Bird Photography: Pictures of Eagles

| February 5, 2012
Bird Photography: Immature Bald Eagle

Immature Bald Eagle on a fabricated perch on the refuge

Canon 5D Mark II with Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II lens
ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/800 sec, 420mm (with 1.4x II teleconverter)

In this post, I will highlight my time in Klamath Falls and what I learned about bird photography in the wild. To prepare for the trip and the task, I spent a fair amount of time researching bird photography on the Internet and practiced shooting moving subjects at a local high school basketball game. I can’t tell you how valuable the time at the ballgame was in achieving satisfactory results on my trip. Using that experience, I ended up capturing a very nice eagle in flight, which I will share in my next post.

Bird Photography: Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge Map

A map of where we were chasing eagles

Lesson #1: Look for the best light to enhance your bird photography

What? Looking for eagles was not the first and most important thing to do? Well yes…it was..but bird photography for me has everything to do with having good light. Sure, you can capture eagles in any light for documentation and research purposes, but a shot will always be made better in good light. For example, look at the shot just below. It was the first eagle shot of the day. We immediately noticed two problems with our approach. First, there was a car ahead of us that kept pushing the eagle to the next perch down the way. As you can see, this made the distances too far for the focal length of our lenses. I will cover that in lesson #2.

The other problem was the orientation of the sun to the subject. The sun was mostly behind him. You can tell by looking at the shadows on the perch. Since eagles seem to sit with their backs to the sun, all we were going to get from our first approach were darkened silhouettes. What did we do? Well, we turned the car around and drove around the lake and came in from the other side. It allowed us to get much closer and provided much better light to illuminate the bird. As evidence, the shot at the top of the post is what we ended up with. You can see from the shadows that the sun was now behind me, which put our eagle in full and beautiful sunlight. Much better!

Bird Photography: Eagle on Pole

An eagle too far and in not so good light

Lesson #2: Your lens will probably never be long enough for bird photography

Although I deem my results acceptable, I wanted a longer lens almost the whole time I was in Klamath Falls. That said, the lens I took with me is very nice. It is the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II. The optical quality if this lens is unrivaled in the professional Canon EF lineup and it performs exceptionally well when paired with Canon’s 1.4x III teleconverter. Since I was shooting with a full-frame Canon 5D Mark II, the lens with the teleconverter gave me 420mm of reach. That may sound like a lot until you try making pictures of birds high on a perch or a tree. Restless birds no less. The closer you get, the more likely they will fly farther away. Bummer!

As you can see from the photograph at the top, when the conditions were right the results are amazing. Even with the teleconverter, the Canon 300m f/2.8 is an incredible piece of glass. Literally no chromatic aberration and incredible resolving power. I bought the 300mm primarily for photographing larger wildlife like elk, lions and giraffes. In fact, my primary purpose for owning it is to take it to Africa next year. For that use, I think it will be perfect. For birding, however, the rule of thumb is to buy the highest quality and longest lens you can afford. I am not sure if and when I will go longer. My penchant for the best gear available will set me back five figures for a longer lens. I am not sure I am willing to make that commitment right now. In the mean time, I will use and love the 300mm for its intended purposes.

I overcame the focal length deficiency with patience. We parked the car and then very slowly moved toward the bird in stages…taking pictures as we went. Some birds were more temperamental than others. We just had to proceed with caution and hope for the closest shot possible.

Bird Photography: Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

Snow-capped volacnic peak from the Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

Lesson #3: Keep an eye on your lens and exposure settings

When first starting out in bird photography, I can’t tell you how many times I shot pictures at the wrong settings. I remember once shooting a bunch of landscapes in broad daylight at an ISO of 1600. They were the settings from the night before while shooting a concert! For that reason, I have made it a ritual to check all settings before embarking on a new outing. Here are a few things to consider when setting your camera up for photographing eagles:

  • Are your lens buttons in the right places? – Super telephoto and zoom lenses have buttons that enable faster focusing at various distances. The Canon 300mm f/2.8 has three lens focus ranges. If you are shooting subjects in the distance, make sure the 6m to infinity setting is enabled. It will allow for the lens to focus faster, which will come in very handy if the bird launches and you want to catch him in flight! Also make sure image stabilization is enabled if you have it. The Canon 300mm f/2.8 II has four stops of stabilization. That allows for much clearer handheld images at longer focal lengths. This feature is worth paying for and proved to be invaluable on this trip.

