A highlight of our Inside Passage trip this summer was a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka. This facility is renowned for the care and rehabilitation of injured eagles and other raptor birds, treating 100-200 per year. As you can imagine, it is a popular destination for visitors and local school children. The center was certainly a busy place when we were there. We were elbow-to-elbow with tour and school group participants.
We enjoyed learning about the various rehabilitation projects that they have underway and also see the vast variety of birds. Our tour group of photographers had the opportunity to see one of the Center’s residents up close, a snowy owl. This species has gained recognition and popularity in recent years, thanks to Harry Potter’s pet owl, Hedwig.
The snowy owl we met is called Qiqig. His story is chronicled on the internet HERE and HERE. Qiqig broke one of his wings and was rescued from a central Illinois field this past January. (Snowy owls are not commonly found in Illinois, but it is speculated that their habitat range has extended southward for establishing territory and finding food.) After receiving treatment at the University of Illinois, the bird was transferred to the Sitka center in April. The center has determined that he will remain in captivity because his chances for survival in the wild are slim.
At the time of our visit, the center’s staff was getting Qiqig acclimated to visitors. A handler, donned with tough leather gloves, and the owl were greeting folks in the woods outside of the building complex. Qiqig did a wonderful job in posing and staying calm, despite the crowd. A snowy owl is magnificent to see up close. The soft white feathers, sprinkled with dark brown dots! The piercing yellow eyes, ever observant! It is a stunning creature.
Unfortunately, the conditions were less than ideal for photography. It took some work to even get a clear shot of Qiqig. (A constant curse of short people like me is that body parts frequently block my camera’s viewfinder.) It was a typical southeastern Alaska weather day, with heavy clouds and intermittent rain. Lighting conditions were low. There was a limited distance for shooting and no adjustments were possible. It was one of those classic situations in travel photography where you have to grit your teeth and make the best of the situation.
I went with the shallowest depth of field that my zoom lens allowed. The zoom was cranked out to the highest level. My knees made me winced in pain as I crouched below some other photographers. The wooded area in the background was distracting, and I couldn’t maneuver to get a better perspective. I did the best I could and vowed to work on the image in Photoshop to see if it could be significantly improved.
The first step in processing was to crop the image and tilt the subject slightly. I chose to darken the background significantly to reduce distraction. I also decided to convert the image to black and white, except for retaining the color of his distinctive eyes. Various other adjustments were made, most notably added contrast. The final image is still a little bit too grainy to suit me. I had to resort to a high ISO camera setting because of the poor light levels. So the processing forced me to compromise between the grain and detail.
Without further ado, here is Qiqig’s cleaned up portrait. Isn’t he adorable?
And here is a comparison between the straight-out-of-the-camera image and the final result, so you can see the extent of my digital darkroom transformation.
If you are interested, the Alaska Raptor Center has more photos of this beautiful owl.