Photographing Bald Eagles in Homer AK — What Worked and What Didn’t
| Bald eagle in flight, banking over beach with Kachemak Bay in background. Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska, USA.
Species: Haliaeetus leucocephalus, Haliaeetus leucocephalus washingtoniensis
Location: Kachemak Bay, Homer, Alaska, USA
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If you have seen much of this web site, you probably know that I gravitate toward subjects that have some connection to the ocean. I have tried my hand at photographing birds, most notably pelicans since they are so accessible to me, but for the most part bird photography is so maddeningly difficult that I avoid it. Recently, though, I decided to try photographing bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in Homer, Alaska. Bald eagles inhabit much of North America, including the scenic coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, which offers the connection to the ocean that I seek. Homer in particular has a large wintertime population of eagles, so they are quite easy to photograph. I offer some comments about what worked for me, and what did not, from an experienced photographer’s point of view. Note that I do not consider myself a true bird photographer, which is an important distinction as bird photographers tend to have a perspective about photography, and bird images, that I do not share. I joined Charles Glatzer’s workshop in Homer, which was a new experience for me. In 20 years of photography I have never had any instruction, so it was great to have access to Chas and his technical knowledge. I asked him a lot of questions and received insightful answers to each, and had fun with the other workshop participants the entire time.
A Bit of History
For some time I have seen great photos of bald eagles that were taken in Homer. It seems the really skilled bird photographers have spent time there photographing eagles. Indeed, I have heard on several occasions that a large percentage of published bald eagle photos were taken in Homer. Naturally, there is a good explanation for this.
Since about 1977, Jean Keene fed bald eagles beside the trailer where she lived on the Homer Spit, primarily in the winter. Her offerings of frozen herring led to a reliable gathering of bald eagles during these months, sometimes hundreds on a given morning, as the eagles grew to anticipate and rely on this source of food. Photographers have long known of this gathering and have exploited it to produce superb images of bald eagles. In 2006 the Homer city council adopted a regulation forbidding anyone from feeding the eagles, with the exception that Jean Keane was permitted to continue feeding through 2010. When Ms. Keene passed away in January 2009, her friend Steve Tarola was authorized to continue feeding the eagles in her stead through the end of March 2009, at which point (presumably) no further feeding will be permitted. This change will almost certainly bring about a profound change in the way bald eagles utilize the Homer area in winter, probably resulting in a winter dispersal of the eagles that must now forage for their own food in a more natural way. I think the days of easy eagle photography in Homer are over.
Cameras and Lenses
I am currently using a Canon 1Ds Mark III as my primary camera, with a 1Ds Mark II as a close alternate, full-frame bodies both. Occasionally I use a 50D, but I have found it difficult to use and am preparing to sell it.
I am aware of the online discussions about the effectiveness of the autofocus in the Canon Mark III bodies (1D and 1Ds both). While I had plenty of images that did not have the critical focus on the eye that I try to achieve, I was happy with the number of truly sharp images I did produce. Honestly, if I shoot 10 really strong images on a trip like this, the effort is a success. I am not sure where I fit into the experience of Canon users when it comes to the AF challenges that bird photography offers, but I am not about to switch camera brands anytime soon, being pretty happy with the gear I use at present.
Eagles are, relative to most birds, rather slow moving and thus easy to track with a camera, especially once one has factored in the angle of the wind and their reasons for approach (e.g., perch or food). The Canon AF locked onto the birds in flight quite well. Sometimes the first or second image in a sequence would be soft, but it would usually snap into sharp focus by the third image. Occasionally, in heavily overcast light or when it was snowing, the low contrast caused the AF system to respond sluggishly. But in full sun with strong contrast the AF was pretty good. I typically use center-point with nine-point expansion when shooting birds in flight. For static subjects, the AF performance of the 1DsIII and 1DsII bodies was excellent as usual, producing images that are so sharp it hurts, a testiment to the razor optics of the 500mm and 300mm prime lenses. For static subjects I use single point but I move it about to place it on the subject’s eye.
The most useful lenses for the compositions I was seeking were the 300 f/2.8 (with and without 1.4x teleconverter) and 70-200 f/4. The former was most useful for shooting the morning feedings, with the quality of the 300/1.4x combination proven to be excellent provided my technique was suitably rigorous. In particular, full-body flight images were best with the 1.4x converter in place, while images in which the eagles were spreading their wings to land on nearby perches were best without the converter. On the two mornings when I was invited to shoot from within Ms. Keane’s yard, the 70-200 worked best as the birds and perches were so close that anything longer was unable to frame an entire bird.
