UNDERSTANDING LIGHT. THE MOST CRITICAL ELEMENT OF PHOTOGRAPHY.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the plethora of features that come neatly packed inside of today’s cameras. In time it took you to read that last sentence, someone probably came up with a new feature that will make your camera look like yesterday’s technology. With all of the advancements in dynamic range, speed and focusing, photographers have had to become more and more tech savvy in order 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.
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 tools you use to capture the image. No book about photography would be complete without examining it’s influence on the end result. All of the impressive technology within your camera’s walls is dedicated to making you better at capturing it. No more. No less.
As we will examine later in this series of blog posts, successful photography of bald eagles means capturing the detail in the subject, a challenging feat 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. While this lesson doesn’t take a deep dive into camera settings for bald eagle photography, the vast majority of decisions a photographer can make are directly impacted by the direction, quality and quantity of light. You can nail everything related to camera settings, but if you haven’t put yourself into the right spot when it comes to the light source, the quality of your images will suffer greatly.
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 and you have enough memory to last until next week. Handwarmers are packed into your pockets and backups are stowed in the event that they are needed. 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 are able to 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.
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”.
The lesson? Your camera cannot record everything that your eye sees. You are allowed one aperture setting, one shutter speed, one ISO. That’s it. This is exactly why we have to think for the camera or settle for lackluster results.
The difference between a day of capturing outstanding images and a day of wasted photography 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.
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.
Up until now we have assumed that the sun is shining. But the vast majority of bald eagle photography takes place in the winter, when cloudy skies are all too common. Cloudy skies mean grey skies. Grey skies mean grey water. Neither makes for an appealing background.
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.
You have three options at this point. Stay in the same location getting lackluster results, 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 altogether. This can also produce a moody feel to your images while adding some variety to your portfolio.
If you’ve put yourself in the right position, the sun can be your greatest ally. But it can also be your biggest enemy. Most photographers reach a point in their career when they need more control over their final image. They need to have more influence over the outcome that goes beyond simply nailing the focus and composition. The next phase it to control depth of field, motion blur and the overall quality of their image. They need to control the light.
There is no dimmer switch on the sun. But we can control its intensity as far as our camera’s sensor is concerned.
Bald eagles pose a significant challenge when it comes to camera settings. Allow too much light to enter the camera and you’ll wash out your subject. Too little and you’ll lose detail in the most important parts of the image. If your camera settings are off, even the most painstaking efforts at post processing won’t bring your images to the same level of quality that would exist had the image had been exposed properly. Underexposed images include more noise and less detail, degrading the image quality.
Controlling light means mastering the use of three “levers”. One controls the amount of time that your camera’s sensor is exposed. Another acts like the pupils in your eye, restricting the amount of light passing through it. The third simply controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. In order to truly master bald eagle photography, one has to gain a deep understanding of each lever. Only then will they be able to control their results. I will be covering this topic in more detail in Lesson #4 of this blog. Be sure to sign up to be alerted as soon as it’s available!
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 2020. To add your name to the mailing list for updates on its release, let us know who you are: