CAMERA SETTINGS FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY

CAMERA SETTINGS FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY

HOW TO CAPTURE THE BEST EXPOSURE

Bald eagle soaring over the Mississippi River near LeClaire, Iowa.
Bald eagle soaring over the Mississippi near LeClaire, Iowa.

Whether you are preparing for a once in a lifetime trip to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to attend a photography workshop or just want to improve your skills as a photographer, nailing your camera settings will greatly improve your chances of capturing powerful images of our national bird. But bald eagles create unique challenges when it comes to choosing your camera’s exposure settings.  Their dark brown bodies are several stops darker than the bright feathers that make up their head and tail.  Knowing when to trust what your camera is telling you and when to trust your own instinct is critical to capturing well exposed images.

Before we dive into some of the preferred methods for capturing the best exposure, let’s take a look at some of the tools that can help (or hurt) our chance of success. 

METERING MODES

Today’s cameras are the result of decades upon decades of engineering. But even they have a tough time getting the right exposure when it come to photographing bald eagles.

Since my first days in the camera industry in the early 1990’s through today, metering modes have been a fascinating topic.  While each major manufacturer has their own terminology due to the need to differentiate their brands, there are minimal differences between designs.  Each does an outstanding job of creating a well exposed image, especially when you compare the results to cameras of yesterday.  But your camera’s purpose is to create an accurate exposure of the entire scene.   They lack the ability to identify the element of the frame that matters the most which is absolutely critical to capturing images of bald eagles.  Before we jump into specific techniques, let’s take a quick look at the three most common metering systems on the market today.

CENTER WEIGHTED

Center weighted metering was standard operating procedure until the 1990’s.  Most companies used some sort of bulls-eye in the center of the screen surrounded by a larger circle that made up roughly 25-35% of the viewfinder. Exposure was calibrated by using a simple equation.  The light contained in the center “spot” made up roughly 25% of the reading while the light falling on the outer circle was used to quantify the correct exposure for the remainder of the scene.  This was accurate in many circumstances but it had it’s limitations.  For example, if a photographer was using the Rule of Thirds for composition, it created the potential for the background to be the priority when it came to metering, not the subject itself.

MATRIX/EVALUATIVE

The next evolution in metering technology took a more evaluative approach.  What Nikon had called Matrix Metering (or Evaluative Metering), considered the light falling on nearly the entire scene and used this information to create a more comprehensive approach.  It became so advanced that even distance information was incorporated into the equation.  For example, the camera would determine the subject in the frame by recognizing the focusing distance, then prioritize the data by adding it to the overall equation.  This was so accurate that other camera manufacturers quickly followed.  This is still the basis for most metering modes today.

SPOT METERING

Spot Metering isn’t new, but does deserve some attention as it can be extremely useful in situations.  Remember that spot in the middle of the frame when utilizing Center Weighted metering?  Just imagine if you could use that spot to make up 90-100% of the camera’s metering decisions.  That’s exactly what Spot Metering does, allowing the photographer to establish a light reading on one small portion of the frame and ignore the rest.  Just imagine trying to photograph a black horse that was surrounded by snow.  Place the spot on the horse and the camera will ignore the high light value of the snow, allowing you to capture a correct exposure.  This becomes even more useful when you consider the Exposure Lock functionality available on today’s cameras.

While all of this technology is impressive and continues to evolve, it is virtually useless when it comes to establishing the correct exposure for bald eagle photography.  While an exception can be made with Spot Metering, the return to an age old technique works for better than trusting even today’s metering technology.  Almost every photographer who has attempted to capture photographs of bald eagles started the process by trusting their camera’s metering technology, the same as we would for a landscape or portrait.  However, if the photographer didn’t override the suggested settings, they likely ended up with a photo of a bird with a washed out head.

WHITE BALANCE

With all of the autonomous settings available with modern cameras, it’s easy to understand why White Balance is often an afterthought.  Most photographers are rightfully more worried about all of the other elements that go into making great photographs, like focus, metering, and composition to name a few.  But on a sunny day, leaving your White Balance settings on automatic can cause the sky behind your subject to be discolored, often ending up with more of a turquoise hue than the true, blue color.

While this can be easily corrected in post processing, it creates one more step in editing what could wind up being thousands of images.  It’s best to nail it the first time through by manually establishing your White Balance settings.

EXPOSURE MODES

For every photographer that wants to understand everything there is to know about how their camera works, there are 1,000 that just want to take great photos.  That’s one of the great things about today’s camera technology, when the camera can do most of the thinking and you just need to concentrate on capturing the moment.  Camera manufacturers understand this and have created four basic Exposure Modes to fit the needs to their expansive audience.

