Here are all of the posts related to my recent Alaska photography trip, combined into one. Don’t worry – if you’re sick of eagle posts, I promise, this will be the last one for a while.
Alaska Eagle Trip Diary Part 1
I’m in Alaska again – this time to photograph bald eagles. As I did last time, I’ll keep a running diary of sorts that I will publish to the Photofocus site as I am able. I will have very limited Internet access on part of this trip but will try to get access via satellite phone and will take the sea plane back to civilization once in a while to check in. The first half of the trip I should be able to get online somewhat regularly.
I’m shooting both video and stills on this trip. I’ll primarily be relying on the Nikon D3s for stills and a Canon 1D MK IV for video. But I am also using – that’s right – a Nikon D7000 for video. This camera is one of my favorite DSLR hybrids because it works very well and is downright affordable compared to some of the alternatives.
In addition to the hybrid DSLRs, I’ll be using the Canon XF100 video camera. It’s brand new and arrived just in time for the trip.
I’ll be working some other cameras too and will fill you in as time allows. I do plan to use my iPhone 4 as well. I’m using the OWLE Bubo as an iPhone camera/video stabilizer.
I’m also testing some cool gear from Cinevate including their Pegasus Carbon DSLR Camera Slider with carbon all terrain kit. It’s a very strong and very light weight slider.
I’m carrying my gear in a variety of bags. My assistant packed up a sturdy Tenba bag filled with stands and supports including my 1030HD fluid head and sticks from Oconnor. I’ll also have an Induro ballhead, carbon fiber tripod and gimbal head. I’m using the new Porter Case to carry my main cameras on board the airplane. I’m also using a Tenba brief case to carry my laptop and backup drives. Borrowlenses.com is shipping my backup gear to Alaska for me so I have to manage less stuff on my own.
The weather will range from 10-15 degrees for a low to 30 degrees for a high during my stay so I’m packing lots of warm weather clothing and lots of layers.
It should be a fun and interesting trip. Regarding Alaska’s weather this time of year, I’ll leave you with this:
“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” ~Charles Dickens
Now, I am off to find some eagles.
Alaska Eagle Trip Diary Part II
It took me a full day (13 hours) from Vegas to get to Homer, AK which is the first destination on my Alaska eagle trip.
I flew from Vegas to Seattle, Seattle to Anchorage and Anchorage to Homer. It was a very long day. Some of my gear was shipped ahead and thankfully, it arrived safely. I also shipped two bags via Alaska airlines in the cargo hold. Both arrived intact, on-time and undamaged – except – warning mini rant here – someone stole my allen wrench or caused it to get lost. I had my tools in my checked luggage because the TSA, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that one 4-inch long allen wrench could somehow disable an entire Boeing 737 airplane. The TSA went through the checked bags and either they didn’t zip up the tool compartment – and the wrench came out – or someone “liberated it.” Either way – I was smart enough to mail myself one so no harm no foul.
The second challenge came when I got a good look at the turbo-prop that I was flying from Anchorage to Homer. The overheads are very small on such planes so I was faced with checking my carry-on camera bag or….
Yep – I bought a seat for it. Last minute seat for a 40-min flight to Homer on a prop plane – $175. Peace of mind knowing my gear was safe right next to me? Priceless. It’s a great deal of money to be sure, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Better to get here with my gear intact. Below you’ll see my camera bag strapped in per FAA regulations. I didn’t get an extra cookie for the camera bag though!
We’re expecting snow here, which is great for eagle photography. Our first day is mostly a scouting day. But just in case I had the Nikon D3s with 400 R/2.8, the Canon 1DMK IV with 70-200 F/2.8 and the brand new Canon XF100 video camera, along with a couple of tripods and heads. That’s a light load for this trip and it resulted in my first good eagle picture on this trip. It appears below. Enjoy. More from the Kenai Peninsula soon.
Alaska Eagle Photography Trip Diary Part III
The first full day of shooting eagles in Alaska produced some great photography opportunities for me. I’m working off the amazing Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. This has to be one of the most photographically rich and diverse places in North America.
We had great weather today. Mind you it wasn’t great BEACH weather, but for a photographer it was great. We had everything from snow to overcast skies, high thin clouds and finally sun.
Since we spent almost the entire first day working from boats, it was nice that the ocean was smooth, more so in the morning than afternoon. Thankfully I don’t get sea sick so it’s no big deal either way.
My primary job here is to shoot video and stills of Bald Eagles. (Haliaeetus leucocephalus.) Thankfully it’s pretty easy to do in this location. Alaska boasts the world’s largest concentration of Bald Eagles. With a wing-span of up to seven feet and the ability to see for more than a mile, this bird of prey has found it’s ideal home in the 586,400 miles that make up Alaska.
