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.

I hope you have found this piece helpful, if you enjoy the content please be sure to click the follow button to be alerted each time I publish a new article. In addition to the still imagery found in my blog posts I also have a YouTube channel where I will soon be publishing a video on this subject. Please subscribe so you will be sure not to miss it!

As always, the best of these images and hundreds more are available for purchase on my website as wall art on glossy metal or acrylic sheets, stretched canvas and traditional matting and framing. Tons of cool household and gift items are also available with any image you like including coffee mugs, t-shirts, blankets and pillows, battery chargers, phone cases, stationary and much much more! Just click on any image you like and all the choices, sizes and prices will appear! For my viewers interested in images for commercial use, please visit my image licensing portal!

This blog post is not sponsored. Any equipment used in the production of this post was purchased by myself on my own volition.

Exciting Eagle News

It appears we’ve had an exciting development on the bald eagle watching front! Mama eagle is exhibiting signs of new motherhood! As of yesterday she has begun sitting on the nest indicating there are or soon will be eagle eggs! Watch my new video to witness the new bavior, plus more amazing imagery of the great birds hunting and fishing! Also don’t forget to smack the subscribe and share buttons!!!

Barr Lake Photo Adventure

Late December through February every year a growing population of American Bald Eagles gather in Barr Lake State Park Colorado to winter and search for mates. Kevin and I have been talking about making the journey up there for a couple of years now and finally we decided it was time to get it done!

Buck and His Doe in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal

We started the day at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal though as there have been rumors of eagles gathering there as well. We didn’t see any eagles but there was a nice herd of mule and whitetail deer grazing on the dry winter grass surrounding the lake that cooperated with us for a few pictures. We also saw some kind of woodpecker banging out a meal high in the massive cottonwood trees along the lake. Unfortunately I was not able to get a picture of that little fellow so you will just have to imagine!

Northern Harrier

Eventually we pressed on to Barr Lake while sighting a red-tail hawk along the way. We got a few of him on a power pole, but beyond credit for the sighting of a raptor I’m not too thrilled with power pole images.  Once inside the park we spotted a northern harrier that we had seen back in the fall that appeared willing to cooperate with a few captures. I managed to get a couple of him soaring high in the beautiful blue Colorado sky, but no dramatic closeups.

Eagle Population at Barr Lake

It was a 1.3 mile trek around he south side of the lake where the state of Colorado has constructed a  beautiful gazebo for watching the eagles which were gathered along the far south and west side of the lake… unfortunately about 1,000 yards away. I had my 400mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter taking me out to 560mm of focal length, but even that was not enough to bring in very much detail. However it was quite a beautiful scene with the snow capped Colorado Rockies in the background. We saw a nesting pair in a huge cottonwood tree along with a few more mature and juvenile eagles standing on the shoreline of the scenic reservoir.

Geese at Barr Lake

The eagles were far outnumbered by a huge flock of  Canada Geese that looked like a cloud when they all took flight! I got a few still captures of the amazing scene but when I went to try to get video footage the silly waterfowl refused to cooperate 😦 Eventually we decided to spend the golden hour of sunset back at the Arsenal with the deer.

In addition to the usual pictures I include in my posts, this time there is a YouTube video to go along with my submission. I was able to capture a few minutes of footage of these amazing birds which you can view on my channel here!

As always, the best of these images and hundreds more are available for purchase on my website as wall art on glossy metal or acrylic sheets, stretched canvas and traditional matting and framing. Tons of cool household and gift items are also available with any image you like including coffee mugs, t-shirts, blankets and pillows, battery chargers, phone cases, stationary and much much more! Just click on any image you like and all the choices, sizes and prices will appear! For my viewers interested in images for commercial use, please visit my image licensing portal!

Deer in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal

Stunning Morning and Eagles

The stars all aligned this morning for a visit to Eleven Mile Canyon. Due to the Rocky Mountain National Park trip I haven’t been there in a while and I Bald Eagle Nesting Pairam always eager to check on the status of the raptor population. As I pulled into the parking lot just before sunrise I could already see two white heads in the nest. So I leapt out of the truck and made my way down to the riverbank as quickly as possible. Fortunately they were still there when I was finally ready to snap a picture 🙂

Pair of bald eagles who call Eleven Mile Canyon Colorado their home

They put on a pretty good show in some very nice light for a few minutes. One of them flew off for a few minutes and came back with a stick for the nest while the other hopped out of the nest and up to their strategic branch. Eventually the other one  took off and flew into the canyon, something I’ve never seen them do before… I was expecting a quick return so I waited motionless as long as I could… But it was cold this morning, and I just got colder and colder until I could barely move my fingers, and that was with gloves on! Finally I had to put my hands in my pockets and risked missing a shot.

Little Sparrow by the Water

In the meantime a sparrow came to the other side of the bank to entertain me and a flock of red wings went by… males and females flying together in the same flock, also something I hadn’t seen before. I somehow managed to get a nice shot of one of the males coming in for a landing in a thicket of reeds.

Red Winged Black Bird in Flight

The eagle never came back from the canyon and and eventually the remaining raptor took flight and few toward the lake, a lucky break for me because they usually fly directly away from me when they decide to go. This time I got a nice shot against the  blazing blue Colorado autumn sky 🙂

At that point I walked my shivering self back to the truck to get another layer to put on under my field jacket. As I prepared to make the trek up to the dam I spotted something in a tree high above the river valley… Could it be one of the osprey? I snapped a picture and tried to zoom in with the LCD viewer but I could tell is that it was a large bird.

