Tim Layton Fine Art | Eagle Photography Tips

Photographing Eagles is not an easy task for any photographer.  It takes a lot of persistence, skill, and experience to create the types of photos you dream about.  I still have many compositions and images in my mind that I haven't been able to achieve yet.  I spend the vast majority of my time scouting and watching eagles.  When I get the opportunity to photograph wild eagles, I want to be as prepared as possible.  

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I have created some tips and information below that will help you in your journey. 

1 - Know your subject (know what to look for) before photographing.  Invest a season or two finding and watching Eagles with binoculars.

2 - Understand the lighting at your location based on the time of day you want to photograph.  Don't try and figure this out in the field.  You want to avoid looking into the sun.  You want the sun behind you or to the side.  I like early mornings the best and my second choice is the warm light in the evenings.

3 - Find their available food source and then learn their patterns of behavior.  For example, I follow the Mississipi River Valley and scout the lock and dams because the Eagles hunt the fish in the turbulent waters in these areas.  

4 - Mature Eagles avoid people most of the time, so try and use the longest lens you have available.

5 - Wear camo and use a blind (natural if possible or pop up blinds).

6 - Once you have established a good location and optimum viewing time, arrive 30 minutes or more earlier and remain very still and be quiet.  I have invested many hours waiting for Eagles and have gone home many days without a single exposure.

7 - If you must change your location, move in a non-threatening manner (look distracted, walk wide, don’t walk in straight lines)

8 - Learn the various behaviors of Eagles so that you can anticipate your compositions and exposures.  After you get your first few photos of an Eagle sitting on a branch, you will want to pursue the more difficult in-flight compositions.  Don't waste your time with photographing the back of the birds.  Get into position, so they are flying towards you or to your side.  

9 - Practice on other larger birds like raptors and hawks if you can. You can even consider going to a shooting range and practice photographing sporting clays.  Pan with the Eagles or sporting clays in flight.  You will want to start panning before you take photos and continue panning after you stop exposures.   

10 - For non-flight on the ground images, try and get very low and be at eye level whenever possible.  This helps connect viewers with your images.  

11 - For in-flight photos, I use shutter speeds at 1/2500 or faster to ensure I get tack sharp images. I prefer to set my camera up in Manual-Auto ISO mode.  This means that I want control over my aperture and shutter and allow my ISO to vary between the minimum and maximum ISO range that I have defined.  

12 - I like to use the maximum aperture on my telephoto lenses (F4, F2.8) for the best bokeh to clean up messy backgrounds.  Also, try and put as much distance between the Eagles and their backgrounds for the best bokeh.  Try and avoid white winter skies and wait for the Eagles to fly into a background that you have scouted and tested.  

13 -  Give the Eagles room to fly in your compositions.  You don't want the Eagle's head at the edge of the frame because that looks odd and the bird has no place to fly.  

