How to Photograph Eagles in the Canyon

I’ve been getting a lot of questions on how to photograph the eagles…  I guess it’s time for a “how to” blog post 🙂

For starters I guess in order to photograph them you have to know where and when to look! I have to admit, it took a couple of seasons for me to figure out this part of the game myself. The when is easy be there at sunrise, by the time the sun gets high in the sky so do the eagles. Once they can catch the updrafts from the warming of the day they will only be found a thousand feet high in the sky. When I first heard there were eagles I looked high and wide with no luck at all. I thought I would see them high in the sky or high in the trees along the ridges but I never did. Eventually one time I was driving up the canyon doing some long exposures of the flowing water when I saw one of the bald eagles perched in a dead tree right along the banks of the South Platte.

Bald eagle looking for fish in the Platte River below in Eleven Mile Canyon Colorado

That little piece of knowledge completely changed the way I searched, and now with a little practice I can spot them a mile away. That still doesn’t completely solve the problem though, it takes some practice and finesse to be able to get ready without annoying the eagles and causing them to fly away before you ever get a chance to take a picture. Of course the eagles aren’t naturally tolerant of people and perceive anyone as a threat. I don’t know, sometimes I think many animals are so intelligent that they remember people and are in time able to become comfortable with the people they know not to be a threat. This of course takes a lot of time and patience and comes with great responsibility not to betray that trust. Also this is only possible with raptors that have established a permanent presence in a location. Migratory birds by nature are temporary and are a completely different ballgame

Once you have cleared that major obstacle you can then concentrate on the photography. For starters you are going to need a long lens. I recommend at least a 400mm professional model and it is going to be of sufficient quality to resolve feather detail at long distance. Even after a rapport has been established you will be lucky to get closer than 50 yards. I personally use a 400mm professional lens with a 1.4x resulting in 560mm of magnification. Even with that it is common for an image to be severely cropped in Photoshop to acquire a respectable composition.

_MG_8555Acquiring an extensive command of your auto focus system is also going to be necessary to capture such difficult images as it will be necessary to quickly switch between focus modes. Sometimes it will be better to utilize all the focus points your camera is capable of. Other times there will be branches in the way and it will come down to using only a single precise focus point. There are times when I am using a single point on a perched position and have to quickly switch to a zone of nine points when the bird takes flight. Once in the air against the clear sky it might be best to switch to a wide open array of focus points.

I have also used another feature on my camera that is available on most DSLR’s widely know as back button focus. This setting uses an additional button on the back of the camera labeled AF to set the focus, conveniently removing the focus selection from the main shutter button. With the standard half depress and re-compose method, very few correctly focused captures are going to be possible. The instant the bird moves focus is going to be lost. While continuous mode focus called SERVO in Canon lingo may be able to recover focus, it is much more convenient to use a completely free button. With back button focus the best of both worlds are achieved. One click of the button allows focus on a still subject, and until that subject moves focus remains for as many captures as you are able to manage. Once the bird starts flying, holding the AF button down puts the camera in SERVO mode until you release the button. Plus it is the thumb, a free appendage that is used on the back button, allowing your shutter finger to fire away with no additional duties.

Bald Eagles in Eleven Mile Canyon

I also recommend a camera that can accomplish around 10 frames per second. The first two seconds after the animal takes flight are the best opportunity for dramatic images and the more captures accomplished in that time the better! A good sized buffer that can hold at least 15 or 20 captures is also a good benefit in these critical seconds.

Exposure and shutter speed are another difficult trick. At the distances that are often required I recommend no less that 1/1600th of a second for a shutter speed, at least a 2000th of a second when in flight if there is enough light. Of course in low light situations more than a 2000th of a second might result in requiring an ISO of 20,000 or higher which is going to begin to adversely affect the detail in your image. Aperture values, the amount of light and depth of field your lens can perceive is also going to be a significant factor in the quality of your image. Unless you have a very expensive lens a long telephoto is probably going to be able to open only to F5.6 at best. With a 1.4x attached that becomes F8. Both of those values are sufficient to give you plenty of depth of field.

Which leads me to my next subject, my method of best settings for any situation that may arise. I keep my camera on shutter priority mode (Tv), set to a 1600th or 2000th, depending on the amount of available light and my prediction for what is going to happen. If I think the bird is ready to fly I like to make sure I’m ready with a 2000th of a second. The camera is going to select the fastest possible aperture which is going to be F8 in my situation. I keep the camera on auto ISO to assure that a correct exposure is going to be possible. If the lighting situation results in a ridiculous ISO value I may dial the shutter speed down and carefully snap a few perched images to make sure I have captured something acceptable from the scene. It’s possible that I might have to get out the tripod if this is the case.

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The other important variable and quite possibly the most important factor in photographing bald eagles is the exposure compensation. The issue here is that bright white head, the most critical part of the entire image. If the highlights on that part of the image are even slightly blown the image is ruined. Without the intricate detail of the head feathers and the eye, there is no image at all… just a bitter reminder of what could have been. Each camera is different of course so it will require some experimentation, but I find that early in the morning before the sun is beating down a value of -2/3 of a stop seems to render a good exposure. later in the day when the sun is shining the compensation needs to be dialed back to at least a full stop, and the other day in bright sun I was getting highlight warnings all the way down to two full stops under. That selection on this image provided for detail on the white head and wing feathers as well.

Bald Eagle in Eleven Mile Canyon

The beauty of Tv is that the shutter speed can quickly be adjusted on the front wheel of my Canon 90D and the exposure compensation at the ready on the back wheel. That way if the eagle flies above the trees and into the bright blue sky I can quickly dial the compensation wheel a few clicks to the right to get a good exposure against the bright sky. Depending on the light the compensation can be anywhere from -1/3 to a full stop over. Again, experimentation is going to be required for each individual camera.

 

If you are blessed with an expensive lens, something like an F2.8 400mm prime for example, you may find that manual mode is necessary. If you find the camera selecting F2.8 there may not be sufficient depth of field which would necessitate fixing the aperture to F5.6 or 8. Adjusting the compensation quickly in manual becomes problematic, with the front dial assigned to the shutter speed and the back dial assigned to the aperture, the only access to the compensation is through some sort of menu option. Canon has the Q button on the back that can go directly to the necessary screen, but making a change in a fraction of a second becomes impossible.

Tremendous concentration and patience are required in this endeavor. In time a photographer will learn to watch the eagle for signs that he is about to take flight. At first you will believe that there is no warning at all, but in time you will spot certain telltale signs, a twitch here, a twitch there, a ruffling of the feathers, an agitated glance… And when it happens the photographer must be ready to explode into action, two seconds and the entire show may be over with and the opportunity lost.  

Even packed with all this knowledge there is no substitute for practice, no substitute for muscle memory that automatically leads your fingers and thumbs to exactly the right button at exactly the right time. Practice on every bird that flies by, leave no opportunity unchallenged. Geese, ducks and crows are a lot more abundant and provide for any amount of practice necessary.

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