Now that’s a land mass about 1400 miles long by 2700 miles wide. So where do you look? That’s where research comes in. With the help of an ornithologist and some decent ornithology skills of my own, I’ve narrowed down some of the great places to photograph eagles. Of course time of year is important too. Unless you know when to come, where to go is only half the battle.
We have received all the necessary permits to go to the Seldovia Village Tribe reservation and other locations near Homer, Alaska. Some of these I have to keep secret for fear that the spots would be overrun, but the general area is the Kenai Peninsula overlooking the Kenai Mountains.
Why eagles? As an American, the Bald Eagle is the national bird and a natural draw for me. But even non-Americans are drawn to the power of this bird. I’m here to speak for the eagles and it will be an honor to tell their stories. That’s about as simply as I can put it.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world. Let us cherish and protect those wild places and the creatures that inhabit them.”
Eagles have come back from near extinction, but they are not out of the woods yet. The goal of this trip is to memorialize the eagle and it’s impact on Alaska and the nation. I hope my images and efforts do them justice.
Anatomy of an Eagle Photograph – Alaska Eagle Photography Trip Diary Part IV
It’s funny how my standards have changed over the years. When I was a kid, if I made a picture of an eagle a mile away, and there was a little black dot in the center of the image that was in fact the eagle, I was excited.
When I first got serious about bird photography, my first few eagle shots where the bird was actually recognizable as an eagle were thrilling.
After I honed my skills, I expected not only a bird I could recognize, but one captured in nice light.
And so it goes.
Now, I have thousands upon thousands of eagle shots in my portfolio and I have new standards. Here are some of the things I look for when making a photograph of eagles: This could apply to almost any bird or even many different subjects, but it’s my thought process and I decided to share it in case someone reading is interested.
1. Find eagles. That’s not hard in Alaska but may be in Brooklyn. You have to research to find the best place and the best time to be there.
2. Find eagles in great light. If the light sucks, then as excited as I may be by the presence of eagles, I keep my camera in the bag. I only want shots in good to great light.
3. Find eagles in great light in front of great backgrounds. I prefer to shoot eagles against the water, then the sky and then the snow-capped mountains. If they are photographed against anything else, it’s too easy for them to merge with the background.
4. Find GOOD specimens of eagles in great light in front of great backgrounds. It’s not enough to find an eagle. I want to find an eagle who’s relatively clean, has all his feathers, an intact and attractive beak, etc. Since I sell these images, it helps to find good-looking birds to shoot.
5. Find GOOD specimens of eagles in great light in front of great backgrounds and then get good angles. Small things like head angle, wing position, etc., make a big difference in bird photography. If you have a bird flying even one degree away from you, the shot isn’t salable. If the eagle’s wings are flat, or what we call pancake position, then it’s not as desirable as wings up or down. There are lots of small details that have to be right to get a salable eagle photo. Most people wouldn’t believe how picky the photo editors are when it comes to this stuff.
6. Find GOOD specimens of eagles in great light in front of great backgrounds and then get good angles while the eagles are doing something interesting. Small things like head angle, wing position, etc., in the midst of doing something interesting matters. While I can and do sell simple eagle portraits, pictures of the birds displaying their natural behavior are typically more attractive. Fishing, eating, fighting, soaring, etc., these are all behaviors that make for a good eagle photo.
I’ll stop here because I think you get the point. It’s not good enough to simply get a picture of an eagle. You have to get the RIGHT picture of an eagle. It’s hard work but fun too. More from Alaska soon.
Alaska Eagle Photography Trip Diary Part V
Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare, you strike out. We had one of those days during this trip. It was very windy and gray. The skies and the weather simply didn’t allow for any decent photography. When traveling to places like Alaska it’s actually easy to get shut out altogether. I personally spent eight days here once without being able to take my camera out of the bag because the weather was THAT bad.
We’ve generally had excellent weather on this trip, but on the down day, I took advantage of the time to look at my images. I must say I am happy with some of the results. Given the fact that I have this one chance, less than two weeks long to do it all, I am glad to say I have more keepers than I expected.
But then again, it’s easy to get a bit down on the days when there is no good light. Knowing how great it can be makes it even more agonizing to sit in the lodge and wait.
In addition to using the time to edit images and look through video, I took this time to research my subjects, talk to locals, learn local history and generally start building relationships I can utilize next time I am here to up my chances of success.
The first phase of the trip is winding up. Phase II will unfortunately be something I can’t share with you. The images from the second half of the trip have been locked up in an exclusive licensing deal. The locations I am working are sensitive in that I need to protect the wildlife there and publishing that information could threaten the safety of the critters in that part of the world. So this part of the trip and the diary will soon end.