PROGRAM/AUTOMATIC

Program (or Automatic) mode was created to allow anyone to pick up a DSLR and capture decent, well exposed images.  It knows only one priority and that is creating a decent exposure based on the current lighting conditions.  While simple to use, it assumes that the photographer wants to use generalized settings across the board.  It doesn’t prioritize shutter speed over aperture or aperture over shutter speed.  Instead, it picks a something in the middle of each, aiming for a one-size-fits-all approach. 

MANUAL

Manual Mode is just like it sounds.  The photographer picks both shutter speed and aperture, usually based on the meter readings that the camera provides.  This is the old school method of shooting, but still the preferred method by the majority of professional photographers.  While this can seem like a ready-fire-aim approach, the photographer can create a good exposure if they use the built in meter inside of the camera.

APERTURE PRIORITY

If depth-of-field is your top priority and you only want to control this portion of the image, Aperture Priority is a great option.  In this “half manual” mode, the photographer makes adjustments to the aperture while the camera chooses the shutter speed based on the camera’s light meter readings.  For example, as the photographer increased depth of field by reducing the amount of light hitting the sensor, the camera increases the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light by slowing the shutter speed.

SHUTTER PRIORITY

The other “half manual” mode functions contrary to Aperture Priority in that it allows the photographer to choose the shutter speed while the camera selects an aperture based on the camera’s light meter reading.  This is useful when attempting to control the amount of blur seen in the image.  Whether the photographer wants to stop the action or they are intentionally creating motion blur, Shutter Priority is a useful tool.

bald eagle photograph captured moments before snatching fish from the mississippi river

Backgrounds can have a huge impact on metering when it comes to bald eagle photography. Dark backgrounds can render automatic exposure modes virtually useless.

As mentioned previously, bald eagles pose a unique challenge when it comes to metering.  The light falling on their dark bodies will be at least three full stops less than the light falling on their white heads.  This is where most novice photographers will fail at first.  While your camera’s metering system is a valuable tool to determine the overall exposure of a scene, it lacks the ability to determine the highest priority of that scene.

Automated exposure modes like Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority are useful when photographing most subjects as they free up the photographer’s mind to focus on other things.  However, they often fail to recognize the most important part of the metering equation when it comes to bald eagles.  This is an absolutely critical part of this entire book.  In fact, there is only one small part of the frame that matters when it comes to photographing bald eagles.  Ready for it?

The eagle’s head.

That’s it.  While there are a few exceptions, the bald eagle’s head is the only thing that matters in the frame when it comes to exposure.  Capture beautiful snow capped mountains in the background of your shot?  It doesn’t matter if the eagle’s head is blown out.  Grab an action shot of an eagle snatching a fish from the water?  Again, it doesn’t matter if you lost the detail in the head.  This is the glaring weakness of even today’s camera technology.  They are built to be multi-purpose instruments.  They simply don’t know what you are trying to shoot.  They cannot prioritize the areas of the frame that should and shouldn’t be exposed properly. 

THE SOLUTION

The biggest step an almost any photographer’s career is when they pushed themselves to master the control of their camera by using Manual Exposure Mode exclusively.  Do they lose a few shots because the settings were off?  Sure.  But the difference between a photographer who could determine the difference between “that shot didn’t turn out well” and “this is what I missed on that shot” is a more than personal accountability.  It’s the ability to recognize the mistake in technique and gaining the knowledge to correct it down the road.  Automatic modes have their place, but the tend to delay the learning process.  Just imagine if you handed every third grader a calculator before every math class.  Would they learn as quickly?

While making the move to manual might send shivers down the spine of many, it’s actually pretty easy when it comes to photographing this subject.  Learn a few simple techniques and you are well on your way to liberating yourself from your camera’s somewhat limited capability.

EXPOSURE TECHNIQUES FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY

TIP #1 – ESTABLISH A BASELINE EXPOSURE

In order to establish a baseline exposure for this example, we need start by making two assumptions.  First, cloudy skies have  tendency to be wildly inconsistent when it comes to the quantity of light that they provide.  For this example, we need to assume that the sky is relatively clear of clouds.  Second, we have to assume that you have positioned yourself in such a way that the light (sun) is falling on the subject at the correct angle as metering a backlit subject is fluid.

Bald Eagle
Establishing a baseline exposure can free up the photographer’s mind to concentrate on capturing the moment.

STEP 1: Start by ensuring that your White Balance, Exposure Mode and ISO are set to Manual.

STEP 2: Set your camera’s White Balance to Sunlight.

STEP 3: Set your camera’s ISO to 400.

STEP 4: Set your camera’s shutter speed at 1/3,200th of a second.

