Hi all. I just got back from a trip to Washington state for some amazing eagle photography and I wanted to share some of the story and photos.
Planning the Trip
A couple of months ago, my buddy Blake Rudis (f64academy.com) and I were talking about taking a photo trip. Blake was actually supposed to come to FL, but a scheduling conflict got in the way so we decided to take a trip to Washington state – a location I’ve wanted to go for a few years. The location is an area that’s home to many eagles, but also has many more eagles migrate to the area this time of year. So we made our reservations and made it happen.
Why This Location?
A common question I get is why did you fly all the way to Washington State (about as far in the US as I can possibly go from where I live) for eagles? They’re all over the southeast right where I live. The answer is that I’m personally not just looking for photos of an eagle in a tree. Yes, I can shoot that in many places. I’m looking for action shots. Catching fish, aerial acrobatics, and photographing the interactions of the birds squabbling with each other over food. And that can’t be found just anywhere. And even when you can find it, the big question is can you get close enough to photograph it for compelling photos.
I used my Sony Alpha 1, and the 600mm prime f/4 lens for most of this with a 1.4x teleconverter. I honestly would have used my 200-600mm, but Blake didn’t have one, so I brought mine along so he could use it. The 200-600mm is my go to lens for most of my bird photography though. Don’t let anyone tell you that you need a big prime $10K+ lens because you don’t – especially if you’re a Sony shooter, the less expensive lenses perform amazingly well and if I showed you two photos side by side you’d never be able to pick which lens I used. I also shoot this camera exclusively with the Sony “Tough” Type A CFExpress memory cards. You can’t beat them when shooting large bursts for clearing out the buffer quickly.
Because I was traveling with a big lens, other gear, and a laptop, I had to rethink my packing so I purchased this large 600mm lens bag which actually fit all of my other gear too. It’s not really built for it, but with some padding I was able to make it happen.
Settings and Post Processing
My settings are pretty simple and rather than include them with each photo I can go over it here since the exact ISO of each shot is irrelevant and it’ll never be the same. I shoot in Manual Exposure mode. Always the lowest f-stop number the lens will allow (f/5.6 for my lens/teleconverter combo). For action and in-flight shots I shoot around 1/3200th to 1/4000th shutter speeds, and if they land, and aren’t moving much, I typically don’t shoot – but if I want to get a nice portrait shot I’ll lower the shutter to 1/1000th or so. And I use Auto ISO to control the exposure, which is why I’m not mentioning ISO – I don’t set it, and knowing what mine was won’t help your situation.
As for other settings, I use Continuous AF mode, usually a wide AF Area. I have used matrix/evaluative metering 100% of the time for the last 20 years. I never personally never change it, as the photo on the back of my camera is my meter, and there’s no guess work involved like there was in film.
Finally, I used Lightroom Classic to manage the photos and get about 3000 images down to around 500. At that point I could probably delete more and get closer to 250, but I often keep images for teaching purposes for my courses (something most of you wouldn’t have to do). Basic toning and color was done in Lightroom and I used Photoshop to remove a few distractions as well as jump to Topaz DeNoise for noise reduction which also did a great job at sharpening, so there was no sharpening step.
Tides and Winds
One of the reasons we chose this particular week to go was because of the tides. From reading up on the area, low tides tend to be best because that’s when the fish get caught on the oyster beds and the birds come in to eat.
Low tide was usually around noon on the days were were there. But the action started getting pretty good as early as 8 to 8:30. In fact, on our first day we met a really great guy (George Campbell) there and he showed us some other nice spots to photograph while the tide was going out. I wouldn’t have gotten the shot below without his advice. Thanks George!
Now, you can predict the tides, but the winds are different. There’s an old saying for bird photography… “Wind in your face… butt in your face”. Birds typically like to take off and land in to the wind. Which also means when they catch fish, they prefer to be going in to the wind. So, if you feel the wind in your face guess what? They’ll be mostly moving in the opposite direction which means you have a whole bunch of butt shots. It’s not a 100% rule and the birds will typically have to fly in all directions at some point. But you put yourself in a position to get much better action shots if the wind is at your back.
Well… we weren’t so lucky for the days we were there. The winds were in our face the whole time. In some locations, you can position yourself or maybe shoot in another direction. Here, not so much. While it hindered us and we definitely saw our fair share of butt shots, there was still plenty of shooting to be had. But I can tell you I saw so many fish grabs from the water that were close to us, and would come close to filling the frame, but the eagle was facing away from us for many of them. We still got some amazing photos though, but I can only imagine what it would have been if the wind had been different.
