low light conditions and very fast in focusing," says Markus.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM

A super lightweight 600mm f/4 lens, delivering outstanding image quality and a polished professional performance. "[This lens] is excellent when shooting skittish birds that are easily spooked," says Markus.

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