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  • The Bald Eagle was adopted as the nation's emblem in 1782 and now graces every dollar bill that is printed. It is the nation's most famous bird. 
  • The word bald is derived from the old English word “balde” which means white. The scientific name Haliaeetus leucocephalus comes from the Greek word haliaeetus which means “sea eagle”. Leucocephalus is derived from two Greek words, leukos meaning “white” and kephale meaning “head.”
  • Bald Eagles, are “Raptors,” birds of prey, having an average length of 36 inches, a wingspan of 84 inches and a voracious appetite for fish.
  • Bald Eagles dine mainly on fish, but also on rodents, small mammals and carrion. 
  • Eagles have one of the largest nests of any bird which can be up to seven feet across and ten feet deep.
  • Bald Eagles' flying speeds reach 20-40 miles per hour, and diving speeds can exceed 100 miles per hour. 
  • Bald Eagles mate for life and return to the same nest every year. When one dies, the survivor will not hesitate to accept a new mate. During breeding season, both birds protect the nest territory from other eagles and predators.
  • An adult Bald Eagle protects its young during a storm by outstretching its wings over them.
  • The average life expectancy of a Bald Eagle is about 20 years. 
  • Eagles mate for life, and they typically have two Eaglets.
  • Nest building may begin 1-3 months prior to mating and is considered part of the breeding process. Each breeding season, eagles add material to the nest and may increase the size by up to a foot in height and diameter each year.
  • Breeding season varies regionally, beginning in November and December in southern areas. Eagles in the north typically begin nest building in January and may lay eggs as early as mid-February.
  • A female Eagle will lay her egg(s) approximately 5-10 days after a successful copulation.  Bald eagle eggs are off-white in color and average about 3 inches long by 2 inches wide. The average weight is 4-4.5 oz.  The average clutch ( a group of eggs) is 1-3. There are reports of 4 eggs in a clutch, but such an event is very rare. The eggs are laid one at a time with a separation of a day or two between each egg and hatch in the order they are laid.
  • Incubation for bald eagles is about 35 days. For golden eagles, the incubation period is between 40-45 days. It can take a day for the hatchling to completely break free of the egg after pipping (cracking the egg). Eggs hatch in the order in which they were laid.
  • After the eggs are laid, the egg must be constantly kept warm, or incubated, and protected from predators. Both males and females share incubation responsibilities, but the female typically spends more time on the nest than the male. Males leave the nest to hunt, often providing food for the female. However, the female will sometimes leave the nest to hunt for herself, at which times the male will be called upon to remain at the nest.
  • The body heat of the parent keeps the developing egg warm. Like most birds, eagles develop a brood patch, or bare spot on their belly, to better facilitate heat transfer to the egg during incubation. Both male and female eagles develop a brood patch.
  • An eagle is sexually mature and ready to breed at about 4 to 5 years of age. For bald eagles, the complete white head and tail are signs of sexual maturity. Golden eagles also attain their adult plumage at 4-5 years of age, when they are sexually mature and typically begin breeding.
  • In the first five years of life, an eagle’s age can be determined by its plumage. Juvenile eagles go through five distinct annual color morphs. Once an eagle achieves maturity, their plumage remains the same throughout their life, and there is no visual clue to determine the eagle’s age.
  • Bald eagles in the Mississippi River valley often return to their nest, add material and engage in courtship displays in mid-January.
  • Breeding season varies by latitude. In Florida, egg laying may begin in November whereas, in Alaska, egg-laying typically occurs in late April through May. In Minnesota, the breeding season typically runs from late-February to early March in the southern part of the state through April into early May in the north.
  • Eagles engage in dramatic courtship displays that involving swooping flight, aerial stick exchanges and cartwheeling. These behaviors are all part of courtship and pair bonding. Many of these behaviors also test the strength and agility of the potential mate.
  • Both eagles do not stay around the nest all the time.  An adult is usually around or in the nest only when there are eggs or young eaglets.  The other one may be off hunting or doing other “eagle things.”  They often sit on branches near the nest, so be sure to look around if you don't see them in their nest.
  • When they are incubating eggs, one adult will spend the night on the eggs in the nest.  Generally, an adult will also spend time on the nest when eaglets are very young.  At other times, the two adult eagles will sleep elsewhere.  When they are not in the nest tree, they are often on a branch of a tree nearby.
  • You can typically figure out which Eagle is the male and which is the female because the male is smaller. Females have an average body length of 35-37 inches (88-94 cm) and an average wingspan of 79-90 inches (2-2.3 meters).
  • Males have an average body length of 30-34 inches (76-86 cm) and an average wingspan of 72-85 inches (1.8-2.2 meters). They can weigh between 8 and 15 lbs (3.6 and 6.8 kg).
  • Eyesight - An eagle's eye is almost as large as a human's, but its sharpness is at least four times that of a person with perfect vision.
  • Voice - Shrill, high pitched, and twittering are common descriptions used for bald eagle vocalizations. Eagles do not have vocal cords. Sound is produced in the syrinx, a bony chamber located where the trachea divides to go to the lungs. Bald eagle calls may be a way of reinforcing the bond between the male and female, and to warn other eagles and predators that an area is defended.  Listen to the sounds an Eagle makes at the Cornell Lab website. For such a powerful bird, the Bald Eagle emits surprisingly weak-sounding calls—usually a series of high-pitched whistling or piping notes. The female may repeat a single, soft, high-pitched note that has been called “unlike any other calls in nature”; apparently this signals her readiness for copulation.
  • Body Temperature - About 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius).  Eagles do not sweat, so they need to use other cooling methods such as perching in the shade, panting, and holding their wings away from their body.
  • Tolerance to cold temperatures - A bald eagle's skin is protected by feathers lined with down. Their feet are cold resistance, consisting of mostly tendon. The outside of the bill is mostly nonliving material, with little blood supply.

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