Bald Eagle Nesting PairThen all of a sudden he took flight as well and I did my best to capture him in flight… I haven’t processed that image yet but on the LCD it looked like it might be the red-tailed hawk that occasionally watches over the entrance to the valley.

Doe Mule Deer in the Woods

My final bit of luck came as I stood on the dam… as I looked up from the dam onto the trail above I spotted a doe mule deer peering out from the woods… As quickly and quietly as I could I readied the camera for a picture and she watched me curiously while I grabbed a few images. Finally she meandered into the dense forest and the moment was gone.

I hiked a few feet up the trail and spotted the rest of the herd looking out from the edge of the forest and they too watched curiously as I moved about with the camera trying to get the best angles.

Bald Eagle in Flight

I considered walking into the canyon but by this time the weekenders from the city were already piling in, stirring up huge clouds of dust and I wasn’t up for all the noise, engines roaring and fishermen yelling at each other from all ends of the canyon… The trip home was uneventful and now I’m in front of the computer where I will spend a good part of the rest of my day 😦

These were my  favorite pictures dozen or so that I’m going to publish later this morning. Please feel free to visit and follow my Instagram page for the rest of this morning’s plus hundreds more!

For your enjoyment I have also created a library of multimedia videos for my YouTube channel! Feel free to watch and be sure to subscribe to my channel  if you would like to see more of my adventures! Also feel free to follow my Instagram page where tons more of my images are displayed!

As always, the best of these images and hundreds more are available for purchase on my website as wall art on glossy metal or acrylic sheets, stretched canvas and traditional matting and framing. Tons of cool household and gift items are also available with any image you like including coffee mugs, t-shirts, blankets and pillows, battery chargers, phone cases, stationary and much much more! Just click on any image you like and all the choices, sizes and prices will appear! For my viewers interested in images for commercial use, please visit my image licensing portal!

Autumn in the Canyon

Fall has come early to Eleven Mile Canyon Colorado… With the departing of the osprey some of the pizzazz has  gone out of my visits here, but the amazing color has made up for it! I arrived just after sunrise and was delighted to notice that both bald eagles were in the nest.

Eleven Mile Bald Eagle Pair

I grabbed my camera and my official observation chair and hurried down to the riverbank in hopes of catching them before they left for the day. Right around sunrise these days they can be found flying back and forth with sticks to fortify their nest for the harsh Colorado winter, but the show doesn’t last for long. Within an hour it is likely that they will both be off for the day doing eagle stuff!

Eleven Mile Bald Eagle PairJust after I got situated, one of the pair took off and flew into the canyon. Unfortunately my camera was nowhere near ready. Exposure compensation was set at +2/3 and my shutter speed was only at a 500th of a second. My first opportunity was completely blown. Quickly I adjusted my settings for eagles in flight, -2/3 exposure compensation to assure that the bright white of their head feathers are not blown out and about a 1250th of a second shutter speed. I usually like a 1600th or faster but in such low light 1250 is a good compromise.

Autumn Color in Eleven Mile

Eventually the eagle returned and I was able to get a couple of nice shots of the pair in flight. Soon after of course, the show was over and I decided to walk in and investigate the fall color situation. The sunshine had not yet reached the river valley so I was able to get a couple of nice motion blurs of the flowing stream and see that the colors were going to really pop with the light of the sun.

I went back to the parking lot to retrieve my truck for a long day of fall photography.  I slowly drove along the riverside road looking for all the best views. The colors along the river were well worth some sketchy scrambling on hands and knees down to waters edge and I took advantage of every opportunity! In addition to all the wonderful still images I was able to capture, I thought it important to capture some of the sound and motion of the beautiful golden water of the river. Still images are nice but sometimes they just don’t do the scene justice!

Three Deer Crossing

On my way out of the canyon I spotted a young deer crossing the river so I stopped and grabbed my camera. The yearling was soon joined by two other doe mule deer in crossing the river but unfortunately, once again I was unprepared for the situation… my camera was still equipped for scenery pictures with only a 24-105 lens and a shutter speed of 160th of a

Three Deer Crossing

second… but there was no time for adjustments and I just started shooting. Luckily it looks like a couple have turned out, one with a bit of pleasing motion blur 🙂

For your enjoyment I have created a nice 10 minute YouTube video with still imagery and video of today’s experience.  There are also many other adventures that I have documented with multimedia videos for my YouTube channel! Feel free to

Autumn Color in Eleven Mile

watch and be sure to subscribe to my channel  if you would like to see more of my adventures! Also feel free to follow my Instagram page where tons moreof my images are displayed!

As always, the best of these images and hundreds more are available for purchase on my website as wall art on glossy metal or acrylic sheets, stretched canvas and traditional matting and framing. Tons of cool household and gift items are also available with any image you like including coffee mugs, t-shirts, blankets and pillows, battery chargers, phone cases, stationary and much much more! Just click on any image you like and all the choices, sizes and prices will appear! For my viewers interested in images for commercial use, please visit my image licensing portal!

Autumn Color in Eleven Mile