PHOTO TUTORIAL – THE RIGHT LIGHT FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY

PHOTO TUTORIAL – THE RIGHT LIGHT FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY

Homer Alaska Eagle Photo Workshop
Light direction and quality are critical to bald eagle photography. Simultaneously capturing detail in both the white head and dark brown feathers can be challenging. The decisions you make long before getting your camera out of the bag are critical.

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, The Photographer’s Guide to Bald Eagle Photography.  To receive a notice upon its release, please sign up here:  https://ajharrisonphotography.com/book-release-update-request/

So you’ve decided that you would like to capture photographs of our national bird.  This challenge has lured many photographers, amateur and pro alike, to travel to locations such as the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and the Kenai Peninsula near Homer, Alaska in order to join bald eagle photography workshops and tours.  Several pieces of a gigantic puzzle need to come together in order to produce the desired result when it comes to this subject, aside from the obvious challenges like their allusive nature and fast movements.

MORE TECH IS NOT BETTER TECH

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the plethora of features that come neatly packed inside of today’s cameras.  With all of the advancements in dynamic range, speed, and even post processing, photographers have had to become more and more tech savvy to stay on top of their craft.  But one thing about photography hasn’t changed.  Whether it was capturing light on a silver plate or capturing light on a digital sensor, photography is about capturing light.  Mess that up and all of the technical understanding in the world will not save you.  Yet, it continues to be one of the most overlooked components when photographing bald eagles.

“DRAWING WITH LIGHT”

The very word “photography” had its origins in ancient Greece.  The word “photo” actually means “light”.  The latter part of the word “graph”, is defined as “drawing”.  In other words, photography means “drawing with light” no matter what you are using to capture the image.  No book about photography would be complete without examining it’s influence on the end result. 

Bald Eagle Portrait
Strong light at the correct angle can increase depth and detail. In this case, the sun even provided a catch light in the eagle’s eye.

Understanding light is critical when it comes to bald eagle photography because of the technical challenges involved.  As we will examine later in this book, successful photography of bald eagles means capturing detail in the subject, a difficult task when you consider the differing light values of the subject itself.  But what often separates a good shot from a great shot isn’t timing, aperture or shutter speed.  It’s the direction of the light source. 

THE RIGHT ANGLE

Imaging this scenario for a second:

You get set up on the riverbank before sunrise.  Your lunch is packed so you should have at least five or six hours of solid shooting.  Batteries are fully charged.  Handwarmers are packed neatly into your pockets and backups are stowed in the event that the cold begins to get the better of you.  You’ve positioned yourself close to more than 100 bald eagles and they are well within reach of your 500mm lens.  It’s going to be a good day.

Suddenly, as if something had simultaneously set the off, one bald eagle after another jumps from its perch and flies toward the water.  They are coming straight at you and are getting so close that you catch a glimpse of their intense stare.  They grab fish after fish from the water.  This is a bald eagle frenzy that you’ve heard so much about.  The opportunity lasts for about 15 minutes before you start to notice that your arms are numb from exhaustion. 

The eagles return to their perches.  You have time to catch your breath and allow your arms to recover as you begin to bask in the glory that is certainly recorded to your memory card.  You start to review your images and notice something disturbing. 

Bald Eagle Photography Lighting
The right equipment, weather and timing weren’t enough to save this image. Poor light almost always leads to poor results. In this case, the subject was beyond the window of opportunity when it came to the direction of the light source.

They are too dark.  All of them.  You haven’t lost hope and start thinking about how you can salvage them with your computer.  But even after some good old-fashioned digital manipulation, the images lack a certain “pop” and fail to meet your expectations.

The difference between a day of capturing outstanding images and a day of wasted photographs is often decided long before you get your camera out of the bag.  Getting yourself into the right position is perhaps the most important decision you can make.  100% of that decision should depend on light.

