My final Alaska eagle photography trip is close to an end. It’s been a great experience. My workshop sold out with lots of old friends in attendance. My assignments all went mostly pretty well. My hard drive is full of more amazing eagle images and lots of video.
It occurred to me that some of the questions I’ve been receiving about the trip might just as well be answered as part of the diary. So without further delay – here are some random eagle photography tips based on your questions.
1. We photograph eagles in the late winter because they congregate in confined areas near seaports looking for food. In the summer the birds are widely dispersed because there are so many food sources. In the winter, they hang out with each other in tight groups of about 120 or so in search of food.
2. The brown eagles you’ve seen in the pictures I’ve shared so far are immature bald eagles. The traditional bald eagle you may be familiar with, i.e., white head and brown or black body is an adult. It takes approximately five years for eagles to mature. From a photographic perspective, the adults are the hardest to photograph because of the wide dynamic range needed to hold detail on a white head and a black body. The immature birds have more interesting patterns on the wings, but may be hard to meter against a dark background. It’s not easy. It just looks easy.
3. It is possible to get very close to these eagles without baiting them. As long as you’re in an area where there is natural food like a beach or seaport, there will be eagles. We found a beach littered with dead fish and muscles and determined that during the low tides the eagles came down from the trees to feed. We set up on that beach this morning and three birds were perched nearby. By waiting, making sure the eagles are comfortable with our presence, and very slowly over a 15-minute period getting close enough to shoot, we had a half hour of photography with no bait and no problem.
4. We are able to get so close to these birds because we are not on U.S. soil. The United States has made just about anything and everything concerning eagles a crime, so we shoot from land owned by the Alaska Native Regional Corporations. The Coast Guard doesn’t like it – but there’s nothing they can do about it. We are probably more interested in protecting the birds than they are, but we also know what the actual threat of harm is and where hyperbole starts so we do as we please, but we do it with respect for the eagles. Some people don’t like it – I say tough. The images we make help make the general population aware of the birds and I believe has a positive impact on them overall.
5. Photographing eagles is an acquired skill. I’ve developed a few tricks over the years. I try to shoot shutter priority so I can freeze the wing tips in flight. This is anywhere between 1/1000th and 1/2000th of a second. Generally, 1/1500th of a seond is perfect. I try to shoot between f/6.7 and f/8. These are large birds and to get them sharp from front to back you need a little more depth of field. (Sorry to all those who practice the religion of shallow depth of field – it’s really not the only way to take a photo.)
6. We let the ISO act as our primary control when light changes. The shutter speed and aperture need to be reasonably constant if the birds are flying. For perched shots, I drop the shutter speed dramatically if I do want to run at lower ISOs.
7. A high-speed camera really helps. Six frames per second gives you lots of opportunity. 12 frames per second is heaven.
8. Good, fast, advanced autofocus really helps with flight shots, but when you don’t have that, manual focus works well, as long as you can pre-focus on the area where the birds will be. Anticipation is key. These skills aren’t new. Sports shooters used them for years before fast, reliable autofocus was available for film cameras.
9. Studying the birds yields the highest percentage of keepers. Once you know the bird’s behavior, you’re more likely to catch the bird where you want it.
10. It’s best to start focusing on a bird that’s far away when you’re attempting flight shots. Then track that bird all the way to its expected destination and stick with it. If you’re in a swarm of eagles (as we often are in Alaska) it’s tempting to try to pick them off as they fly by but very difficult to get good, clean, crisp, sharp images with good exposure.
11. Setting up a shoot like this is hard work. Sometimes the permits and insurance take months (or more) to arrange. The costs are prohibitive. We’re spending $40,000 on boat and crew alone. I’m not saying nobody else can do it, I’m just saying you need to be very committed to making it work if you’re going to invest the time and money to make the trip.
I hope this post answers most of your questions. I’ll write one more post about this trip and then no more eagles. I promise. But I have to tell you – t’s been a blast being up here with great people, great weather and great eagles.