STEP 5: Set your camera’s aperture at f7.1.

Assuming the sunlight is strong and not diffused by clouds or the horizon, these settings can be used in the vast majority of occasions.  Unless the light changes, there is no need to modify them.  A shutter speed of 1/3,200th is fast enough to stop most action when it comes to bald eagles.  Stopping down to f7.1 will give you a bit of leeway in terms of depth of field which is at a premium with large telephoto or zoom lenses.

Again, this is the start of establishing a baseline exposure where you are controlling the metering instead of relying on the camera’s technology.  While light temperature, quantity and quality can very greatly, this baseline has been used for the vast majority of my work over the past decade.  Simple adjustments can be made to maximize your results down the road and I recommend testing your exposure frequently by taking a close look at the eagle’s head with your camera’s LCD screen.  If it’s blown out, close the aperture down to f8.0 or f9.0 and take another test shot.

TIP #2 – SEAGULLS HAVE A PURPOSE AFTER ALL

You’ve successfully established your camera’s exposure and but it’s been a few minutes.  You’re not sure if the light is as intense as it was and want to double-check.  Rather than wait until the next frenzy or action sequence and miss out on a the potential of a wall-worthy photo, try testing your camera’s settings on something that is similar to the bald eagle’s head. 

Thankfully, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of seagulls in the world and those pesky critters are absolutely perfect for conducting a test exposure.  Take a test shot and examine your settings by using your LCD screen to zoom in on the subject.  Similar to the process of establishing a baseline exposure (Tip #1), if the feathers lack detail, stop down.  If they appear too dark, open your aperture (example: f8.0 becomes f7.1) until you get the desired exposure.

Making small adjustments to camera settings are simple, provided you’ve developed the habit of continually checking them.

While adjusting the aperture is my first choice when it comes to making adjustments, ISO is typically the next best solution.  As the sun approaches the horizon, light quantity will begin to diminish, forcing you to make decisions on which part of the exposure triangle to sacrifice.  If you ask 10 photographers what they prioritize, you will likely get 10 different responses.  Some will reduce shutter speed.  Some will increase ISO.  Just remember, each component of the exposure triangle impacts the other.  Use your down time wisely by continuously checking your exposure with test shots. 

A few things to consider:

  • Lower shutter speeds can result in more motion blur.  As a general rule for stopping action, keep the shutter speed at 1/1,000th or higher.
  • Higher ISO leads to more noise.  There are some assumptions in this statement as an underexposed image at 640 ISO will have more noise than a well exposed image at 1,600 ISO.  The useful maximum ISO is different for each camera but staying below 3200 is a good start.
Bald eagle in flight, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve
  • Wider apertures lead to more bokeh.  Shooting at f4.0 vs f8.0 will help your subject “pop” from the background by increasing focus differentiation. 
  • Wider apertures lead to less room for error.  Shooting at f8.0 vs f4.0 gives you a bit more leeway for making mistakes as depth of field is slightly increased. 
  • Can’t find a seagull?  Almost anything white will work.  The best subjects for test shots generally have dark detail that allow you to distinguish a point of differentiation.
TIP #3 – USING YOUR HISTOGRAM

The trusty screen on the back of our cameras can be an extremely useful tool for a lot of things.  Having the ability to view our images and check our focus and exposure by simply looking at the photo is the most notable.  But what if the brightness settings of your LCD screen are out of whack?  Thankfully, today’s histograms allow us to see a graphical representation of our exposure that isn’t biased by screen settings. 

Interpreting this data can seem like a tall task at first.  However, diluting this information down for the use of bald eagle photography is relatively simple.  After all, a proper exposure of the eagle’s white head is our main concern and outweighs everything else in the frame.

Bald eagle photographed during a workshop near Iowa City, Iowa.

Before diving into the graph, take a look at this image and notice the tonal values across the frame.  Lot’s of midtones in the background, near black from the eagle’s wings, and a small amount of white due to the bird’s head and tail features. 

When you look at this photo represented in graphical form, you’ll notice exactly what we saw when looking at the photo itself.  Strong midtones which are represented in the center, another spike in on the left side which signifies that the pixels are close to black, and a small amount of white in the frame.

If we follow this process for another image, notice the dark tonal values throughout the frame.  Sure enough, the histogram favors the left side with a small amount of information to the right. 

When considering the other end of the spectrum, based on the large amount of white in this image, the histogram should be the converse of the previous, with most of the data favoring the right side. 

