Techniques and Settings for Photographing Juvenile Bald Eagles

Adult Bald Eagles are easy to identify by their white head and tail feathers. However, it takes five years for a Bald Eagle to fully develop the white head and tail feathers and because of that they can be identified as Golden Eagles in some parts of the country.  Bald Eagles are born with all brown except under the wings with have a few white feathers.  Each year they gain for white head and tail feathers.  

I believe, based on the link below , the Eagle pictured below is two or three years old.

The image below is of the juvenile bald eagle fishing. It circled above the water slowly spiraling down and then diving to attempt grabbing a fish. In this case it was unsuccessful.

Photographing birds in flight against the sky is relatively easy because the contrast between the sky and bird is high.  The autofocusing systems on cameras work very well when the contrast between subject and background is high.  It is much more difficult to capture birds in the middle of action like fishing. With practice I have become more successful in capturing images like the one above.

I typically use a Canon 400mm F4 lens with. 1.4 teleconverter mounted on Canon 5D MK IV.  I set the camera to AI Servo mode (Canon's continuous autofocus mode) and single point focusing.  I start with my settings at F8, shutter speed of 1/2500, and auto ISO.  Shutter speed is the most important setting because without a fast shutter speed any bird flying will likely be out of focus unless you are successfully panning.  Aperture (F-Stop) can be a trade off.  Cameras will tend to focus better with lower apertures because and Fstop like F4 will let more light in.  However, low apertures also result in smaller depth of field which can make it harder to obtain a sharp image of a flying bird (or any moving subject).  Thus I choose to usually set my aperture to F8 which gives me some depth of field while also letting in enough light to focus well.  I set my ISO to auto because I care more about getting an image that is in sharp focus than I do capturing an image that has no noise.

I find birds are much easier to track the more contrast there is between the background and the bird. Above is and example where the distance between the eagle and background as well as part of the background being the sky created contrast allowing camera to stay on focus easier.

Although a successful capture I found it more difficult to maintain focus and track the eagle in the above picture.

My advice is to get out and practice capturing birds in flight as often as possible so that when the opportunity to capture that key moment presents itself you will be prepared.

Below is one of those key moments. An adult Bald Eagle was attacking a juvenile Bald Eagle. While the above pictures were taken at Burke Lake, I captured the below picture at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Alexandria Virginia. There is a nesting pair of adult Bald Eagles there and it is likely the adult eagle was trying to drive the juvenile away from it's nesting grounds.  Fascinating to watch and photograph!