CAMERA SETTINGS FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY – LESSON #5 OF 5

CAMERA SETTINGS FOR BALD EAGLE PHOTOGRAPHY – LESSON #5 OF 5

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Successfully capturing photographs of bald eagles can be like assembling a giant puzzle. You have to choose the best location based on weather conditions like wind direction and cloud cover.  The right equipment plays a big role.  While camera settings can be the most frustrating piece, a fundamental approach is often the best choice.  Let’s take a look at a few real-life examples and assemble the puzzle!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER – THE THREE LEVERS

Understanding that shutter speed actually refers to the fraction of a second that your subject will be exposed is a great start.  So is grasping how your aperture setting impacts the focusing depth of your image.  Add the comprehension that ISO refers to your camera’s ability to absorb light is also a huge step in the right direction.  But in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the three levers, they cannot be viewed in a vacuum.

Camera settings are a balancing act.  Shutter speed, aperture and ISO are directly related.  Understanding that last sentence is one of the most critical lessons to a photographer’s growth when it comes to the technical side of photography.

Assuming you’ve got the right exposure and the focal point of your image is not too dark or washed out, your ability to control your final image means balancing each of the three levers.  In other words, when you gain a stop in one, you need to lose stop in another in order to maintain an accurate exposure.  When you pull one lever, you have to pull another in the opposite direction.  For example, increasing your shutter speed from 1/250th of a second to 1/2,000th will reduce the amount of light by three stops (you’ve doubled the number three times).  In order for you to maintain a proper exposure with enough light hitting the sensor, you need to pull one or both of the other levers to make up the difference.  If your aperture was initially set to f/11.0, simply opening it to f/4.0 (three stops) will give you the exact same exposure.  While the faster shutter speed will help freeze the action and the wider aperture will lessen the amount of depth of field, the proper exposure will be maintained.  You’ve traded three stops for three stops.

This concept can be a bit complex at first, hence the Exposure Triangle was created to provide a visual reference of the relation between ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. 

The moment a photographer gains the ability to deliberately change camera settings because they understand how they will affect their image is the moment they have crossed a very important line in their development.  It’s the line between luck and control.  To many, it’s the line between novice and professional.

Let’s look at some specific examples relating to bald eagle photography. 

SCENARIO #1: REDUCING MOTION BLUR

Bald eagle photography is a great case study when it comes to exposure settings.  They move quickly, requiring fast shutter speeds to stop the action and prevent motion blur. 

Let’s assume that your initial exposure settings are as follows:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/1000th
  • Aperture: f/16
  • ISO 400

For the sake of simplicity, let’s leave ISO alone and focus only on shutter speed and aperture.  At f16, there isn’t a whole lot of light coming through the lens, forcing the shutter speed to be a bit on the slow side for bald eagle photography.  Bumping your shutter speed from 1/1000th of a second to 1/2000th cuts the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light by half (or one f-stop).  In order to maintain proper exposure, you’ll have to use one of your levers to make up for the fact that you just reduced the time (exposure) by half.  The answer?  Double the amount of light by opening up your aperture from f/16 to f/11.  You’ve essentially sacrificed one f-stop of aperture (amount) for one f-stop of light (time), allowing the perfect exposure with a little more action stopping speed.

bald eagle hunting
To achieve a fast enough shutter speed to “freeze” drops of water in mid-air, you often have to sacrifice aperture or ISO.

Still feeling the need for speed?  Your settings are now:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/2000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/11
  • ISO 400

Bump the shutter speed up to 1/4,000th of a second and you simply need to sacrifice another f-stop of aperture (from f/11 to f/8).  As long as you compensate f-stop for f-stop, it doesn’t matter which lever you pull.  The exposure will be the same.

Your settings are now:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/4000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/8.0
  • ISO 400

Bald eagles move quickly so the 1/4,000th of a second shutter speed is enough to stop almost any action.  But what if there are mountains in the background and we want to maximize our depth of field?

Increasing the sensor’s ability to absorb light will allow you to maintain the fast, action-stopping shutter speed while giving you the opportunity to increase your aperture.  By doubling the number from 400 to 800, you’ve gained one full stop of light and have the latitude to increase your aperture from f/8.0 to f/11.0.  Double it again (from 800 to 1600) and you’ve gained yet another stop. 

Your final settings are now:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/4000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/16.0
  • ISO 1600
Capturing a bald eagle flying in front of a mountain range can make for an incredible backdrop. Choose the wrong aperture, however, and you’ll waste the opportunity.