Action All Around
While the winds didn’t help us, one thing that saved us was the reason we went to this location. You can take photos of eagles perched in many places, including right where I live. But to get great action shots, and be close enough for good quality photography isn’t as easy. This location lends itself to that which is why I went there.
One of the reasons it’s so good is that it’s got a great mix of local eagles but also many that migrate in to this area this time of year. Then, when the tide goes out and leaves the fish exposed on the oyster beds and rocks, the birds come in. Not just eagles but lots of herons, ducks and other species.
The eagles are interesting because, while they do grab many fish themselves, they also steal from the other birds or from other eagles. This is what creates such a great environment for photographers, because you can be almost positive that you’ll see plenty of eagles catching fish, and plenty of other eagles coming in to steal from each other.
At one point I looked out and didn’t know where to shoot because there was just so much going on. I counted 15+ eagles in one area and they were all doing something that was photo worthy, so it made it hard to know where to point your camera.
Just Like a Heat Wave!
Here’s an interesting one. This was something I’ve read about but never experienced. Well, I’ve experienced it when photographing from a car, and the heat emanating from the hood of the car (or the differing temps between inside and out) caused this weird distortion. But I’ve never had it while out shooting.
The first day we were there, there wasn’t much cloud cover and the sun was heating things up fast. When I was reviewing my photos (usually of the eagles down low close to the water and oyster beds), I started noticing they weren’t quite as sharp as I’d expect. I wasn’t pixel peeping and I’ve gotten to know the sharpness I should expect from my Sony Alpha 1 (which is nothing short of extraordinary). Something was definitely off. So I checked my settings and everything was good… and I tried again. And again, when I’d review the photos in my camera, they were off (Blake was saying the same thing, as were people around us). Then, as I was looking out across the shoreline it hit me. I could actually see the heat distortion coming off the ground, and it was wreaking havoc on the photos.
The photo you see below is almost a full frame un-cropped image of an eagle in flight. I know for a fact it was perfectly in focus because I saw the Sony Eye AF grab on to the eye while shooting. So the zoomed in area you see, with the box around it, should be absolutely razor sharp – and it’s not.
I wish I could say there was a fix but there wasn’t. As they say, it is what it is… If we were photographing the eagles higher in air, it wasn’t a problem. But most of the good action was happening close to the ground, and it pretty much made it un-shootable at that point. We tried going up a little higher (street level) but it still didn’t help much. So we packed up and left because things were dying down anyway. Thankfully, the next day had much more partly-cloudy cloud cover (which is naturally better for bird photography anyway), so it wasn’t much of an issue.
I saved this for last. This is really a tough one for me. As most of you reading this know, I’m an educator. And mostly an online educator at that, with very few workshops (and I don’t plan on that being part of my business). The reason I say that is because a lot of wildlife workshop leaders often keep their locations secret. Some landscape workshops do that too. But I’ve always been of the mindset to share everything and hide nothing. My goal is to always make you better and I can’t always do that if I’m hiding things.
So not sharing a location is a little weird for me. But after talking with locals and observing what happens when a location gets crowded, I’m not going to share this location and would kindly ask that if you know where it is please don’t share it in the comments. It’s not a secret by any means. I found out about it online when I saw some one mention Washington state and they shared eagle photos – after some googling, I was able to find it, so feel free to look on your own.
So why am I doing this? Because when places like this get overcrowded it not only has a negative effect on the wildlife, but also the community. This area is not built for crowds. It’s clear that year after year, as this location becomes more popular, the surrounding community isn’t really happy with it. And… it’s actually dangerous in some ways. It’s VERY close to a small two lane road, and I personally witnessed a few people get caught up shooting and stand WAY TO CLOSE to oncoming 50mph traffic, while looking through their camera and not paying attention. If I had to guess, in 5 years this location will not be what it is today. Hopefully I’m wrong, but that’s my guess.
I hope you enjoyed looking through the photos and maybe even learned a thing or two. It was a really great trip with Blake and one of my favorite things is that we didn’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn every day to shoot landscapes. In three days, the two of us managed to polish off a bottle of Bourbon (Buffalo Trace if you’re wondering), as well as go through a propane tank out back at the fire pit – while just relaxing every night.
Wow! Wow! Wow!
