(NOTE: All photographs Copyright Scott Bourne – All Rights Reserved.)
As I write this I am in the airport waiting to fly home to Seattle. I’ve spent 15 fantastic days in Alaska co-leading an eagle photography workshop with my friend Robert O’Toole.
We had two groups, each working with us for five days. Each group had an incredible opportunity as the area was populated with as many eagles as I have ever seen. To top it all off the birds were very animated and we had sunny days each and every day of both workshops. While there is a great deal of photography to be had if winds are favorable on cloudy days here, the sunny days guarantee lots of under-wing detail.
Every time I come here I get to feel closer to nature. Alaska is a truly wild place and it’s got some of the best scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
I enjoyed this trip more than usual because I brought a minimal amount of gear. Some days, my students would bring as many as three bags onto the boat when I was carrying nothing more than a single camera and lens. I am absolutely certain that there were a few shots I missed because I didn’t have access to everything, but (and this is a big but) I am also absolutely certain that for each shot I missed I made two or three I wouldn’t have made if I had to worry about managing a bunch of gear.
Speaking of gear, I worked with two very different (but both very capable) camera systems. First up, my good old reliable DSLR. I used the Canon 1DX not the Canon 1DX MK II. While I was initially impressed with the 1DX II, I decided that I prefer the original. Here’s why. Not only is the original 1DX less expensive, beyond that, I personally believe that the image quality is better from the original. Canon crammed more pixels onto the 1DX MK II and this isn’t a terrible thing, but to my taste, the original had it right. The MK II does have better autofocus, a better frame rate and a bigger buffer, but it also reportedly suffers from a manufacturing or design defect. Well I shouldn’t imply ALL 1DX MK II bodies have this problem, but a large enough number of 1DX MK II bodies seem to have trouble splattering some sort of solvent on the mirror/sensor to pay attention. Canon hasn’t (as far as I know) acknowledged the problem but if you search the forums you’ll see what I mean. So I stuck with the original 1DX.
Instead of the big, heavy, stupid-expensive Canon glass I usually carry on these trips, I relied exclusively on the incredible Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 zoom lens. This lens is lighter than it’s competition, razor-sharp, contrasty, quick to focus accurately, and very affordable at under $1400. Pairing the two (the 1DX and the Tamron) one can have a professional-quality bird photography set up for around $6000. While that will seem expensive to many of you it’s actually very INEXPENSIVE compared to the usual configuration involving a 100-400 zoom, and a 500 or 600mm lens from Canon paired with a 1DX MK II. The cost difference is significant.
The Tamron was MUCH easier to transport on the airplanes I accessed to get to Alaska (including the small Dash-8 that flies from Anchorage, to Homer, AK.) It was light enough that I could use it hand-held and when pressed, with a light-weight monopod. No tripod necessary in most cases.
The Tamron has the perfect reach for bird photographers and only suffers in one way when compared to the more expensive Canon primes. It isn’t as fast as those lenses but in most cases, I am shooting at f/8 when photographing eagles so it’s no compromise at all for me personally.
The color rendition from the Tamron was right on and there were no nasty purple fringes. Vignetting was very well controlled and everything about the lens just says SOLID! The 1DX/Tamron combo not only focused quickly but accurately. All the shots accompanying this post and made with that lens are noted. I think you’ll agree that the Canon/Tamron combo worked very well.
Next up was a completely different combo.
(DISCLAIMER: Crop factor and the associated focal length multiplier only affects field of view. I prefer to reference this as effective focal length but others use FOV. Feel free to use whichever term you like.)
I brought the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II Mirrorless Micro Four Thirds Digital Camera and several lenses with me to Alaska in addition to the DSLR. Alaska is the ultimate test of a camera system and I wanted to see how the new Oly would perform. I used the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens most of the trip (yes the eagles really do come that close in Alaska) which has an effective focal length (EFL) of 80-300. I also brought the largest and most expensive Micro Four Thirds lens that I know of, the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS PRO Lens which offers a 600mm EFL and when paired with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital MC-14 1.4x Teleconverter gives you an astounding 840mm EFL and it’s actually hand holdable (although I did use it mostly with a monopod, the incredible Gitzo GM2562T Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Monopod which weighs less than one pound. Just for kicks I also brought the new Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4 IS PRO Lens which I mainly used as a landscape lens, and the Olympus M.ZUIKO Digital ED 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO Lens which believe it or not, I used as an eagle photography lens! More on that in a bit.
The Olympus gear really surprised me. Micro Four Thirds has come a very long way. The fact that the OMD MK II can autofocus fast enough for eagle photography blows my mind. We all know the price, size and weight benefits of M43 gear, but most people associate M43 cameras with slow autofocus. Not any more. The OMD MK II is very fast and accurate to autofocus as evidenced by the images posted with this article.
I was blessed with 10 perfect shooting days of nothing but great light and that really does benefit the M43 camera. Had it been overcast here in Alaska the DSLR would have been a slightly better choice (in limited situations) because it has wider dynamic range and better low-light performance. But that is not to say the Olympus couldn’t work in those cases. Just not quite as well.
In every other way, the OMD MK II was completely up to the task and I am very happy with the images I made using this gear. In fact, I think I got some of my favorite images ever and this is my 19th trip to this area to photograph eagles.
Now about the 7-14 zoom (EFL of 14-28mm) – well here’s the deal. In Alaska, if you know where to go, when to go there, and how to behave once you get there, you will find the eagles here to be very, very tame. We had beached the boat near a popular hunting ground for bald eagles. The eagles are in this area waiting for the fishing fleet to head out. The birds know the boats have bait on board so when they see a boat (like ours) they immediately come calling in case it’s a fishing boat. We had a boat full of photographers so the eagles just sat there and looked at us. I crawled up on the beach (yes I can still do that) and patiently waited. The birds started coming to me and got close enough that I could make the shot below with the super wide zoom. Go figure.
I am very blessed to be allowed to do this work. Making photographs of birds, and especially eagles, is the best thing I can do with my life. I never thought I’d be able to get back here again but this trip convinced me that no matter how hard it is, I have to keep coming as long as I possibly can. So I will again (God willing) lead some workshops in 2018 with my pal Robert O’Toole in Alaska photographing America’s symbol of freedom. Thanks for reading about my journey and hopefully it has motivated you to go chase your photographic dreams, whatever they may be.