Photo tips, tricks and my latest captures

Photographing Bald Eagles, Lock and Dam 14, Mississippi River 2013

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Each January I look forward to visiting Lock and Dam 14 on the  Mississippi river in Le Clair, Iowa. Eagle numbers peak during the second and third week of January. Last year was a complete flop. Warm weather and a plummeting shag population kept the eagles away from this particular dam. Lock and Dam 14 does not usually have the biggest concentration of eagles. However it is the best place to take pictures of fishing bald eagles.

Please read my blog post from last year here. http://harshajphotos.wordpress.com/2011/02/

More Eagle pictures can be seen here http://harshaj.smugmug.com/Nature/Birds/Bald-eagles/15175398_pPp34b#!i=1194847071&k=7qLHC89

Arieal view of LD 14

LD 14

During the eagle season the platform can get very crowded and so if you are planning a visit try to get there early. The best time of the day is between 11AM to 4.30 PM.  Foggy mornings can offer interesting creative opportunities. After 4PM the sun goes down behind the tree line and the river is in the shade. Photography can be OK all day on cloudy overcast conditions.  Sunny early afternoon with southwest wind is an ideal day for eagle photography.

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I have listed a few suggestions below that may be helpful:

1.  Eagle activity is sporadic and you may be standing there  for several hours in subzero temperatures.  Dress warm. Wear layers. My toes tend to get very cold . I wear a  sock liner, woollen socks and snow boots to keep them   warm. The chemical heating pads can save the day.

2. There are a few photographers who will get fish to feed the eagles. This benefits everybody. Think about contributing  few dollars to the person supplying the fish.

3. Keep extra batteries in your coat pocket. The camera batteries can drain quickly in this cold weather.

4. I have my long lens( 600, 500 or 400) on a tripod and a medium telephoto lens( 200, 300 or 400) around by shoulder. The medium telephoto is useful for eagles flying overhead and when they fish  closer to the platform.

5. Get the exposure right. It can be challenging to get the feather details properly  exposed  without over exposing the white head. A little bit of over exposure in the whites can be recovered in software especially if you shoot raw. Recovering under exposed shadow areas can  result in noise.   Histogram in the LCD screen is your friend.  I have my camera LCD set to showing the blinkies. ( over exposed area start blinking). Adjust the exposure so your histogram is all the way to the right without going over.  Since lighting conditions can change quickly you need to keep an eye on the histogram from time to time. If you are new to photography, I would recommend using aperture priority.  Many experience photographers like the manual setting. They meter  neutral target( something grey or green) and adjust the exposure off of that.

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When the conditions are cloudy with diffuse lighting I tend to add + exposure compensation. This can go as high as +1. When it is sunny I tend to keep zero or even – compensation. This varies between different brands of cameras or different camera models of the same brand.

6. Maintained at least a minimum sutter speed of 1/1000 second to freeze the action. Higher is better.  1/800 will give you blurry wing tips which conveys a sense of motion. If the light is good I try to crank up my aperture to 7.1 or 8 get more depth of focus.

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7.Lately I have been using Auto ISO in my camera successfully. It takes lots of the guess-work out of the equation. I set my d800 and d3 cameras as follows. Go to menu and turn on auto iso . In aperture priority mode you select the aperture you want and the minimum shutter speed. The iso changes when the correct exposure cannot be maintained by the given aperture.  In manual setting (M mode)  the iso changes if the shutter speed and the aperture you selected won’t achieve the desired exposure. In shutter priority( S mode) you set the minimum shutter speed and the camera changes the aperture and the iso to maintain that shutter speed.

I recommend following auto iso settings to start with.

Aperture priority, Aperture 5.6( if light is good I will go as high as 8 and  if  light is bad go wide open), iso range 100-1000, minimum shutter speed of  1000 (but I will dial this up to 1250 or 1600 if the light is good)

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8. These are my Nikon D800 AF settings for eagle photography.

AF-on button activate the AF.(a4)

Drive mode set to CH(high)

AF-C and Af points to D-9

a1 – Release
a3 – Short to Normal
a6 – on
a7 – 51
a8 – off

Metering- My default metering is matrix metering. I use this for 95% of the time and works well.  Only instance when this may not work is when shooting in bright sunny days and the eagle is backlit. In those instances I use center weighted matrix metering.

9.. Flash with a flash extender can be useful but I rarely use it.

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10. Take care of your equipment. The platform is full people from fisherman lugging their gear  to kids running around . They can easily bump into your gear and topple them. Worse the gear can go overboard. I witnessed a Nikon 600mm lens and a D800($15000) fall into Mississippi river just last week.

11. Bring a snack

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29 responses

  1. Thanks for this, Ken.

    January 14, 2013 at 12:12 am

  2. Anthony Gomes

    Thanks for your report I hope to be there on the 25 th

    January 14, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    • Dawn Riddle

      me too :)

      January 15, 2013 at 2:11 am

  3. Joseph Martines

    I wish I had seen your site two years ago when I went for the first time. Thanks for including images of the site. They should be helpful to anyone who thinks about going.