The array of buttons to consider on the Canon 300mm f/2.8 II (Source: Canon Manual)

  •  What ISO setting are you going to use? – In broad daylight, it was pretty easy to use an ISO of 100 and get the shutter speed and aperture settings I wanted. An ISO setting of 100 will give the cleanest image from a noise perspective, especially when you have a clear blue sky as a background. If skies had been overcast, I may have picked an ISO of 400 or higher to make sure the shutter speed stayed high enough to not only capture perched birds but also birds in flight.

Immature bald eagle getting ready to launch

  • What about shutter speed and aperture? – As a general rule, your shutter speed should be at least equal to your focal length to minimize unwanted camera shakes. This means that if you use a 300mm telephoto lens the shutter speed should be at least 1/320th of a second. Of course, lens- or camera-based image stabilization gives you leeway here but it is always a good idea to your shutter speed in mind when trying to reduce camera shake. The shot above was at 1/1000th of a second. This was plenty considering I also had image stabilization going for me as well. As far as aperture is concerned, make sure you pick an aperture setting that keeps the subject in focus while allowing the background to blur if that is the look you are going for. Keep in mind that longer focal lengths further reduce the field that will be in sharp focus. Settings of f/5.0 and f/7.1 seemed to work well for me. To be sure, I always preview my shots on the camera’s LCD at maximum magnification to make sure what I am shooting is in sharp focus. I always focused on the eagle’s eye. The eye is where most people look first and will make the greatest initial impression. Much like photographing humans!
Bird Photography: Eagle in Tree

A convenient perch for a Bald Eagle

Lesson #4: Have fun and take in the moment with your bird photography

As soon as I knew I had a few winners under my belt, I reminded myself to stop obsessing about the quality of my pictures and just enjoy the moment. Chasing eagles is not something I do everyday in my bird photography. I love the image above of a lone eagle perched atop a dormant tree. The serenity and solitude of that moment is something I will remember for a long time. This picture will remid me of it. Taking and committing to memory the beauty of the surrounding landscape and incredible wildlife amplifies the meaning of my photos when I bring them home. It allows me to transport myself back to the time and place they were taken and relive the moment all over again. What’s better that that?

Bird Photography: Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

The wetlands of the Klamath Falls Wildlife Refuge

My next post will feature a Bald Eagle in flight and nesting eagle in a natural setting. I am quite happy with them and I hope you will return for the next leg of this adventure! Happy bird photography!

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Category: Bird Photography, Oregon, Photography, Tutorials

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  1. A.Barlow says:

    Couple things I can add about shooting birds.

    1. Use custom settings: I have some custom settings set up on the camera in order to quickly change settings. Lots of times the 1 second it takes to that button makes or breaks the shot.

    2. If you have a flash, you can use a Snoot in order to deal with the back lighting issues. Doesn’t work all the time, but when it does it’s worth it. I have yet to have a bird be frightened by the flash. By the time it gets to them it’s usually not that strong but enough for you to resolve a much greater amount of detail.

  2. Lee says:

    Aaron, thanks a bunch for the informative comment. I appreciate your insight and your input extends the usefulness of this post!

  3. Jim Denham says:

    Great post and pics Lee! Very informative!

  4. I just love your work, Lee, what truly epic photographs you’ve captured and shared here! And thank you for all the details, tips and tricks, I’ve come away having learned a lot about this style of photography!

  5. I really appreciate you sharing this info including camera settings. I spent some time with a local group of eagles I came across a few weeks ago. After viewing my photos later I realized my biggest fault was focus. I’m using a 55-300mm Nikor VR Lens, so it won’t compare with your glass for sharpness at 300mm but I can certainly learn to improve with practice. I can’t wait to get back and spend a day with these awesome birds. I really want to catch some in flight shots. Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge and technique with us.
    I posted some of my eagle shots on Flickr here
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/22363219@N06/6849331719/in/photostream

  6. Lee says:

    Thanks for the comments folks.

    David…my pleasure. Glad you liked the post and good luck getting your action shots!

  7. neil says:

    Hi Lee, nice reading and inspiring too! Best wishes Neil