5 TIPS FOR SCOUTING THE PERFECT LOCATION
Winter has arrived and your photography trip is finally here. Success is almost within your grasp as you start to imagine yourself capturing wall-worthy shot after shot, with bald eagles flying all around you. But make no mistake, you can have the best equipment, experience and intentions when setting out for a day of bald eagle photography, but choosing the right location is perhaps the most critical decision a photographer can make. After all, it takes much more than the right shutter speed and aperture to get the best results. Here are 5 tips to help you plan your upcoming bald eagle photography trip.
Finding the best locations to photograph bald eagles means finding where they like to hunt. The summer months offer far too many options for them to feed. When winter brings snow and cold temperatures, Mother Nature does a great job of creating the “ducks in a barrel” scenario by severely limited their food options. As snow covers the open fields, eagles are forced to waterways to find food. When cold temperatures freeze the waterways, bald eagles will relocate to the rushing water created by dams. Fish, which make up an estimated 90% of a bald eagle’s diet, are often stunned as they make their way through the dam, slowing their reaction time and making them easy prey.
Several organizations have compiled extremely useful population statistics relating to bald eagle migrations. For example, from December through February of each year, the Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers publishes a regular report of bald eagle populations throughout the winter months. Compiled at 8:30am each Wednesday to ensure consistency, this information is very useful in determining the peak of the bald eagle migration in the Midwest. The report provides details on twelve dams on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, a sweet spot for bald eagle population during the winter. Thankfully, this is not the only research of its kind. There are many ongoing population research studies at the bald eagle hot spots around the country.
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 somehow the laws of physics will be suspended, if only just for a little while, so we can capture an image that we have coveted for a long time. It might be some incredible action. You might have perfect timing to capture the moment. The composition might be flawless. 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 one of the most important things you will do as a photographer. Silhouettes aside, your light source should ideally be placed at your back. From a planning standpoint, understanding that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is the first step.
Ideally, you should be positioned directly between the sun and your subject which requires a good amount of foresight. The angle will change constantly as your subject changes position in flight. But as they approach the edge of your window, your opportunity to catch a well-lit subject decreases.
It doesn’t take much to lessen the quality of an image 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 actually cause one eye to be left in shadow, reducing the strength of the image.
Does this mean that you should ignore all elements in the frame? Absolutely not. Like anything in life, there are no perfect decisions. 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, most of your opportunities will wasted if the light direction isn’t right.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Uneven or side lighting can enhance an image by increasing the amount of depth and detail in the bald eagle’s head. This is a rare occurrence and often something that happens more by chance.
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.
Google Earth can be an extremely valuable tool during your planning phase. Be sure to set the compass so the top of your screen represents the north and determine the best shooting position that puts the sun at your back. Keep its path in mind along with the time that you will be shooting.
Wind plays an immeasurable role when it comes to photographing bald eagles. If it is originating from the wrong direction, you will likely end up with nothing but tail shot after tail shot. The birds will spend most of the day flying away from you, limiting your opportunities to nothing but recycle bin fodder.
The amount of energy that bald eagles expend is also heavily influenced. Weighing up to 15 pounds, eagles need to be very resourceful when it comes to conserving energy. The simple act of flapping their wings uses up to eight times as much energy as it takes to glide through the air. In other words, bald eagles almost always prefer to fly against the wind, not with it. This increases their level of control while in flight by maximizing the amount of force under their wings, allowing for faster turns and more deliberate movements.
This behavior should be one of your key considerations during your scouting and planning phases and be used to determine your shooting location. It’s important to note that most weather services report the wind as the direction from which it originates. In other words, a westerly wind blows from the west to the east.
Make no mistake, light is still at the top of the list when it comes to priorities due to the fact that a poorly lit subject almost always leads to failure. In most cases, the ideal scenario is that both the wind and the sun are at the photographer’s back.
Limiting depth of field is a powerful way to separate your subject from the background while adding depth to the image. But do we always want to eliminate the background?
In some circumstances, including the background only enhances our photos by capturing the bald eagle’s habitat. It’s important to recognize that there are three key factors that determine the amount of depth of field in a photo.
- The photographer’s distance from the subject.
- The focal length of the lens.
- The aperture setting.
This is another scenario that requires some planning before the opportunity flies past you. If you find yourself in a location that offers a great opportunity for you to capture your subject in front of an appealing backdrop, consider all three factors and put yourself in the best position to succeed. This might mean shooting with a slightly smaller focal length, changing position, or changing your aperture setting to maximize depth of field.
It’s also important to note that backgrounds can be a huge distraction. While boats, power lines, and other man-made objects can be deleted with the right post processing, nothing beats eliminating the potential for these objects with the right planning. Choose your location wisely. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
As with any type of photography, perspective can be used to increase the level of interest of your images and make them more impactful. This is extremely effective when shooting a subject like bald eagles that has been photographed repeatedly by other photographers and you want to add a different look to your work.
When scouting locations, be sure to look for a spot that allows you to get low. While bald eagles are large compared to other birds, they are relatively short compared to humans. Shooting from a low perspective gives the photographer an ideal angle to capture their expression. The bald eagle’s intense gaze can add a powerful sense of mood to your photographs.
Decreasing depth of field is a effective way to make your subject “pop” compared to the rest of the frame. Using a low perspective helps accomplish this by increasing the distance between your subject and the background, improving the sense of depth.
AJ Harrison is a US based photographer specializing in bald eagle, brown bear and landscape photography. His work has been recognized by publications such as National Geographic, Forbes and the National Wildlife Federation. He leads several bald eagle workshops in Alaska and the lower 48 states, including the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines, Kenai Peninsula near Homer, Alaska, and the bald eagle migration each year in Iowa.