How To: Photograph Eagles in Alaska
Scott Bourne's images take flight with the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens.
By Jenn Gidman
Images by Scott Bourne
Scott Bourne originally started taking pictures in the 1960s as a motorsports photographer, then evolved into weddings and portraiture. But it was when he tried his hand at outdoor photography that the Washington state resident knew he'd found his passion. "I'd always loved birds, and I attended an expo in Florida where a couple of bird photographers had their images up," he says. "I was intrigued. I went out and tried it once, and it was addictive from the start. Now that's all I've photographed from a passion point of view for the last 20 years."
He's so fascinated by the creatures in front of his camera that his mission with each image is to tell their story. "Birds are fantastic, and yet very few people know anything about them," he says. "That's why my photos tend to be very up close and personal—you can count the feathers on their faces."
Although Scott takes pictures of all kinds of birds, he's most well-known for his eagle photography. "I co-lead an eagle workshop in Alaska with my friend Robert O'Toole, another professional bird photographer," he says. "We do two eagle workshops every year, based out of Kachemak Bay, Alaska. We go out in the area around Homer from there."
One of the reasons Scott and his partner head to that particular place each year is because of the commercial fishing fleet nearby. "Eagles are scavengers: They'll eat anything, anywhere, anytime," he says. "All of those big commercial fishing boats have large holds full of bait for the bigger fish they're trying to catch, and the eagles know about all that fish on board, so they'll wait around for the fleet—five will follow one boat, five will follow another, and so forth. When they see any boat, then, they just assume it's a fishing boat. Even our boat coming into the area gets their attention."
What Scott used on his most recent trip to the Great Frontier: the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens. "This is actually the perfect focal-length lens for bird photography," Scott says. "Because it's a zoom, it allows you to do so many things. One thing most beginners find incredibly frustrating about bird photography, for example, is that it's hard to find the bird within your field of view. With a zoom like the G2, you have the advantage of being able to acquire the bird in your frame at a wider focal length, then zoom in to get the tight shot."
But what Scott really appreciates about the 150-600 G2: "It's extremely contrasty, which is how old guys like me say 'sharp,'" he says. "It gets rid of chromatic aberrations and is a stunning optical performer."
The Vibration Compensation (VC) feature on the 150-600 G2 is also invaluable when Scott handholds or uses a monopod, which he's more likely to be doing these days. "When you're working with a monopod, that stabilization is a big help," he says. "The little bit of movement you get while working on a monopod is easily controlled with the VC."
Read on for some of Scott's best birding photography tips, in general and specifically for eagles.
To be a great bird photographer, rather than studying photography, it's better to study ornithology. Because I know birds, I know where they're going to be, when they're going to be there, how long they're going to be there, and how they're going to behave once they're there. All of these things are huge factors.
Birds have predictable behavior, as do most species. For instance, birds are filled with many hollow bones—they just have air inside, because they need to be as light as possible to take flight. Birds also don't have stomachs like we do; they have a gullet instead, where they process food, turn it into energy, and pass it as waste if it can't be used instantly. They don't store it, because if they did they wouldn't be able to fly. So if you see an eagle on a perch and he lifts his tail feather and defecates, that's a good sign he's fixing to take off, because he's lightening his load. All of this knowledge enables me to get really close—within 18 inches sometimes. I'm an eagle whisperer!
Prepare to be spectacularly patient.
And I mean more so than with most other types of photography. Sometimes I'm out there for three days to get one picture. I've had people who want to intern with me, and I'll say, "Here's a test: We're going to a part of Texas where it's 108 degrees, and we're going to sit in a metal blind all day and hope like heck we're going to get a chance to shoot a Harris's hawk (the only raptor in the world that hunts in packs). And you can't make noise or wear any kind of deodorant or anything else that smells, or the birds won't come near. If you can sit there for three days with me and not talk and not fidget and not play on your iPad, you have the job." No one's ever survived the test.
Part of that patience involves keeping an eye on perches. All birds tend to return to the same one. They'll find a perch they like and predictably leave if they see something they want to kill and eat, or if they want to mate; then they'll return to that perch. Once you find a perch, you can count on a bird coming back to it.
Head out in the early morning.
Like any other kind of photography, light is critical for bird photography. We also shoot late in the afternoon, but early morning tends to work best with eagles, as they're hungrier and more apt to be out looking for food.
That morning light is also a big deal from a photographic perspective. Think about the older eagles with the white heads (juvenile eagles still have brown heads) and black bodies. Those are the two opposites of the dynamic range: black and white. So if you have harsh sunlight and are trying to hold highlights on the head of the eagle, you're going to have a lot of work to do.
Find an optimal position.
Wind has everything to do with where you set yourself up. Birds fly into and perch into the wind. If the wind is coming at your face, you're going to have a lot of eagle butt shots—and there's no such thing as an eagle butt calendar; I checked. Make sure you're facing in the direction the wind is blowing.