I have to admit to being tired. I didn’t bring enough assistance on this trip. Spending long hours in the field used to have almost zero impact on me. But at my advanced age, it’s taking its toll. Enjoy your youth while you still have it :)
Still – when the light is good, and the winds are coming from the right direction, and the birds are plentiful, I hardly seem to notice my old bones aching. I start to drift out of my funk at the bad weather and start seeing the light – just as well or better than I did when I was a kid. I’ll have one more post to the diary after this one. I really appreciate all the positive feedback you all have given me about the images I’ve posted from this journey. I know it’s corny, but in a way I feel like by sharing the diary with you, that I had some company along side me up here in the great state of Alaska.
Alaska Eagle Photography Trip Diary Part VI – The End
The first part of my Alaska trip is over and it has gone well. I have thousands of images, hours of video and a whole lot of work to do when I get back home, culling, editing, printing and storing all this work. By the time you read this I will have moved north and will have little Internet access.
The eagles have been a joy to work with. Their spirit, grace and power leave me even more in awe than I was when I came here. The natural beauty of my surroundings, the helpful nature of the Alaskan people and my honor and privilege of being allowed to tell the eagles’ stories with my cameras – have left me a happy camper.
As I wind down, I thought I’d talk a little bit about how my gear faired and the part it all played in this week of wonder.
First, even though I came with far less gear than I did last time, I still had more than I needed. I brought three tripods and a slider. I’ve barely used the tripods, but I have used the slider. The Pegasus Carbon DSLR Camera Slider has proven to be lightweight, easy to set up and tear down, easy to transport and easy to use. When I release some of the video from the trip I’ll show you how I used it. In the meantime, here’s what it looks like with a Canon XF-100 mounted. The slider has been of great help to me and I’m glad I carried it on the trip. So far all the tripods, not so much. I did use them. I’m glad I had them. But I could have gotten by without at least one of them.
I’m getting amazing, and I do mean amazing results from my new Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L II IS lens. While this lens has been out since last year, it’s a new acquisition for me, and this shoot was it’s first real test. This puppy is SHARP! I am pretty sure it’s the sharpest zoom lens I have ever used. It simply blows away the competition. I usually prefer to use my Nikon D3s when shooting stills and the Canon 1D MK IV when shooting DSLR video, but the Canon 70-200 is so sharp, I find myself using the Canon more often. Keep in mind I am a primes guy – I usually use fixed focal length lenses, but I see no real deficiency in using this piece of glass in place of any prime within the focal range. It’s that good and certainly my go-to lens on this trip. (Please note I am talking about the new version of this lens – not the old version.) Because the eagles in Alaska are somewhat habituated to people and because I worked from a boat most of the time, I was able to get very close to the birds. Looking at the EXIF data, almost 70% of my keepers were made with this lens. I did try it with the new Canon telextenders – both the 1.4 (Version 3) and the 2x (Version 3) and got very good results.
My new 17″ MacBookPro arrived while here in Alaska and it is FAST. No I mean REALLY fast. If it were an olympic runner it would win the Gold medal. I purchased it with the upgraded 2.3 GHz Intel Core i7 processor, eight GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM and my first ever solid state drive – in this case the 512GB version. The boot up time is incredible. The computer starts from a dead stop as quickly (or even more quickly) than my old one did from sleep. It’s near instant. The flat panel display is glare free and sharp. The speed of the computer makes processing images a breeze. While I usually don’t do any work on my images until I return to my studio, in this case I feel comfortable doing so at least for the purposes of posting a few here and elsewhere online. I will do the serious editing at my studio when I attach the Cinema Display to the new Thunderbolt/DVI port.
The star of the week has been my new Canon XF100 Camcorder. While it’s only a preliminary evaluation, so far I’d say this is going to be a category-leading product. As the young people would say, this camcorder is SICK! It has pro-audio, amazing image quality, complete manual or automatic control, a fast lens and it’s easy to use. The autofocus works well and the dual CF card slots and generous battery allow for plenty of video time. I’ll post video from this at a later date, but I can tell you this is the camcorder you want. I’ll be shooting MUCH less DSLR video because of this camera. Order it now. You’ll be waiting in line.