LIGHT DIRECTION

I have seen it far too many times to count.  Whether it’s a frenzy involving dozens of bald eagles or the thrill of witnessing a bald eagle grabbing a fish at close range, the exhilaration can be far too distracting for photographers.  We get butterflies in our stomachs.  We ignore the light as if to hope that somehow the laws of physics will be suspended, if only just for a little while, so we can capture that once-in-a-lifetime image that we have coveted. 

It might be some incredible action.  You might have perfect timing to capture the moment.  But the laws of physics aren’t going anywhere.  Poor lighting is poor lighting.

Establishing a window of opportunity when it comes to your light source is essential.  All attempts of capturing bald eagles silhouetted against the sun aside, your light source should ideally be placed at your back.  Capturing the bald eagles intense expression can make or break a shot and the only way to achieve this is to put yourself in the right position to succeed.  Understanding that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is the first step. 

Lighting for Bald Eagle Photography

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  Ideally, you should be positioned directly between the sun and your subject.  As the angle increases, your opportunity to capture an image of a well-lit subject decreases.  In other words, as you move closer to a 90-degree angle your opportunity diminishes. 

THE EYES ARE THE GATEWAY TO THE SOUL

It doesn’t take much to lessen the quality of an photograph due to the angle of light being even slightly off.  For example, if our goal is to capture the expression of an eagle’s intense stare, the shape of their head can cause one eye to be left in shadow, reducing the strength of the image.  That said, uneven or side lighting can enhance an image by increasing the amount of depth and detail in the bald eagle’s head.  But they are the exception to the rule.

Bald Eagle Flight Photo
The correct light direction should provide enough detail in the head to enable the viewer to see the bald eagle’s eyes. Without them, the image would lose a significant amount of emotion and intensity.

Does this mean that you should ignore all elements in the frame?  Absolutely not.  Like anything in life, decisions are rarely perfect.  You will have to weigh several elements, including the background in the frame, the ability to shoot from a low angle and wind direction to name a few.  But even if you have the perfect background, angle, wind and timing, the opportunities are wasted if the light direction isn’t right.

It’s also important to note that great light direction at 9am is often completely different by 11am.  Again, understanding the path of the sun and planning your shooting location accordingly is absolutely critical to maximizing your results. 

LIGHT QUALITY

Up until now we have assumed that the sun is shining and all is right in the world.  But the vast majority of bald eagle photography takes place in the winter.  Cloudy skies mean grey skies.  Grey skies mean grey water.  Grey water doesn’t make for an appealing background for the most part.

Grey skies make for tough metering decisions. If your settings are off by even a small fraction, the eagle’s head can start to blend in with the background as they can be similar light (EV) values.

We’ve all heard the “rules of light” speech from our fellow photographers.  Clouds = Good.  Sun = Bad.  I get it.  But when you are looking to use the sky as your background, this creates a couple of challenges when it comes to photographing bald eagles aside from the obvious reduction in the amount of light. 

First, their white head can easily blend in with the grey sky.  Second, the pinpoint nature of the light source on a sunny day drastically increases the amount of detail in the eagle’s feathers.  As the size of the light source increases as it does on a cloudy day, this detail is greatly diminished.

Bald eagle landing at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.
No sun, no problem. Switching to a location that features a dark background is a great way to ensure that you make the most of your time.

You have three options at this point.  Stay in the same location, get lackluster results and hope for a clear sky.  Go home and wait for another day or look for a better location.  While there is no solution for adding detail back into the bald eagle’s feathers on a cloudy day, looking for a dark background can eliminate the need for a blue sky and correct the color of the water to match the background.  This can produce a moody feel to your images and add something different to your portfolio.

Light is critical to successful bald eagle photography.  If you consider both quality and direction of your light source long before choosing your shooting location, you will greatly increase your chance of success.  Remember, as much as we love our equipment, your camera is just a tool to help you to “draw with light.”

-AJ Harrison

Cloudy days are a great time to experiment with capturing video.

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