Immature Eagle Taking Off

How to Photograph a Bald Eagle

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Bald Eagle Sightings

Bald Eagles are massive, powerful birds. Hard to miss them going down the road, even with the trees full in bloom. Too big to blend and too fast to chase, at least without a car. You can’t sneak up on a bald eagle mostly because they are usually looking down at you with their eagle eyes – eyes that are estimated to be at least 4 x sharper than human eyesight.

Where to Photograph Bald Eagles

I wish I had a spot to reliably photograph bald eagles. I’ve watched them over the years, trying to determine if there’s a pattern in their daily schedule that I can take advantage of to get a good shot. I’ve never seen an eagle’s nest that can serve as my spot, plus I would be very hesitant to risk having the nesting pair abandon their nest and/or hatchling because of the commotion I caused trying to photograph it.

The behavior consistencies that I’ve observed are that eagles search for food around water and are one of the first scavengers on the beach to get their share of dead birds and fish. I also notice other birds chasing them, so it’s a good bet that they go after nest eggs and fledglings of other birds.

Depending on Luck to Find Bald Eagles

It was a gray and cold winter’s day. I loaded my camera in the car and depended on luck as I drove the Lake Michigan shoreline road to get my eagle shots. Luck means that the eagle would be in a tree that would be close enough to shoot, that she would not get spooked when I got out of the car and she would fly away only when I’m ready to capture her in flight. Luck means that there would not be a crowd of people around the eagle, thereby increasing the chance of her flying away when I do spot him. That’s a lot of luck. But it happened.

I came across this immature eagle resting on a branch on the east side of the road. She was situated so I couldn’t photograph her unless I got out of the car. She wasn’t spooked, if anything, she was bored as he looked down at me with my 300mm lens taking his picture. There was not time to set up the tripod. Since she was sitting still, I moved the shutter speed around a bit – no lower than 1/640 second and as high as 1/2500 second.

When I first looked at this shot (see below), I thought the eagle’s face was hidden by her wing. It wasn’t. The eagle’s face blended with the contours and the colors of her wings, making it appear like her face was hidden by her wing. (See closeup)

Immature Eagle Taking Off
Immature Bald Eagle Just Leaving His Perch

Immature Bald Eagle Closeup
Closeup Photograph of Wings and Head of Immature Bald Eagle

Rule of Thumb for Setting Your Shutter Speed

As the absolute minimum, you should set your shutter speed (when hand holding your camera) to the length of your lens. If you have an image stabilizer on your lens you have more flexibility to set the shutter a little slower. So the minimum shutter speed for a camera sporting a 300mm lens should be 1/300 second. This is for a subject that is sitting still.

Don’t Follow the Rule of Thumb for Action Shots

Since you don’t know when a bird is going to take off, and action/in flight shots create more interesting photographs, you need to crank that shutter up much higher than the length of your lens. The shot above was taken at 1/2500 second.

Telling the Difference Between Male and Female Bald Eagles

I see quite a few immature yet somewhat independent eagles along the Lake Michigan lakeshore. These eagles are as large as the adults, but don’t have the white plumage on their heads. It takes 4-5 years before eagles are sexually mature.

Telling apart the adult males and females is easy according to web resources.  The females are approximately 30% larger. Besides being smaller, the males have brighter white plumage and their eyes look like they use black eyeliner. In addition, the female also have longer beaks- the mandible on the male doesn’t extend as far back.

It’s not easy to tell the male and female eagles apart unless you have a close up photograph. The only definitive way to tell the difference is to photograph a male and female pair together. I’m guessing that the photograph above is of an immature female, judging by the length of the mandible and the gray feathers (rather than black) around this eagle’s eyes.





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2 thoughts on “How to Photograph a Bald Eagle

  1. I have a tree full of bald eagles by me but only a small digital camera. Tried to sneak up on them but “eagle eye” isn’t just an expression I guess. Would like to know how to get a close up of them somehow.

    1. Hi Steven,
      Lucky You!!
      Where are you?
      Is it possible to approach them in a vehicle?
      I’m afraid it’s mostly a waiting game. The bald eagles around the lakeshore watch me as much as I watch them. They usually perch in the trees near the beach and watch for scavenging opportunities. A few are acclimated to humans and let me approach, but not very close…I still need my telephoto lens. I’m most successful if I can park the car nearby and wait, camera at the ready.
      Good luck. Please send me a photo if you are able to get one.
      Take care.

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