How To Photograph Eagles

Bald Eagle Close Up Photo by Scott Bourne

No matter where I go, my photographs of eagles attract attention. I get many questions about how to do this work and while I have decades of experience that cannot be condensed into a blog post, I can give you some idea of how to photograph eagles, just in case you’re motivated to try it.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Let’s start with the basics – do your research. The more you know about eagles, the easier they are to find and photograph. If you can predict their behavior, it becomes much simpler to make compelling eagle images.

HEAD NORTH

If you do your research, it will no doubt lead you north to Alaska. Alaska has the highest concentration of bald eagles in North America. If you know where to go, it’s a sure bet that you will find eagles to photograph.

There are several areas inside Alaska where you can find eagles in abundance, but taking into account things like weather and accessibility, my hands-down favorite location is Kachemak Bay – Cook Inlet Kenai Peninsula, AK. The area has reasonable weather in the winter and can be affordably reached by commercial airline.

Bald Eagle Photograph by Scott Bourne - Eagle surfing

GEAR

There are two kinds of gear you will need to make eagle photographs. Camera gear and severe weather gear. Both are equally important. I will start with the camera gear since that is most likely what the average reader of this blog will be most interested in.

I recommend two camera bodies with interchangeable lenses. Any modern camera, crop sensor or full frame, DSLR or mirrorless will do the job as long as you have the right lenses. I suggest a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom (with teleconverter) and a super telephoto (between 400 and 800mm with or without teleconverters.)

You’ll need plenty of batteries and memory cards. Depending on your gear (mine is rain proof) you may need rain covers. Tripods (or monopods) are helpful when you’re on land but won’t do you any good if you’re photographing from a boat.

(To see a list of the specific gear that I personally take to Alaska for bird photography check this link.)

Backlit Eagle Photograph by Scott Bourne

Outerwear

It’s important to dress in multiple layers with a waterproof outer layer for eagle photography in Alaska. Gloves and head / face protection are a must, I always bring two layers of gloves, with multiple backup pairs.

A warm, but lightweight coat is best. I also use a balaclava.

Good warm quality waterproof boots are recommended, and I highly recommend Muckboots. This brand is by far the warmest and most comfortable boot I have ever worn.

I also recommend boot socks for ultimate warmth. The brand I own is “Bama Boot Sockkets”. They are sized a little on the large side.

CAMERA SETTINGS

The thing most beginners miss when they start photographing eagles is that these are large birds. Their size requires more depth-of-field to make sure they are sharp wing tip to wing tip. A minimum aperture of f/5.6 is necessary to get enough depth-of-field if you’re within reasonable distance of the bird(s). A shutter speed of 1/1500th of a second is the minimum you need to freeze motion of the eagles in flight but I prefer 1/2000th of a second.

Bald eagle landing in the snow - photograph by Scott Bourne

Enable your image stabilization (in both your camera body and your camera lens if available.) IS helps keep your images sharp even with lower shutter speeds.

Set your shutter advance to about 10 FPS. This is just about right and allows you to shoot in controlled shorter bursts. I like to shoot in two or three frame bursts. This forces me to be more deliberate in my choices and saves time when sorting through the images in post.

I also suggest enabling your histogram to make sure you don’t blow out the highlights on the adult bald eagle’s head. I also use tracking autofocus. Eagles in flight are prone to change direction suddenly and without notice.

Lastly, it’s important to shoot in manual mode. Since the birds will fly past a variety of backgrounds from dark to light you need to make sure the meter isn’t fooled while shooting in an automatic mode.

SUN AND WIND ANGLE

As with all bird photography, you need to stay on sun angle, meaning that unless you’re shooting something creative like silhouettes you need to always, always and I mean always stay on sun angle. This means the sun is at your back. You point your shadow at the bird. This is important because if you are off sun angle you will see the wings create unattractive shadows across the head and body of the bird.

It’s also important to know which direction the wind is blowing. Eagles tend to perch, fly and take off into the wind. You do not want the wind in your face because this translates to lots of bird butt photos. The eagles will be flying away from you if the wind is in your face. If you want the eagles flying straight at you, then you need the wind (and remember the sun) behind you. Cross winds give good opportunity for profile views.

Eagle Photograph On Snow by Scott Bourne

COMPOSITION

All the usual rules of composition apply to eagle photography. I always concentrate on a clean background so that there’s no distraction in the frame. Open blue skies, snow banks or anything that isn’t distracting is preferred. I like to find the background and THEN the bird. It’s counterintuitive but it works.

When making portraits it’s also important to shoot at bird’s eye level if possible. This creates intimacy in your bird portraiture.

If you don’t like your angle to the bird, adjust your elevation. Sometimes sitting or laying down is the solution to getting a good background.

EAGLES IN FLIGHT

Photographing birds in flight gets easier the more you practice. Nearly everyone lives somewhere that allows them to get close to gulls. I suggest practicing with gulls for several weeks before you spend your money to go to Alaska for eagles. That said, here are some simple beginner’s tips for birds in flight.

1. Pan with the bird – acquire the subject well before you need to press the shutter button and follow through (like with a golf swing) to make sure you stay on the bird through the appropriate target zone.

2. Allow room for large wing spread. Don’t zoom in too tight because if you do you’ll cut off the wing tips.

3. Be sure to lead the bird. This just takes practice and it only takes a few hours of practice to get used to it.

4. Shoot with both eyes open. This gives you a better chance of acquiring the subject.

Eagles In Flight Photograph On Snow by Scott Bourne

PATIENCE

Have patience. This isn’t easy work. It takes practice to perfect it. Don’t set your expectations too high on your first outing. It took me a couple of years worth of trips to start getting salable images.

CONCLUSION

Like anything else worth doing well, photographing eagles takes lots of effort. In the many years I have been photographing eagles, I’ve seen the rewards of those efforts and believe you will too if you apply these tips.

NOTE: I am not leading an eagle workshop this year but my pal Robert is and I can get you one of the last two seats on his bald eagle workshop for $500 off list if you act soon. Email scott@scottbourne.com if interested; first come – first served.


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