Now let’s take a look at an image that was overexposed (according to the camera’s light meter).  Notice how the spike in data on the right side of the graph is touching the edge?  That means that the image contains a significant amount of true white.  In other words, white without detail.  You’ll also notice that the head contains detail and appears slightly darker in the image than the snow in the background.  Very close to white, but the detail in the head was preserved.

This is how you use your histogram for checking exposure.  If the graph has a significant amount of data touching the left of the graph, you have captured a large amount of true black in the image.  If you have a significant amount of true white, the spike in data will touch the right side.  There will be times that this is intentional, like when there is a large amount of snow in the scene.  However, if the snow is vastly overexposed, the eagle’s white head may also be overexposed.  Remember, we are looking to capture detail in the head.

For a great video covering the basics of using your histogram visit Tony and Chelsea Northrup’s YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/ZmAw_Zd7zP4

TIP #4: THE THREE CLICK RULE

If every bald eagle sported the white head, metering would be easy.  But what about juveniles?  If your camera settings are left unchanged as if you were photographing the white head of a mature bird, every image that you capture of a juvenile will be underexposed, making them appear very dark in the final result. 

Metering for the Juvenile Bald Eagle.
Bald eagles that haven’t fully matured present a huge challenge when it comes to metering. The Three Click Rule will help the photographer nail their camera settings every time.

While light intensity may vary drastically throughout a given day, one trick has proven useful for many years.  When you have identified a juvenile and need to make a quick adjustment in the camera’s exposure, simply follow the Three Click Rule by opening up your aperture by one full stop (three clicks).  In other words, if you are using the baseline discussed previously, your shutter speed was set to 1/3200 with an aperture of f7.1.  After following this rule, your aperture will be f5.0, shutter speed will remain at 1/3200. 

Does this sacrifice depth of field?  Yes.  But it’s better to capture the correct exposure and gamble on your focusing technique than to take a photo that you’ll simply delete in a few hours due to the incorrect exposure.

TIP #5 – AUTO EXPOSURE COMPENSATION

If you’re not ready to tackle manually exposing your images, there are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of a good exposure in Program, Shutter Priority, or Aperture Priority modes.  This still puts most of the trust in the camera’s meter and increases the impact of any sort of change in the light source, but it’s far better than allowing your camera to make 100% of the decision.

Auto Exposure Compensation is a feature that allows you to make adjustments to the exposure settings that the camera provides.  Make no mistake, this is not ignoring the camera’s meter.  You will simply take the camera’s suggestion and tell it to override them by a small amount.

Aside from manual exposure, overriding your camera's automatic exposure settings is the best path to successful bald eagle photography.
Overriding your camera’s exposure settings can increase the likelihood that your exposure is spot on, even when the background is extremely dark.

Find the Auto Exposure Compensation button on your camera by locating the +/- symbol.  This is usually on the top of the camera.  On a sunny day, start by underexposing by 1.7 stops (-1.7).  If you are shooting on a cloudy day, start by underexposing by 0.7 stops (-0.7).  Notice the word “start” in both of those sentences.  As with Manual Exposure Mode, you will need to take a few test shots to ensure the settings are in line with the light source.

Its important to keep in mind that this method has it’s limitations.  If the bird flies in front of a snowy background, the camera will assume that there is a ton of light, automatically adjusting the exposure accordingly.  If the subject flies in front of a dark background, the camera will assume it needs to let more light hit the sensor for the proper exposure.  Limitations aside, fine tuning exposure is far better than putting 100% faith in your camera’s metering technology. 

TIP #6 – ADJUSTING WHITE BALANCE

By now you should assume that I am going to suggest that you use the camera’s manual setting when it comes to white balance.  You would be correct.  However, there are exceptions.

Getting your white balance settings wrong can result in a turquois sky during a sunny day and far, far too much blue on a cloudy day.  Correcting color temperature during post processing is one of the easiest things to correct.  However, for those of us who would rather sit behind our camera instead of in front of our computer, we like to get it right the first time.

Manually adjusting white balance is the preferred method on most circumstances, but weather can make the automatic settings an attractive option.  If you find that you are having to spend too much of your attention constantly changing your white balance settings due to scattered clouds or other changes, take advantage of the automatic setting.  While the camera will make the wrong call on occasion, a few minutes of editing in post is far better than missing the shot altogether. 

BOOKS, WORKSHOPS & TOURS

This excerpt was taken from my latest project, a book titled Bald Eagle Photography – A Photographer’s Guide, which is scheduled to be published in later in 2019. To add your name to the mailing list for updates on its release, let us know who you are: https://ajharrisonphotography.com/book-release-update-request/

Want to learn more about bald eagle photography? Join us for a workshop! We offer group as well as private tours in some of the best locations to photograph bald eagles in the United States. Use the links below to review each offering.

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