    Regarding the chemical warmers – I use the “toe” warmers and “hand” warmers. SWANY makes an expensive glove within a mitten. The mitten has a zipper which when open allows your finger trip the camera. There is enough room in the mitten between the finger gloves that allows room for the chemical hand warmers.

    January 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    • Thanks Joseph for the glove recommendation. I will definitely look into that.
      Thanks
      Harsha

      January 15, 2013 at 3:59 am

  4. Joseph Martines

    Harshar:

    I read your hints from last year. How do you set auto ISO on a Canon 1D3 or are you using a Nikon??

    January 14, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    • Sorry Joseph. I am a nikon guy and not familiar with 1D3 to give specific recommendations but it should be somewhat similar to nikon.
      Harsha

      January 15, 2013 at 4:01 am

  5. Bob Barnes

    Harsha,
    I just recently found your blog—-what great pictures you have. I have been wanting to go to the river also.
    Bob—from Oskaloosa

    January 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

  6. cohenfive

    great comments, i’d love to see more images from the site…including one of all the photogs lined up on the platform! it must look like the courthouse when lindsay lohan has to make an appearance!

    January 30, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    • Lori

      Go to the Flickr group called Lock and Dam 14. Lots of pics of eagles and the photogs.

      January 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

  7. Harsha: Nice site and Eagle photo tips.

    January 31, 2013 at 12:43 am

  8. roxanne peterson

    So if I go the send week in february – will it be worth it. Or will I have missed the window of opportunity going that late? Great pics. Thanks

    January 31, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    • Roxane,
      It depends on the conditions . Eagle activity is good in cold weather. Eagles tend to migrate north satrting in late February so if you’re planning a trip do it in the early part of the month.

      February 1, 2013 at 1:46 am

  9. Lori

    Great info and it really is a great place to get up close and personal with the eagles. The photographers I’ve seen there have been really helpful.

    January 31, 2013 at 9:48 pm

  10. It’s been a decent year since it’s stayed cold. Just got some photos around Muscatine today and while counts aren’t what they were a month ago, there’s some decent opportunities. Thanks for sharing this info by the way, it’s proved useful1

    February 26, 2013 at 1:58 am

    • Thank you very much Mark. Never been to Muscatine. Next year I will check this area.
      harsha

      February 26, 2013 at 4:54 am

  11. I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment. Is there a way you can remove me from that service? Cheers!

    Next time I read a blog,

    March 31, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    • You can unfollw the blog by clicking on the menu on the top left coner of the blog. Try that. I tried but I cannot find a way to remove your name from the list from this end.

      April 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm

  12. Aw, this was a really nice post. Spending some time and actual effort to create a good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don’t seem to get anything done.

    April 16, 2013 at 5:54 pm

  13. Tom Crossan Photography

    Again thanks for a great article and I have set my D800 as above, so looking forward to my next shoot of the wedge-tailed eagles.

    September 9, 2013 at 6:04 am

  14. Paul

    Thanks for the great suggestions and specifics on settings. Just got a d800e and am heading out the LD14/15 in a couple weeks to do exactly the same shoots. Thanks, you’re awesome.

    December 12, 2013 at 6:54 pm

  15. Wow!!! Great suggestions. Heading over there tomorrow. I have a Canon, but am going to use the settings you’ve suggested on my camera and hope to get at least a couple of shots that compare to yours…Unbelievable shots my friend! You are a pro!

    January 1, 2014 at 8:10 pm

  16. I enjoyed your comments and your photographs. I live in South Dakota and I may be going through Dam and Lock 14 area in late April, I am wondering whether there will be any eagles there at that time or have they all gone north?

    Thanks

    January 28, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    • Hi John,
      Late April is too late. Towards the end of February most of the birds start migrating north. You will still sea few resident eagles but the opportunities to photograph them are not very good. Starting early May the white pelicans start migrating and several hundred can be seen near the locks.
      Harsha

      January 28, 2014 at 11:14 pm

  17. Mike macdonald

    How are the eagle counts now. I’m trying to make it to L&D 14 next weekend. Is it to late to see a lot of eagles?

    February 3, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    • Eagle counts are good right now. Next weekend should be good.

      February 4, 2014 at 1:23 am

  18. Rich Turner

    I’m coming in mid-afternoon on the 13th to be there most or all of the day on the 14th. Have to head back home on Saturday. Been over in Ottumwa trying to find eagles to shoot but they seem to be hiding this year. Thousands of Canada Geese at the dam down town with a lot of open water there but no eagles. Well, I saw one circling high overhead once but he quickly glided out of sight. Not sure where they’re feeding as there’s only 4-5 open spots in the river that I could see driving along for nearly 25 miles. There has been up to 50-60 eagles hanging out there during the winters or so I’ve been told. Had more luck there when I was here over Thanksgiving. I actually say more turkeys (40-50) than eagles this trip! Looking forward to more consistent activity at L&D14!

    February 12, 2014 at 12:05 am

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