Successful bald eagle photography can be a lot like assembling a giant puzzle. More often than not, the most frustrating pieces deal with choosing the best camera settings to maximize your “keeper” rate. Questions relating to shutter speed, aperture and ISO have been, by far, the most common that I have received while hosting bald eagle photography workshops in the field. Whether we happen to deal with the challenging, low-angle light in Alaska or the hit and miss weather conditions in Iowa, choosing the right camera settings will have an enormous effect on our final product. Here are five of my favorite tips that I share with photographers in the field.
TIP ONE: SHUTTER SPEED
This topic gets tougher and tougher to write about each year, thanks to the invention of image stabilization. Now that camera manufacturers have decided to introduce sensor based (internal) image stabilization, the waters are about to become even more cloudy. With this in mind, I will review the topic as if it doesn’t exist and let you include any f-stops gained with your particular rig.
Resist the temptation to find a one-size-fits-all approach. Yes, action stopping shutter speeds will also work for static subjects, but why waste precious f-stops if you don’t have to? When the subject is stationary, I like to follow the age-old rule of matching my shutter speed with the effective focal length. In other words, if I am using my 500mm on a full-frame camera, my shutter speed will likely be around 1/500th of a second. The f-stops gained can be shifted to add depth of field (aperture) or lower noise levels through a more friendly ISO. If, however, I am using a lens that sports a 300mm focal length, I can get away with slightly slower shutter speeds of 1/250th of a second. Notice the use of the term “effective focal length”. The increase in magnification should be considered when using any cropped sensor camera bodies. For example, that 500mm lens on a Nikon cropped sensor camera would essentially become an effective focal length of 750mm. I would therefore increase my shutter speed to 1/800th.
When action is involved, I aim for shutter speeds between 1/1,600 – 1/2500th to stop the action. While I have occasionally had success with slower speeds, 1/1,000th of a second is often the minimum needed for satisfactory results. While shutter speeds above 1/4,000th can seem like a luxury, they do little to improve image quality. It’s often best to shift those “extra” f-stops to the other side of the exposure triangle, like aperture or ISO.
TIP: SHUTTER SPEED
- Static Subject: Match your shutter speed with the effective focal length.
- Goldilocks Zone: 1/1600-1/2500th
- Action Shot Minimum: 1/1000th
- Point of Diminishing Returns: 1/4000th
TIP TWO: APERTURE SETTINGS
Every lens is unique. However, in terms of sharpness, most lenses peak somewhere around two f-stops down from their maximum. In other words, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will peak around f/5.6. A lens with a maximum aperture of 5.6 will peak around f/11. Is this rule uniform and true for every lens? Absolutely not. But in general, you’ll find better results if you stop down a bit. Push this too far, however, and you’ll likely run into chromatic aberration (refraction of light).
Light is often limited when photographing bald eagles so we don’t have the luxury of spending precious f-stops on things like maximizing the sharpness of our lenses. The ability to sharpen images in post processing also diminishes the need to give our lenses a “bump”. That said, if you’re shooting in direct sunlight, feel free to push your lens to its sharpest point.
More often than not, we will be forced to make scenario-based decisions when it comes to aperture. When light is at a premium, it’s often best to sacrifice depth of field in order to maximize our action stopping shutter speeds. This can also serve as a great way to reduce the impact of a distracting background.
- Ample Light – Go for peak lens performance.
- Low Light – Open it up for the sake of shutter speed or ISO.
- Distracting Background – Reduce the impact of background elements by reducing depth of field (open the aperture).
TIP THREE: ISO SETTINGS
In general, the lower your ISO setting, the less noise you’ll see in your final image. This, of course, assumes that your exposure settings are correct.
ISO can be tricky. During the first several generations of digital cameras, any setting over 400 would produce tremendous amounts of noise. Low light photography was almost unheard of without dealing with a significant amount of post processing to “fix” your images.
Fast forward to today, when camera manufacturers have made incredible strides to improve ISO performance. What was once the last segment of the exposure triangle to be sacrificed if often the first. In other words, while using my Nikon D200 in 2010 I would be forced to reduce depth of field (aperture) or shutter speed when light was at a premium. A decade later, my Nikon D850 allows me to maintain aperture and shutter speed settings by cranking the ISO to as high as 6400 while producing satisfactory results. In other words, if you have to sacrifice one side of the exposure triangle to capture the best image, sacrifice ISO. While this has limitations, it’s often better than losing sharpness due to slow shutter speeds or the depth of field needed to maintain adequate focus.