The other thing that dictates where you stand is sun angle: The sun has to be directly behind you. With the exception of certain creative shots that may be backlit, the only bird photos that tend to sell are those that are front-lit with direct sunlight, your shadow pointed directly at the bird. If there's any amount of sidelighting, it doesn't work, because it creates harsh and ugly shadows on the wings.
When I was younger, I used to "tree" myself and try to shoot at tree level, but these days I tend to stay closer to the ground, which is a good rule in general when it comes to photographing birds. The bigger you are or the more noise you make, the more of a threat you are. That's also why we don't walk around with our tripods fully extended and over our shoulders, sticking up so we look like a praying mantis.
Shoot in manual.
I have to deal with that wide dynamic range I was talking about earlier, with white heads and black bodies—and I need to ensure I can hold the details of that white head. If a bird flies into a shadow or an area that's lit differently, the meter will change the exposure and throw everything off if I'm using any kind of automated system. I used to try to keep up with it all by adjusting the exposure compensation, but I don't mess with that anymore. I just shoot in manual mode and watch the light. If I see a cloud come over, or if I've been in the field for an hour, I'll recheck my exposure and readjust accordingly.
Seek out the backgrounds you want.
Anyone who's been to one of my workshops has heard me say the following phrase about 1,000 times: Background, background, background. I always look for that first. If there are birds in the area and a habitat is right there, I'll simply point my lens at that background until the bird comes into my viewfinder.
One of the advantages when we do our workshops in Alaska is that we're on a boat most of the time, so the boat captain is there to do my bidding. We rent the boats for the whole week, and we control them and where they go. We'll put the boat in certain positions to get a beautiful mountain background, a dark water background, or a gorgeous blue sky. We'll put the boat in whatever position we need for the background we want.
In terms of how I render the backgrounds in my images, it's a huge benefit that the Tamron 150-600mm lens has a very close focusing distance. One of the rules of photography is that the closer the camera is to your subject, the shallower your depth-of-field. So I can shoot at the closest focusing distance at F/22 if I want, and the depth-of-field might be 1/10th of an inch.
Use the zoom lens to your advantage for creative compositions.
Depending on the kind of birds in Alaska, we can get ridiculously close. But most of the time, we're working at the maximum focal length of the lens, because most birds are skittish. Usually we zoom out to acquire the bird in the viewfinder, then zoom in to 600mm and work from there, trying to get as close as we can.
With the 150-600mm zoom, I'm able to do so many different things. For instance, there was this group of three eagles scanning the horizon for prey or a threat; something must've flown by, because they were all mesmerized. I was able to zoom out and shoot the whole group, then zoom in to 600mm and just do one portrait of one particular bird. Even though another bird is close to the bird I'm photographing, that second bird didn't end up in my photo because the field of view gets so narrow.
One thing I'm a stickler about is my need to find pretty birds. If a bird's got a lot of warts or has been in a fight and its face is bloody, I probably won't photograph it. Once I do find one that works, then I'll shoot many different compositions.
Finally, even though I love photographing clean headshot portraits, I also enjoy capturing environmental shots. It gives the viewer the impression that you're not photographing an eagle in a zoo. The weeds, water, and driftwood in a few of the images here really highlight that I'm along the shoreline.
Capture birds in flight.
A bird soaring through the sky is one of the hardest things in the world to photograph. It takes a lot of practice and can be really frustrating. This is one place where the right camera body really makes a big difference if you want to capture multiple sharp frames. High frame rates and fast autofocus are a must.
If you can, practice your flying bird photos on gulls–they're readily available for most people in almost any city in North America. One thing I use that really helps, and that I recommend for bird photographers, is a gimbal head, which basically works like a machine gun turret. Once you've got everything balanced on the gimbal, you simply start following the birds as they fly across the sky. It's much easier to stay with the bird this way.
One thing that trips people up with bird photography: I've been doing this about as long as anybody, and even I clip the wings sometimes. This is one of those times where, again, a zoom lens like the 150-600 really helps. For the image shown here, I watched the eagle come from the same perch every time he took off, and I kind of got the sense where I needed to be in terms of focal length. I was at 600mm at first, but then I pulled back because I needed to give enough room for the wingspan. It took a few tries, but I finally got it. To freeze the action, I didn't freeze it wingtip to wingtip, which would usually be 1/2000th of a second; I shot this one at 1/1500th of a second.
Look for unusual shots.
Take photos that people might not see as often, like talons. I wanted to show their power in this image here, because those things can rip through a block of wood. The image you see here shows the bird out there as a hunter, looking to grab something. I have photos where they're carrying jack rabbits in those talons. To be honest, if you're fortunate, you're not going to ever see talons up close unless you see an image like this—because you wouldn't want to be in a position where you would. I saw talons really up close once: I was shooting with a shorter lens, and an eagle dropped a piece of fish 6 inches from my nose. Three of them jumped on my head to fight over it. They stole my hat, too!
To see more of Scott Bourne's work, go to http://scottbourne.com.