I live in west Skagit County in the San Juan Islands. We have quite a few eagles and other birds here. For your “contest” I will be trying to take shots of flying birds (and hopefully eagles) around Fidalgo Island and the Skagit Flats.
Let me know when you are in town and I’ll give you a “tour.”
Here’s something to make your eyes water!
Ruggard Alpine 600 Lens Backpack for DSLR and 600/800mm Lens (Black)
From Ruggard US US$139.95
Rubber Monkey in Aus: $649.00 AUD
and not even with gold stitching and lettering 🙂
Your commentary on the Sony A1 supported by these eagle photos along with your other recent bird photography photos and blogs has convinced me to switch from Nikon to Sony. I just received my A1, 2X TC and 100-400mm lens. Now all I have to do is learn how to get the best from this equipment. You truly have inspired me.
Oh yes, you now can consider yourself among my photographer friends who like to help me spend $$$.
Unfortunately, my wife is now extremely upset with Matt, and she doesn’t even know him. I was just on the fence with shooting mirrorless – and then I find that my mentor has gone A1. So- I informed my wife that I would need to be using our mortgage payment for a new camera and lens even if I don’t know the location. Seriously- I am moving to Sony and now have my A1 and evaluating the 100-400 vs the 200-600. I think I will end up with the 600mm.
Hi Michael. My apologies to your wife 🙂
I would suggest the 200-600mm. If you only gave me one lens to continue to shoot with that’s the one I’d pick (for wildlife that is).
I very much value your opinion. I don’t think I have ever encountered a photography educator as effective as you.
After your comments I immediately purchased the 200-600. My wife is now extremely happy that we can still live in our home and she’s trying to find your address so she can send you a bottle of bourbon! (By the way of your like smooth but flavorful bourbons – try Barrell bourbon)
Great photos, the settings information should be very useful. I have wanted to go to Washington State for some time to shoot the eagles. Surprised that there is some much eagal activity there in May, other things I have seen on the internet always talks about shooting the eagles in late fall and winter, so I was surprised to see there is so much activity there in May.
Were you able to take that large lens bag as a carry on or did you have to check it on the airplane? The bag looks too large from the web site photos to qualify as a carry on lugage.
Hi Art. Yes, I was able to take it on the plane as a carry on.
Matt – Great shots! Got a few myself. Thanks for not mentioning the location. Too many photographers there already. It’s almost in my backyard and there are only a few months in the year when the conditions are perfect.
I very much appreciated your tips in the Lightroom weeklong workshop a few weeks ago. It has changed my workflow considerably. Topaz Denoise Ai > Topaz Sharpen Ai to publish. Easy, quick, great results!
Awesome photos, Matt! I always love to see what you have done!
Fantastic photos. You mention that the Sony A1 is super sharp. Do you think it’s worth upgrading to from the 7Riii? I’m really struggling with that question. Thank you.
Linda… if your budget allows I can’t recommend this camera enough. It’s crazy expensive and (for me personally) worth EVERY penny if you’re in to wildlife photography. It allows you to capture photos that you simply wouldn’t have been able to a year ago. I would sell whatever I had to to buy this again if that’s enough of a glowing review for you 🙂
Super nice shots!! That 600mm is pretty darn nice!! Looks Like A fun trip!! Call me next time and I’ll go along!! (Kidding of course)!
Hi Matt! Fantastic photos! I would be interested to see how your A1 performs on smaller birds like humming birds… that is, if you can track these little speed demons in flight! 😂
Great shots Matt! I love your work and how you share your process and what you are learning. We photograph eagles here in Iowa on the Iowa River in Iowa City during the cold winter months. They are so fun to watch. One eagle will drop out of the tree and three others will follow it, ready to steal anything it gets! It seems like it would just be easier to fish for yourself. They put on quite a show. Glad to hear you enjoyed your trip. So much fun!
Thank you Matt. Your images are amazing and there is lots of great info in this post. I, too, am in a quandary when it comes to sharing locations. I love wildlife of all kinds and have also seen the effects when too many people “find out” a certain location. Photographers are not out to purposely hurt or distress their subjects. They must enjoy wildlife or they wouldn’t be there to photograph them. Since Covid, the numbers of photographers out there has increased dramatically. I do not post an exact location, unless it is very popular and already well known. I will give a very general location if that info is required if I choose to post on a page. Then someone interested can do a bit of homework and leg work.
