How to Find the Eagles

Finally managed to create the video to go along with my how to article on photographing eagles that I published the other day! It was bitter cold in the Canyon today which put a damper on my hiking plans so I was just cruising up and down the canyon searching in vain for the bald eagles. I decided to put my driving  time to good use so I discussed my strategy for success along

Bald Eagles in Eleven Mile Canyon

Bald eagles fishing in the South Platte River in Eleven Mile Canyon, Coloradowith some footage and musings of other endeavors throughout a relatively dull day on the road. I hope you enjoy it anyway 🙂

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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!

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.

_MG_9343.jpg

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.

Lessons Learned

Osprey Fishing in Eleven Mile Canyon

It was quite a summer of photography and I definitely had to up my game this season! For nearly four decades in Colorado I have enjoyed photographing our beautiful mountain landscapes, iconic wildlife including bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk and even a few bear! I have been successful shooting all these subjects from the fully manual era to auto focus, early digital, and finally to these times of amazing technology that could barely be imagined when I first began this amazing journey with my Minolta X-700 35mm film camera.

Bald Eagle in Flight

My first digital camera was the original Canon 1D. The camera was so intuitive and amazing that I never even bothered to learn how to use it’s advanced focusing system. The camera was so good at finding the subjects I was interested in that I didn’t even need to learn any more about it beyond it’s most basic settings. Unfortunately that camera had only a 4.5 megapixel sensor and quickly became obsolete as camera technology exploded at light speed.

Great Blue Heron in Flight

By the time the Canon 40D was introduced I was doing a bit of sports photography and was forced to master single focus point selection which involved only one additional button and a joy stickl on the back of the camera. By the time the 70D arrived I was confronted with increasingly difficult situations which required learning “back button focus“. With that skill mastered, I was able to rapidly switch between servo and single shot photography with just a thumb and one button on the back of the camera.

Mother Bald Eagle with Her Eaglet

But this summer was different, starting with the discovery of the eagles nesting in Eleven Mile Canyon. No big deal at first, the mother eagle was just sitting in the nest with her eaglet and my previously acquired skills were perfectly sufficient. Then it happened, the eagles flew! They took flight in some of the most magnificent photographic opportunities I had ever been presented with!

Osprey Gathering

And suddenly I was a complete failure as a photographer 😦 All my pictures were blurry and the opportunity for game changing images was lost. Back to the drawing board… Of course there were some obvious solutions, shutter speed too slow being the first major culprit. A quick trip to the internet provided the necessary information, birds in flight require a shutter speed of at least 1/1250th of a second, preferably 1/1600th and up. I decided upon shutter priority mode with auto ISO to accomplish this task and I began to get some pretty decent eagles in flight captures.

After extensive observation I learned a bit about eagle habit, what time of day they might fly, when they might return and even a couple of indicators for when they might be getting ready to take flight. Eagles are big and tend to soar in steadily making accurate focus a fairly dependable action. I believed I was set, my skills were up to the task of photographing raptors 🙂

Doe and Fawn Crossing River

One day the eagles weren’t there and I decided to venture further into the canyon in search of them. As I scanned the banks of the South Platte River looking for signs of additional subjects I spotted a huge nest on a dead tree high overhead. Closer inspection revealed a bit of motion in the nest so I parked Big Blue and got out with my long lens for a better look.

Sure enough, there was a large bird in the nest with two small bobbing heads… But what was it, a hawk of some kind perhaps? I climbed the opposite bank for a better look and surmised that this beautiful birds must be osprey. I shot for awhile and headed for home with my cache of fascinating images. A quick check on the internet confirmed my original assessment, indeed there was a family of osprey nesting high above the pristine waters of the South Platte River.

Great Blue Heron in Water of Glass

Subsequent trips to the viewing area revealed that further advancement in my birding skills was going to be required… for the first time I was forced to deep dive into the capabilities of my camera. Settings that I had glossed over when I purchased my Canon 90D were now items of interest… First image priority, second image priority, acceleration and deceleration, erratic motion and focus point switching were all in play with the osprey. Flight without any kind of warning, rapidly changing direction, flying through the trees and dipping and diving had rendered my previously learned skills completely inadequate.

Osprey and Hummingbird

Now by the end of summer, many dozens of hours of practice, study and trial and error have elevated my skills to a new level. I have confidence that I have my camera settings dialed in, my skills honed and my patience perfected… as much as humanly possible 🙂 Now for what I have learned …

In a nutshell, I’m not going to try to go into great detail about camera settings since each camera manufacturer and each camera is different… but at least for birds in flight and probably many other additional applications, this is what I have learned:

Osprey in Eleven Mile Canyon Colorado

For starters, if I am anticipating birds in flight right from the get go, I’ll put my camera on shutter priority at 1/1600th of a second  with auto ISO. For birds in flight you are going to need at least a 400mm lens if not longer, so I make sure I am using my 100-400 with my 1.4x extension attached. That limits me to F8 and consequently one focus point, but I’ve discovered that unless the bird is flying against a pure backdrop such as the sky I have better luck with the greater magnification and a single point anyway. Tv mode also allows me access to the rear wheel for quick adjustment of exposure compensation which I am going to need if the bird flies high with the bright sky in the background.

Double-crested Cormorant in Flight

If I  get on scene and the birds are in the nest I may want to dial back my shutter speed to 640 which is going to bring the ISO down quite a bit for a cleaner picture. If a beaver is swimming downstream or I see some deer walking across the stream I may bump the shutter speed up to 1/800th or so to freeze the motion. But if nothing else is going on and I am going to just watch a nest for action I’ll bump the shutter speed back up to at least 1250 or 1600 depending on the light.

Wilson's Warbler

Also if I find myself in a low light situation anticipating action I may go to manual on the mode dial and use the widest aperture available, which is going to be F8 with the 1.4 attached, or F5.6 for my lens at its widest focal length without the 1.4x, and the lens fully extended to 400mm. In Tv mode, the camera may select a stop down from the widest aperture which may bump you into a higher and less clear ISO range. And of course always be paying attention to your background. If it is brighter than the light on your subject you may need to bump up your exposure compensation. A bright sky may require at least +1. As in the case of the osprey and bald eagles with their bright white heads, you are probably going to want to dial that back to -1/3 or -2/3 to avoid blowing out the brilliant white feathers.

Great Blue Heron in Flight

Well I guess that’s about it for now… I have to say though, I’m looking forward to autumn and prime season for the majestic large mammals that mostly stand and pose for me.  Even with all the learning and practice a lot of birds in flight don’t turn out and I am going to enjoy the much higher success rate on the big animals 🙂

For your enjoyment I have created many short 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 our adventures!

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!

Juvenile osprey in flight