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. 


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 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.


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 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.


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.


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 (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 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.


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.


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 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.

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:

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