SCENARIO #2: INCREASING DEPTH OF FIELD

Shooting a bald eagle portrait sounds like an easy task on the surface.  Their movement is minimal.  They are a static subject for the most part.  But depth of field is severely limited when using larger focal length lenses at close range and one can easily lose focus on the critical focal points by making only small adjustments in distance.  Sometimes the simple act of the bald eagle turning its head can be enough of a change in distance to throw your focus off. 

For this example, let’s assume that you just finished shooting a bird in flight and your camera is set to freeze action.  An opportunity to capture a portrait of a bald eagle presents itself. 

Your exposure settings are as follows:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/4000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/4.0
  • ISO 400

Your subject is not flying around so the 1/4,000th of a second shutter speed is probably overkill.  By reducing the shutter speed from 1/4000th of a second to 1/500th of a second, you’ve given yourself three full stops to work with.  Bump your ISO from 400 to 800 and you’ve given yourself yet another stop.  You now have four stops in which to work with.  Adjusting your aperture from f/4.0 to f/16 will dramatically increase your depth of field, helping to preserve critical details in your bald eagle portrait.

Your final settings are now:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/500th of a second
  • Aperture: f/16.0
  • ISO 800

It’s important to note that other factors can have a significant impact on depth-of-field, like the distance from your subject. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick to camera settings for this blog series.

Homer Alaska bald eagle closeup
Using large focal lengths at close range can be tricky. Depth of field is extremely limited, making your aperture setting critical.

SCENARIO #3: ACTION IN LOW LIGHT

Winter usually provides the best opportunities to photograph bald eagles but it also provides some of the worst lighting conditions.  Let’s say that you’ve started the day with bright sun and your camera was set accordingly.

Your exposure settings are as follows:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/4000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/8.0
  • ISO 400

Clouds move in, reducing the intensity of your light source.  For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that you need to compensate for this loss of light of four stops.  Do you take it from your shutter speed?  Do you sacrifice aperture?  Do reduce the quality of your image by pushing your ISO?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question as every photographer likely has a different preference.  But there are a few things to keep in mind when you are put into this position.  And if you photograph bald eagles for any length of time, you’ll definitely face this scenario.

Reduce shutter speed by a significant amount and you risk an increase in motion blur.  Pushing ISO too far might lead to more noise and less dynamic range.  But one could argue that sacrificing aperture can actually enhance your image by increasing the level of bokeh, helping to separating your subject from the background.  Does this mean that your focus needs to be spot on?  Absolutely.  You’ve essentially eliminated any room for error when it comes to depth of field.  This is the most non-destructive move as the downside can actually be considered an upside. 

This is likely what my settings would be:

  • Shutter Speed: 1/2000th of a second
  • Aperture: f/4.0
  • ISO 800
Juvenile bald eagle in flight - Iowa
Choosing a wide aperture when your background is less than pleasing is often the right call. This virtually eliminates detail in the background, helping to separate your subject as the clear focal point.

You’ll notice that I took one stop from the shutter speed (1/4,000 to 1/2000) and another stop from ISO (400 to 800).  The biggest sacrifice was made to aperture (f/8.0 to f/4.0) opening the lens by two stops.  Winter lighting isn’t ideal, but this is where trusting your abilities to work your camera can help maintain image quality.  Modern day sensor technology allows us to push most cameras far beyond ISO 800 with good results.  If you need to create another stop due to deteriorating light, I would start there.

As mentioned very early in this blog series, nothing has caused more budding photographers to put down their camera than the challenge of learning about camera settings.  When we strip away the confusion that originates from understanding light meters and other noise, the process becomes far more digestible.  Remember, putting things into practice is the best way to make new information stick.  I highly recommend reviewing portions of this blog series before or during your next photography trip.

I’d like to conclude with a short list of key learnings:

  1. Camera settings.  To effectively capture action, minimum shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second are needed.  In most cases, aperture and ISO should be sacrificed before shutter speed. 
  2. The bald eagle’s head is the first priority when it comes to exposure.  In order to achieve an accurate exposure, you must often override or completely ignore your camera’s meter.
  3. Keep the light source at your back.  Side lighting can work but produces inconsistent results, at best. 
  4. Think of shutter speed, aperture and ISO as three equal levers.  Each “f-stop” is equal to each other.
  5. When shooting during a sunny day, establishing a baseline exposure can provide a quick and effective start.  Try 1/3,200th, f/7.1 @ 400 ISO and check your histogram/LCD for a good exposure of the eagle’s head.

Several more tutorials will be forthcoming. Be sure to subscribe to this blog for updates!

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