TOP 10 Tips for taking pics of Bald Eagles

So I've taken almost 6,000 pictures of the Bald Eagles we have here on Long Island, NY ever the span of 6 different days. So it's about 1,000 pictures per day. I did A LOT of research on my own reading article after article on taking pictures of Bald Eagles. Let me just say no matter what lens you buy or rent it's definitely NOT EASY to get shots of bald eagles in flight. That being said it does get easier and easier to get great shots of them in flight, but the larger telephoto lens you have the harder it gets. Here are some of the best shots I've gotten of the Bald Eagles from them perched on a branch and in flight:

   

    

  

So all these pictures were shot on different days as some days the sun was out and the sky was amazingly blue while other days were just cloudy. All you can do is make the best out of the time you are taking pictures and have fun in the process. All the pictures above were taken with my Canon 70D and the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary lens I rented. Here is a list of all the equipment I have used to take pictures of the Bald Eagles:

1. Canon EOS 70D DSLR

2. Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary Lens (I chose this one over the "Sport" version because it's about 2 lbs lighter AND it has a lower aperture while zoomed in 600mm. The MAIN reason the "Sport" mode is so expensive is because it's 100% sealed so you can shoot in the rain and it won't damage the lens at all).

3. Canon 800mm lens f/5.6

4. Canon 1.4x TC (teleconverter), which zooms it in even further, but the drawback with my camera was I had to manually focus the camera while using the TC.  Also, with this TC you lose 1 stop of light. Ex.) Canon 800mm lens is f/5.6, but with the 1.4x TC the lowest aperture is f/8.

So here are my BEST TIPS I've learned from taking pictures of Bald Eagles for over 50 hours and taking about 6,000 pictures:

1. Try renting a lens to see if you like it first: The BEST place I found is www.lensrentals.com as they had the widest selection of lenses and cameras PLUS they have a VERY reasonable insurance plan that costs around $40-$50, which covers you for theft and damage. Lensrentals.com was the 7th place I called to inquire about renting lenses and it's hands down the BEST place to rent from too! Most places wanted $1,000 down on a credit card or half the cost of the lens (the 800mm is a $13,000 lens) and then you get it back when you return the lens. The most important choice is the lens you choose to use so that's where I started.

2. SHUTTER SPEED: You need a very fast shutter speed when taking pictures of Bald Eagles in flight. Try starting out with at least 1/1,600 and adjust from there in order to freeze the bird in mid flight. 

3. APERTURE: Sometimes I do shoot with the aperture wide open, but I try to go 1-2 clicks above wide open as I think the clarity is a little better. Ex.) If wide open is f/6.3 then try f/7.1 OR f/8.

4. ISO: You're going to need to put your ISO higher than you normally would when taking pictures in order to get a faster shutter speed. Try setting your ISO at the same number as your shutter speed is at and adjust from there. Remember the lower the ISO the better quality picture you will get, but if you go too low then you're going to have to adjust your shutter speed and it won't be fast enough to freeze the bird in flight. Bald Eagles fly VERY fast too! 

5. AUTO FOCUS: I've read many suggestions on how to focus on a bird in flight and what I found worked best for my camera was to select a SINGLE AUTO FOCUS POINT, locate the bird in the viewfinder, try to focus on it with the single auto focus point, and fire away in burst mode. Also, realize every lens is going to focus at different speeds and there is a setting on each telephoto lens that helps it focus at different focal lengths. I found the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary lens focused A LOT slower than the Canon 800mm prime lens. I'm guessing that it's probably because Canon lenses work much better with Canon bodies. Some DSLR's now have 40+ different auto focus points you can use so experiment what works best for you with YOUR setup. Even try Ai Servo mode and see if that works for you as well. 

6. If you're having trouble locating the bird in flight try zooming out if you have a zoom lens like the Sigma 150-600mm locating the bird in the viewfinder, then focus on the bird while following it, then zoom in and focus again, zoom in further and focus, then fire away in burst mode. 

7. Check out a guy named Jim Neiger as he calls tip #6 "Bumping Focus." He's a professional photographer who specializes in taking pictures of birds in flight. You won't use everything that people suggest to do, but rather every suggestion is designed to help you find YOUR own way to photograph birds in flight. 

8. Get the fastest SD card or CF card you can afford as it could mean the difference between getting a GREAT shot and NOT getting a great shot! I usually buy the SanDisc Extreme Pro cards as they are one of the BEST cards you can buy. For example, I decided to rent the Canon 800mm lens with the 1.4x TC instead of getting a faster card. I realized that I would probably miss some shots, but the trade off with having such a large telephoto lens was well worth it to me. I do shoot in RAW and JPEG and for every time I take a picture it's about 30MB. My SD card writes at 95MB/s. So that means if I take more than 4 pictures in a row it's going to be buffering for 1-2 seconds depending on how many pictures in a row (burst mode) I decide to take. Sometimes I would take 3 in a row so it would write to the card instantaneously. That way if something happened quickly, which it most always does, then I'm ready to capture the moment. 

9. STAY READY and BE PATIENT: Sometimes a bird will just perch on a branch or hang out in the nest for an hour or two (or more). When they decide to fly you might miss the opportunity to get a really great shot of them leaving the nest in flight if you're not paying attention. It has happened to me as well as others I've seen, but I've learned to stay as ready as possible and try not to take my eyes off of the birds.

10. Keep your finger on the shutter button halfway down so it's focused already when they decide to fly. Even if someone is talking to you you can still keep looking through the viewfinder and talk to them at the same time as they will understand.

There are many more tips out there that people have suggested (like auto ISO, use back focus button, exposure compensation, turning IS off because you're at such a high shutter speed, even though I found keeping the IS ON with the 800mm lens with the 1.4x TC helpful in keeping the lens steady enough to manually focus the bird perched on a branch) and I did experiment with them too, but I found the above 10 TIPS to be the MOST useful for me. One thing I learned from studying Bruce Lee, as I've always been interested in martial arts and I actually did train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for 2 years at Matt Serra's gym (UFC HALL OF FAMER), was that we all learn things in our own way and it's ultimately up to US to learn HOW WE ultimately learn things. You will not use 100% of what I wrote, but if you take even half of what I wrote that you think you can use and just discard the rest then it will benefit you greatly. 

Here are some of the shots I got with the Canon 800mm lens and the 1.4x TC as these are just pictures from my phone of my monitor as I'm still in the process of editing these pictures. I took about 2,800 pictures in 3 days of taking pictures and it takes a long time to sort through them all and pick out and edit the best ones:

    

    

  

I really hope this blog post helps you get some really great shots as it's all about reading and experimenting with your equipment and finding the best way for YOU to take pictures of birds or whatever you are taking pictures of. Remember to always have fun and if you ever have any questions at all feel free to e-mail me at Archs21@aol.com.

Click here to go to the Bald Eagle pics

Sincerely,

Steven Archdeacon