While shooting eagles hitting fish on the water, which we did from small boats, the 70-200 and 300 were both equally useful, and we could easily compensate for which lens we would choose to use by how far from the boat we tossed the fish. I prefer the look of the 300, but the group was using 70-200 most of the time so I did as well, and the images with that lens are pretty good.
On a few occasions I used a 500mm f/4 lens, primarily to produce tight images of eagles on perches, taking fish off the ground or together in dense groups. I often clipped wings with this long focal length, but this was by design. Indeed, the bald eagle is what Galen Rowell referred to as a “mature subject”, one the viewer is quite familiar with from years of seeing basic images of it. For this reason, images of portions of bald eagles can often be highly effective, whereas this is not as often the case with subjects that are unfamiliar to the viewer.
For head shots, I used a 500/1.4x combination from Jean’s yard. These were shot at virtually the lens’ minimum focus distance. Stopping down to f/11 with this combo produced critically sharp images. In fact, the f/11 was not so much for depth of field, which is notoriously shallow at such long focal lengths and near distances, but rather to produce adequate sharpness, since the 500/1.4x combo is not sharp enough in my opinion at f/5.6 or f/8. (The 500 alone is, of course, crazy sharp even wide open.)
Autofocus seemed to perform reasonably well, at least as much as I have experienced with other bird subjects. My criteria for keeping a bird photo is that the eye be razor sharp. If it is not, there must be something quite compelling about the image to justify keeping it, which is uncommon. I shot about 8000 images during six days of photography of eagles, about 75% of them flight images (the most demanding and enjoyable kind). I have kept about 175 images for my files, which is a keeper rate of about 2%. I have plenty of images that look great in Breezebrowser based on the jpg embedded in the raw file but that, upon checking the critical focus at 100% with capture sharpening in place, are not up to snuff. These get tossed. I could keep these images and restrict them to web use or 1/4 or 1/2 page reproduction but for now I am discounting them.
What Worked: 1DsIII, 1DsII, 300, 70-200.
What Didn’t Work: 500 (too long)
Much of the time the light was overcast, or heavily overcast with falling snow. These are tough conditions in which to shoot a pleasing photo, but it can be done, and the falling snow can really add a special mood to the image. But the exposure must be done right, and the image must be treated properly in the raw converter, bring up shadows to expose detail but not so much as to be unnatural. This last part is a fine line. Many digital photographers are quite agressive about bringing up shadows, either in the raw conversion or in Photoshop, using a variety of tools, but the results can be unsettling. Its highly subjective and I guess all I can say is that, for photos where too much shadow lightening has been done, “I’ll know it when I see it”. With low light or flat light situations, it helps to have enough confidence in your camera that you can shoot with a high ISO, such as 800 or more. Here the 1Ds Mark III really shone, the high ISO images are clean and sharp. Not so with the 50D. I shot about 800 images with the 50D. What I found most lacking about these was how poorly the 50D performed in overcast light. Exposing properly to the right (biasing as much of the exposure to the right of the histogram as sensible, to better separate detail from noise in the darker areas of the image when converting the image later), the 1DsIII was able to produce many quality images in flat and snow-filled lighting with proper treatment in the raw converter. However, I was not able to pull the same quality from the 50D files. The noise in the 50D files was simply too much.
What Worked: Heavy overcast (snowing), light overcast, clear with thin high clouds
What Didn’t Work: Direct sun (except when bird is in perfect sun angle), 50D
I found that the 1Ds Mark III batteries lasted phenomenally in the cold (8-15 degree) conditions, much longer than the Mark II batteries. This was a pleasant surprise. I did not have to change batteries on my 1Ds III once while in the middle of shooting, in fact only had to change it twice all week during lulls in the action. I estimate getting 1000+ frames and still having 1/3 or 1/2 charge left in each of my 1Ds Mark III batteries, in temps below 10 degrees.
