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.