- The lower the better. But with today’s cameras, you can easily capture high quality images between 1,000 and 2500 ISO. This, of course, assumes that your exposure is correct. Underexposed areas of the image will generally produce more noise.
TIP FOUR: FOCUS SETTINGS
Most photographers simply choose a center focusing point and set their cameras to Continuous (Ai Servo) Mode and blast away. But ignoring the advanced technology inside of today’s cameras is downright negligent.
Hopefully, you’ve put yourself into a position where several bald eagles are filling the sky in front of you (if not, sign up for one of my workshops). Let’s assume that you have locked onto a subject and you are going to use focus tracking until it, well, does something cool. Suddenly, something gets between you and the eagle you are tracking, throwing your subject out of focus. It could be a tree. It could be another bird. It could be bigfoot.
Most of today’s advanced digital cameras are equipped with technology to help you maintain sharp focus on your subject by programming a “delay” before the camera shifts to another subject. While the interface varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, the technology is essentially the same. Some have chosen a more scenario-based layout, while others have gone with a more intuitive approach. You simply choose how quickly the camera changes to another subject.
Moments after you’ve pressed the shutter button, several mechanical processes take place within the camera. While it seems as though this all takes place in an instant, this seemingly insignificant amount of time can have a negative effect on the sharpness of your images. This problem is exacerbated when using large telephoto lenses as the depth of field is significantly decreased.
Thankfully, camera manufacturers have created a solution for this one as well. By predicting the amount of distance that your subject will cover in the time it takes for all of this mechanical wonder to happen, your camera will actually “pre-focus” based on the speed of your subject. By establishing whether your subject is “erratic” or “steady”, you’ll help the camera determine the best outcome.
TIP: FOCUSING MODES
- Focus Delay – Play around with each feature to determine which setting works best for you.
- Predictive Autofocus – Unless they are flying right at you, bald eagles tend to be erratic subjects. Set your camera accordingly.
TIP FIVE: METERING MODES
One of the most popular questions I get when it comes to camera settings for bald eagle photography is which metering mode do I use. As a Nikon user, I have the option of Spot, Center Weighted, or Matrix (known as Evaluative for Canon users). So which one do I use?
None of them.
When it comes to photographing bald eagles, the only thing that matters is the bald eagle’s head. Expose for the water and the white head will blow out. Expose for trees in the background and the head will blow out. Trust your meter and this will happen more often than not. The first step toward achieving the right exposure is to let go of what your camera is telling you and zero in on capturing the detail in white.
So let’s talk about two solutions:
SOLUTION ONE – THE HISTOGRAM
Taking a Test Shot is a great way to test your exposure before the action happens. Find something white, like a gull or snow, that also includes some mid-tones.
Your Camera’s Histogram is a graphical representation of your image’s exposure. Data on the left represents black. Data on the right represents white. Data in the middle represents mid-tones. If the data falls off the right side of the chart, you’ve lost white.
SOLUTION TWO – TRUST YOUR LCD
LCD screens have improved drastically over the years to the point where you can quickly and easily analyze the white in your image by simply zooming in and inspecting the quality. You can even turn on the “blink” feature to establish areas of the frame that have been exposed beyond the sensor’s dynamic range.
TIP: METERING MODES
- Expose for the bald eagle’s white head.
- Expose for the bald eagle’s white head.
- Expose for the bald eagle’s white head.
- Expose for the bald eagle’s white head. Ignore your meter. Trust your LCD or histogram instead.
Want a more detailed version of this blog? Read my 5-part series on Camera Settings for Bald Eagle Photography using the links below:
- Lesson 1 of 5 – Metering & Exposure Modes https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2019/12/18/camera-settings-for-bald-eagle-photography-lesson-1-of-5/
- Lesson 2 of 5 – How to Capture the Best Exposure. https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2019/12/18/camera-settings-for-bald-eagle-photography-lesson-2-of-5/
- Lesson 3 of 5 – Understanding Light https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2019/12/23/camera-settings-for-bald-eagle-photography-lesson-3-of-5/
- Lesson 4 of 5 – Measuring Light. Controlling the Outcome. https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2020/01/05/camera-settings-for-bald-eagle-photography-lesson-4-of-5/
- Lesson 5 of 5 – Putting it All Together. https://ajharrisonphotography.com/2020/01/23/camera-settings-for-bald-eagle-photography-lesson-5-of-5/