Bird Photography: AI Servo Mode for Eagles in Flight

| February 11, 2012
Bird Photography: Eagle in Flight

Bald Eagle in flight at the Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

For the next installment on my trip to Oregon, I will discuss my attempt to capture eagles in flight. The shot above, which was the best action shot of the trip, took some practice including visiting a local high school basketball game to hone some skills.

It becomes a little mind numbing when you consider all of the variables that are in play when trying to make photographs of wildlife in action. Here are just a few that crossed my mind for bird photography of this kind:

  • What is the quality of the light?
  • Which direction will the bird fly?
  • Is the camera set up to focus properly?
  • What position will his wings be in when I snap the picture?
  • Is the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action?
  • Is the aperture setting high enough to get the entire bird in focus?
  • Is the aperture low enough to blur the background?
  • Will the background be interesting?
So, in a nutshell, it’s easy to make a mediocre photograph of wildlife in action! Personally I like the challenge and when it works out it is a beautiful thing.
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Bird Photography: Maturing Bald Eagle

Maturing Bald Eagle on telephone pole

AI Servo Mode to Improve Bird Photography

The action photo at the top started out as the photo directly above. OK, an eagle sitting on a power line pole is not the most beautiful of all settings. You have to admit though that it is still pretty cool! As an aside, this eagle does not look fully matured. If you look closely you can still see little brown specks in his crown. For comparison, look at the eagles in the nest below. Their “bald” heads are well structured and pristine looking.

Bird Photography: Eagle Flight  Sequence

Eagle flight sequence – 420mm, ISO100, f/9.0, 1/640 sec

As soon as we saw this bird on the pole, we parked the car and got out to take a few photos. It is always good to get something on the card because you never know when they are going to fly away. We then approached very slowly by foot, continuing to take pictures along the way. This eagle was pretty tolerant so we were able to get reasonably close before he started to show signs that he was ready to fly off.

Bird Photography: Shooting Mode

My shooting modes for eagle in flight

When he started to look a bit restless, I switched my Canon 5D Mark II to shoot in AI Servo Auto Focus mode and Continuous Shooting Drive mode. AI Servo Auto Focus mode continuously keeps the subject within center focus point in focus…even if it is moving. Sweet! Further, Continuous Shooting mode keeps taking pictures as fast as the camera can until the shutter button is let go. These modes apply to Canon DSLRs. Just look at your camera’s manual to see if these or similar features are offered on your camera.

Now, take a look at the sequence of flying eagle shots above. These are the shots I was able to make using the method I described. As I got too close for his comfort, the eagle launched off of the pole, descended toward the ground, and swooped back up. As you can see, the first shot I got was when he made a turn and began climbing. I have to admit that it is pretty exciting to be a bird photography enthusiast at this point!

Bird Photography: Focus Point

Tracking the eagle’s eye with the center focus point in viewfinder

As soon as he launched, I steadied my lens and put all my attention on tracking his eye with the center focus point as smoothly as possible. The whole time, I had my finger pressed on the shutter, which snapped pictures as fast as the camera would record them. You cans see that the continuous shooting capability is important for getting the wings in the right place. It would be near impossible to snap a single picture at just the right moment!

The Canon 5D Mark II is not an overly fast focusing or high frame rate camera. It can shoot about 4 frames per second compared to an astonishing 12 for the newly announced Canon 1DX. For a few thousand bucks more I can solve that. I have to say though that I am very happy with the results considering that I got a very clear, well focused shot of this eagle. It’s quite gratifying actually.

Nesting Bald Eagles at the Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

To wrap up, here are a couple of shots of nesting eagles that we found at the refuge. This was quite a sight. As you can see, the nest is huge and yes there are eaglets in there! This was one of the few shots where I got mom and dad looking up. Most of the time the lower eagle’s head was buried in the nest tending to the eaglets.

Bird Photography: Nesting Eagles

Nesting eagles up close – Just had lunch?

I would have loved to have had a longer lens for this shot. It is hard for you to realize how far away these birds actually were. Considering the distance, it is quite amazing that the camera and lens could resolve this much detail! I had a blast making photographs of these birds as they are truly captivating. It is not hard to comprehend how their beauty and majestic stature inspired my country to name them as its national symbol.

Thanks as always for visiting, have a fabulous weekend, and happy bird photography!

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Category: Bird Photography, Oregon, Photography, Travel, Tutorials

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  1. Jim Denham says:

    Man that looks like fun! Nice work Lee. I use the AI-Servo/Continuous Shooting mode a lot when shooting anything moving and love the way it works. The key is to aim small, miss small, like on the eagle’s eye! Good stuff bud!

  2. Love, love, love this post, Lee! Thanks for sharing all the incredible details and tricks here, I’ve come away with a renewed sense of optimism in trying my hand at this style! Thank you, kind sir, great post!

  3. Lee says:

    Thanks for the comment Jim!

    Thanks to you Toad as well for the comment and the pickup @ http://www.lightstalking.com!

  4. A.Barlow says:

    Those are really good man. It’s funny though, when I first started out I didn’t realize how hard it was to track a birds eye in flight! You did a good job sir.