What Worked: 1DsIII batteries
One of the reasons I decided to visit Homer as part of Charles Glatzer’s workshop was to learn how to use flash on manual control for wildlife subjects. I’ve never been entirely happy with relying on the camera’s metering system to guage the amount of flash to emit, especially in situations where the background was changing often. During my underwater shooting, I always employed manual strobe control with good results. However, the exposures underwater tended to be pretty easy to determine, falling into a narrower range than what is encountered above water. I have always been a great admirer of Chas’ photography, and am happy to learn what I can from a photographer and teacher such as he. I have a four week trip later this year that will involve a lot of overcast lighting, and I want to feel confident using manual flash, so joining Chas seemed like a good chance to learn from him and shoot some photos of eagles at the same time. After a couple discussions with Chas about how he determines the proper flash power to use as shooting situations chang, I realized his approach was quite intuitive. I set about putting my 580 EX flash into play in the way he described, controlling lighting ratios by dialing the output of the flash manually to produce fill (-1 or -2 stops) or main light (0 or +1) the eagles. On overcast days I used the flash in this way on virtually every shot, including flight and fish-grab shots at high shutter speeds, and was pleased with the results. The color in the shadowed areas was much better when flash fill was used than in those using only available overcast light. Additionally, as Chas described, the consistency of the lighting from frame to frame was excellent when controlling the flash output manually. This was particularly evident when photographing eagles grasping fish from the water. The distance to the eagle was essentially constant (controlled by us) and thus the lighting of the underside of the eagle and its wings was quite consistent in spite of vastly changing backgrounds which would have probably fooled the camera’s meter.
In the past, photographers realized that by throwing frozen fish to the eagles gathered on the Homer spit, they could create amazing photos of eagles in flight ripping fish out of the water. With the Homer ban on feeding, this practice ended — within the city limits of Homer. However, John Wright found a couple boat captains who were happy to take us outside of Homer to try tossing fish to eagles. Since the mornings were spent photographing eagles at the feeding at Jean Keene’s trailer, we used the afternoons for tossing fish. It was a blast watching the eagles leave their tree perches high up the tall mountainsides above us, drop down to the water, swoop in with wind audibly rushing over their wings and pick a fish out of the water with their talons. The light was not the greatest though. During four afternoons on the boat, with largely overcast skies, we got a few brief breaks with good light and I managed to pick off a few nice shots of fishing eagles one at a time. Persistence pays off or, as I prefer, “Even a blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut.”
What Worked: herring, 70-200, manual flash
If that above info is not already too much geeky detail for you, read on my man for the geekiest info is yet to come…
I plan on generating many many images on a trip later this year. Four weeks of images. Which presents a problem: how to store all of those. I’ve tried using Hyperdrive’s, which are pretty nifty but don’t offer the ability to critically review the images. Plus, they are relatively expensive per GB of storage. So I had to come up with a new approach, and used the Homer trip as a test run. I picked up an ultra-lightweight Sony VAIO VGN-Z series notebook computer. It is tiny — with a 13″ screen and weighing just 3.3 lbs, I don’t even notice that it is in my backpack — but is powerful enough for me to review a day’s worth of shooting with Lightroom, converting some of the images and storing them on the computer’s main drive for further redundancy. The drive on the notebook is not for primary photo storage however — that’s what the three external drives are for. Three external drives you say? That sounds nuts. But the Seagate Freeagent Go 500gb drives are ultra tiny and light, occupying hardly any space in my carryon. Each stores 500GB of files, which is a LOT of space for photos, even the enormous raw files generated by a 1Ds Mark III. The drives are powered by the USB connection with the notebook, which means I do not have to carry power supplies for them. Three of them offer triple redundancy. The system worked great in Homer.
When first researching how I would backup images in the field, I originally considered buying a “netbook”. These low-powered, web-targeted computers are really inexpensive, small and light, but they are primarily intended for apps that do not require much in the way of compute power: email, web browsing, word processing, Facebook. Netbooks do not offer enough compute power to run Lightroom or Photoshop on large raw files. So I did not consider a netbook a viable choice, which is why I went with the lightest, reasonably powered notebook I could find.
The weak link in this backup system is the computer — what if it dies? In that case, the external drives cannot be used on the remainder of the trip, but the images that are already on them can be accessed once back home. In a pinch, someone else’s notebook can be used for downloading from flash card to external drive, but I prefer not to rely on someone else’s gear if I can avoid it. So, in the event the computer dies, I still bring two Hyperdrives with 250 GB, wrapped in bubble wrap and placed in my checked luggage. That’s a pretty good backup to my backup. I do not care to risk losing the images that I have gone to so much trouble to make.
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