Saturday, October 19, 2013

Alaska: Bald Eagle in Flight


On my recent trip to Alaska, I finally had a decent opportunity to photograph a bald eagle in flight. This was my 4th trip to Alaska but ironically I had never had this  opportunity before.  This is mainly because I had not spent much time in the coastal areas of Alaska.   As we all know, if you want to see a specific bird or other animal, the best plan is traveling to where its food supply is.  Since eagles mainly feed on fish, your best chances are in coastal areas. 

On this occasion I was in Homer Alaska, which bills itself as the halibut capital of the world.   One evening I saw an eagle up on a perch in a light falling drizzle in less than perfect light.  The daylight was also waning as I waited nearly an hour to see if the eagle would leave its perch.  Every few minutes I would take a test shot to meter the light and ensure that I would nail the exposure in the event the eagle would take flight and gave me the opportunity that so far had evaded me.   I was about ready to give up when the eagle started to move and raise some optimism that it would soon fly.

I was shooting in manual exposure mode to ensure that the camera would not try to adjust the exposure as the color of the background changed.  Having the camera automatically adjust the exposure when using aperture priority or shutter priority modes will result in incorrect exposures and lost shots if the color of the background changes.  As long as the general level of light is not getting brighter or darker, manual exposure is the best approach to this type situation.  While I waited, the correct exposure ranged from +1EV to about +1.67 or +2EV by the time the eagle flew.  To get the correct exposure I had to overexpose the shots about 2-stops compared to what the camera metering system thought was the correct exposure.  The white background filling at least 3/4 of the frame compared to the dark colored bird was fooling the metering system.  So the photographer must trust the histogram if he intends to get the true, correct exposure.

For this entire series of images, the settings were 1/1600 @f4, iso 1600, (+2EV) with Canon 1DX camera and 500L f4 IS lens.

The eagle finally launched itself and I was firing immediately from the start.  I seldom if ever shoot long bursts, but this was an occasion where such action was warranted.  I knew it might be difficult to keep my focus sensor pattern trained on the eagle as it flew, so I used settings that caused the camera to delay searching for the subject in the event the focus sensors were not on the bird the entire time as I attempted to track its flight.

I ended up firing a burst of 37 consecutive shots in a period of just over 3 seconds.  I managed to track the eagle relatively well through the flight and only lost focus as the bird banked and flew over my head.  Upon reviewing the images on the rear LCD of my Canon 1DX, I found that about 32 of the 37 shots were tack sharp, and 2 or 3 more were acceptably sharp.  The 2 shots that were unusable were the last 2 in the sequence where I no longer had the focus sensor pattern on the bird as it flew past me.  (in other words, the 2 unusable shots were my fault, not the camera's).

With birds in flight, it's always good to have lots of in-focus shots so one can pick out the most flattering images with the most appealing wing positions.   I chose several from this sequence and posted them below.  

You can see more images from this trip on my website here:

Please feel free to click on the link above and take a look.







  1. When I ultimately make a trip to Alaska, Tim, I would greatly appreciate your company and acquired skills. It was great patience on your part to capture the eagle as you had anticipated, ultimately rewarding you so well. I am in the habit of adjusting exposure bias on the fly which occasionally produces a fewer number of keepers. Your wildlife images of the bears, whale, and other creatures presented at your Pbase site from your 2013 Alaska adventure are no less than stunning, as always.

  2. thanks for sharing your technique...these are wonderful photos....

  3. This is really amazing photographs Bird photography is also a very challenging endeavor, requiring specialized skills and equipment ..

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