I can only say that your shots were simply fantastic, great job
You so gently addressed the concern by Penny. As for me, when I see people photographing birds with expensive cameras that are way too close to a nest, I do say something and unfortunately, the response is not so gracious. The last encounter with one fellow was ridiculous. This man was just about jumping into a nest. I couldn’t hold back and told him he was way too close to the babies. His response was that he was a ‘professional photographer’. Hmmm, after my glorius response he left. When the parent bird returned, I tried to apologize in bird talk and the parent just starred at me and went on to feed her babies. Somehow she knew I was not the bad photographer.
conowingo dam in maryland is for eagles 🦅
Yes, I’ve seen some videos. I know several people who have done both and recommended Washington first. But Conowingo is next on my list and I’ll be there next Fall/Winter. Thanks!
We, in Delaware, experienced that with Short Eared Owls at Fowler’s Beach. Every afternoon they’d come out about 3 pm to hunt, and we’d see LOADS of cars pulling up to photograph it. A few photographers were leaving the roadways to crouch in the brush, I assume so the birds weren’t spooked. After that one day – and I got some pictures with my Nikon D3300 and 300mm Nikor lens – I didn’t go back because they (the humans) were so rude and pushing the birds. Who knows what they trampled when they went into the brush. They closed the site a while, but they were just over the top. They did it with Snowy Owls too. It’s sad because there are other photographers who are aware of when they might stress the birds and ecosystems.
Well… I’m not gonna buy that she knew you were a different photographer who meant well 🙂 I will say that if we judge everyone by the worst people we meet (and assume they’re all like that), we’d all be in a pretty bad place. There’s always bad people, but fortunately most are good. Thanks!
OMG! The photos are fabulous! I agree that, as wildlife photographers, we should be VERY mindful of the status of our subjects. It hurts my heart when pristine areas like the one you visited are ruined. Our wildlife is so precious!!!
Thanks Nancy. Just know, the wildlife in this area don’t care one bit about the humans. They chose this place even though huge trucks drive by it all day long. They, like humans are good at adapting. Plus, They’re so far out humans don’t bother them. I worry more about the community around it, that can’t handle the numbers of people, and the photographers who nearly stand in the middle of the road in oncoming traffic to get the shot.
I know what you mean by the photographers not being cautious by the highway. We have an eagle nest on our property and you can see it from a 2 lane country road. It is paved and speed limit is 55. The first year the nest was here the newspaper in the city about 30 miles away with 1/2 million people did a big article and we had hoards of people come out. It was awful. Kids and adults alike standing in the middle of the road. Yikes. I’m glad you didn’t share the location to a large amount of people. The area got trampled and roadway started to breakdown and fall into our lake. Luckily the crowds have gone away and the eagles are still here with 3 eaglets this year. Their 12th year at the nest.
superb imagery! Well done! The tip about heat distortion is particularly useful. I’m impressed at the deductive (inductive?) logic to get to the conclusion. I’ll carry that with me where ever I go in warm climes.
As a birder first, photographer second, I appreciate your comment about obliviousness. We have to learn, then be aware, that our subjects have limits that we need to understand before we can respect.
I second the comment about heat waves. I’ve had some very puzzling clarity issues with regular landscape shots lately here in AZ. Maybe that’s it. Love the birds!
Down here in Australia the heat haze makes it almost impossible to get low-to-the ground glider takeoff/landing shots. And of course they are not flying in the morning before the heat builds up but wait till late morning. All one can do is make it a feature of any such images.
and then there is all the haze created from the eucalyptus trees which gives a blue haze, and hence the name Blue Mountains out of Sydney.
As a Washington resident , I appreciate your discretion with the location. Yesterday I saw a photographer standing in brush very near to a Northern Harrier Hawk nest location. The female hawk was in distress with a meal in her talons while the photographer was oblivious to her worry and kept shooting. I see way too many photographers who only care to get a shot at the expense of the creatures.
Hi Penny. Thanks. Sometimes I think we’re also too hard on people. You said the word… oblivious. It doesn’t mean that photographer doesn’t “care”. It means they may not even know what they’re doing (big difference in my opinion). I know that years ago I probably wouldn’t have known. But hopefully through education we can help people see their impact. I think most people do care, but sometimes just don’t know. Thanks!
Glad you had such great success, Matt. I was supposed to spend a day last December on a special watercraft up on the river (close to where I suspect you were) with a couple of other photographers, but the boat operator couldn’t meet COVID protocols and had to shut down for the winter. I do plan to get there, though, and your images are a great inspiration for me.