The biggest gear story of the trip is how little I actually used. I have used almost everything I brought, but not as much as I thought. I used the Nikon D3s, but quite a bit less than I planned because I like the images I’m getting out of the Canon 70-200 so much. I’m leaning 1D MK IV most days. I did get a cool time lapse out of the D3s. I’ve done a few landscape shots with the Canon 24-70 F/2.8 and the Induro carbon fibre tripod. I’ve used the Miller fluid head for just a bit of video – mounted on the Miller tripod. For some of the big stuff later in the second half of the trip I’ll be using my lovely O-Connor fluid head and sticks. But during the first half – most of the time, I just headed out with the Canon XF-100 and the Canon 1D MK IV with 70-200 hand-held. Nothing else. It’s a lightweight package and it gave me great results. Could I have used my bigger lenses? Sure. But most of the time they would have been very heavy to carry for the amount of time they were useful.
This trip really has me re-thinking my gear. I find myself gravitating to a less is more approach on each and every shoot. I may start bringing one single camera bag, the slider and one tripod and calling it a day. One thing is for sure, these big trips are impossible without an assistant to carry all this stuff. Even though it’s not typically cricket to use an assistant on a nature shoot I’m doing that from now on. If people think it’s pompous I don’t care. I’m getting too old to schlep all this stuff by myself :)
I’m getting close to the point where I’ll be without as much Internet access so I’ll wrap this diary up now. The compiled version will also appear on Photofocus when I get back from the trip in early April.
I do want to thank my guides, they have been great. My boat captains were stupendous. I also want to thank Borrowlenses.com for shipping me some of the gear I’d need while in Alaska. It saved me carrying stuff through airports and gave me backups and peace of mind. Homer and southern Alaska may be my favorite part of the state. The weather is mild here compared to the rest of the state and the scenery is just breathtaking. I’ve seen tons of wildlife, made lifelong memories and captured just a tiny slice of the lives of Bald Eagles while here. I will share more images when I get back home and I thank you for coming along for the ride via this diary. I hope you enjoyed it.
Alaska Eagle Trip Diary Epilogue
I know I said I was through with the Alaska Eagle Trip Diary but I received such an outpouring of response to the images I made in Alaska I wanted to add this Epilogue.
Many of you who contacted me said you were inspired but didn’t think you could ever do something like this. I think you can. If you want it bad enough, you can have it. As Walt Disney said.
“The difference in winning & losing is most often, not quitting.”
I have made literally thousands of eagle photographs on this trip. At a certain point, one starts to ponder – “How many more do I need?”
So I challenged myself. I’ve wanted to get a different view of the eagle. When they fish, they exhibit a particular behavior that’s almost impossible to capture on camera. I’ll try to describe it. They leap off the perch in their favorite tree after spotting a fish – even one a mile away. They start a glide path that is constantly recalculated in real time as they adjust for the fish’s position and changing air currents. They typically make a circle over the area where the fish is to further refine their strategy. Then, as if there were no such thing as gravity, they sometimes throw their airborne body into a 360 degree turn – on a dime. They roll over, fly upside down and for a brief moment, show the underside of their wings as they make the final commitment to the strike on the fish.
I spent one full day, shooting thousands of frames, trying to capture the flanking move where the eagle rolls over and shows his underwing. I have to say, it wasn’t my proudest moment. I tried and tried and tried and failed. Either I’d clip the wings, or the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough or the eagle would notice some change in the wind and ever so slightly adjust his course so that the anticipated flight path and I’d miss everything. In other words, for several straight hours I simply sucked.
But then, in a moment that was probably more glorious than it should have been, everything worked and I got one. One frame came out just right. The eagle made a 360 degree turn, cartwheeled in midair, turned INTO the beautiful light, and I managed to catch the underwings as he dove. It was just great to witness with the naked eye. But to capture it with my camera was even better. The shot might not win any awards, but it was a personal assignment that for me, made the afternoon of shooting more worthwhile.
Another shot I really worked for is an eagle swimming. They are good swimmers but it’s very, very rare to make a photograph of that behavior. Low and behold, after four days of trying – I got one. Sometimes you have to be patient. And sometimes that’s all you have to do – be patient.
Never give up on your dreams. Never give up on anything that is really important to you. Even if it’s just a simple photograph.
I’ve enjoyed my eagle photography trip immensely. I have gained even more respect for these raptors. I learned how tough their lives can be and how brilliant they can be all in one week. I marveled at the sound as they sometimes buzzed right past me to make a dive for a fish – it sounded like a jet swooping down on me.
I saw how the people of Alaska revere these birds. Here the eagle has a special place. It’s more than a curiosity or a rare bird. It’s symbol of the freedom that Alaskans so cherish.
I hope my eagle diary has motivated some of you to try your hand at photographing these magnificent creatures and I hope the images I’ve shared here represents these birds in a manner that will do them proud.
I’ll leave you and this trip with a simple poem that I learned many years ago in high school.
“He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.”
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson