I would like to share with you several tips I have found useful when photographing bald eagles at the Alaska Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines.
First, get as low to the ground as possible. In other words, put your camera on the same level as your subject (in this case a pair of fighting bald eagle in the photo above). This does several things. It usually cleans up your background, particularly when shooting with a telephoto lens. It also gives the viewer the same perspective that the bald eagle has making the photo feel more intimate. Sometimes, this means my lens is literally on the ground, requiring that I lay on the frozen ground. To stay warm (and somewhat clean), I’ll use a closed-cell foam backpacking sleeping pad. I like the accordion style as they pack small but are still long. The video below gives you an example of how low to the ground I sometimes set my camera and tripod. It also gives you a sense of the shooting conditions on the river.
Obviously, this position isn’t very good for flight photography. For flight photography, you’ll want to be standing up. In this case, you can use the backpacking sleeping pad to stand on to further insulate the bottom of your boots from snow and the cold ground.
I have found that I need to use a high shutter speed if my goal is to stop bald eagle action (fighting or flight). By high shutter speed, I mean really high — at least 1/1,600 of a second minimum. I’ve had better luck getting useable photos by keeping the shutter speed high, even if it means raising the ISO. Even on a bright sunny day, late fall-early winter light in Alaska is low on the horizon and is not as bright as it seems. Also I set the lens wide open or no more than one f-stop stopped down. This isolates the subject better, plus it helps with keeping the shutter speed high and ISO low.
When shooting birds in flight, pan with the bird before you start shooting and continue to pan while you are shooting and even after you stop shooting. This keeps your lens movement smooth. If your lens has a vibration reduction or image stabilization feature, turn it off if you are shooting above 1/1,000 of a second. Leaving it on slows down your frame rate and can degrade your image quality.
When considering lenses, set the instant return focus button (if your lens has an instant return focus button) to focus on say a fish carcass on the river bank. Then you can change focus for other activity, but can instantly be back in focus on the fish simply by pressing the return focus button.
Use a remote shutter release when shooting static images like a bald eagle in a tree, or shooting a situation where you are prefocused on a subject in anticipation of action. This allows you to keep a tripod-mounted lens, particularly a telephoto lens, rock steady from movement. One warning — I’ve had the cable that goes from the camera to the remote trigger crack and break at the connector. The normally very pliable cable becomes terribly rigid in the cold conditions that I encounter. To help with this, I will coil the cable so there is less stress on it, and will use a wrapping of Velcro to attach the release to my tripod so the release isn’t swinging about when I move the lens and tripod combo.
I’ve heard that micro-adjusting the focus of your lenses can make a difference in critical focus situations, particularly when using a teleconverter. One of my “housekeeping” projects for the new year is to micro-adjust my lenses. When you micro-adjust your lens you are precisely setting how your specific lens focuses with a specific camera body.
Finally, be aware of your light. Since you can’t ask a bald eagle to move to get in better light, study where light falls through the day. I’ve found different locations on the river where the light is optimum at different times of the day. For example, the magic light time for one of my favorite spots on the Chilkat River is a surprising 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. On the other hand, don’t be afraid of bad light either. Sometimes, less than optimal light forces you to approach a photographic situation differently rewarding you with different photographs. The key in these situations is to be aware of what you doing and what the result is going to be in a normally bad light situation.
ABOVE: Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fight over a salmon carcass along the Chilkat River in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Alaska. During late fall, bald eagles congregate along the Chilkat River in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to feed on salmon in what is believed to be the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world.