Photo tips, tricks and my latest captures

Locations

My trip to Bitsi and Ah-shi-sle-pah badlands, New Mexico

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The first time I saw an image of Bitsi Badlands in New Mexico it immediately was added to my list of must see places. Finally I was able to make it happen.
Bitsi is an alien landscape in the St. Juan basin dotted with hoodoos and other strange-looking rock formations. It is near the four corners area. The closest major city is Farmington, NM. It is about a three hours drive from Albuquerque. Very few people visit this remote area. Most of the area is public land managed by BLM. However some of the adjacent land is private native Indian land.

Larger map of the area,

NM map

Close up map

Bitsi
According to my research, spring and fall are the best times to visit. Spring can be windy and the fall is the end of the rainy season. Summer can be very hot, but this is the best time to visit if you want dramatic skies. Winter can be very cold.
I flew to Albuquerque and rented a SUV packed with camping gear and enough food to last for several days. I took I-40 west and I-371 north to reach Bisti. It took me nearly 3 hrs to get there.

Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
The Bitsi wilderness consists of two main washers. The Hunter wash is to the north and the Alamo wash is to the south. Even though these two washes are right next to each other, there is no direct road between the two. Road 7280 between the two is impassable due to flooding. You have to go back to 371 to reach the other wash. From the parking lot the badlands expands to the east and ascends. If you ever get lost go west until you reach the road and then find the parking lot. There are no trails, signs or facilities at Bitsi. Primitive camping is allowed.
Hunter wash
Brewing Thunderstorm at the parking lot, Hunter Wash
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Thunderstorms can be very dramatic in New Mexico. You don’t want to be caught in a thunderstorm in the Bisti area. You will get stuck regardless of what kind of vehicle you drive.
After a rainfall the sand turns into sticky and slick paste making the roads impassable.

Getting to Hunter wash

If you’re travelling from Farmington take I-371 south and make a left to county road 7290.  At the junction there is a historical marker.
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At the entrance there is a sign stating that you cannot access Bisti/ De-Na-Zin. ( This is public land and you’re not trespassing).  The road ends at the wilderness parking area. Park near the fence and climb over or under the fence to get to the wilderness area. The road is not well maintained and part of it is washed off. I still think you can make it to parking lot in a passenger car, but a high clearance vehicle is recommended.
From here go east for close to a mile to find interesting hoodoo formations. The main attraction here are the wings.
harshaj_141022_50-blog2 I photographed these from a mound at a lower level looking up. From here you can frame both wings. Climbing up to them gives you a different perspective (the image above). There are many interesting hoodoo formations nearby.

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Alamo wash
This wash has two parking areas (an old parking area, as well as a new one). The old parking area is bigger, but the newer one has a sign.
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From here head east. Your first landmark is two red mounds at a distance.
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Head towards those red mounds. This trail is parallel to a fence line that extends for quite a distance. The fence line takes a left turn after you pass the red mounds. If you want to see cracked eggs and other formations keep to the right (southeast) of the mounds and follow the wash. Your next landmark is two black hills at a distance. Now you want to be on the left hand side of the hills.
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Again head south and follow the wash. The cracked egg factory is around the corner. This can be easily missed if you don’t pay attention. After photographing the egg factory, go east. Each turn takes you to many different hoodoo formations. Keep going until you find the area called Hoodoo City.
Million year old petrified trees can be found everywhere.
petrified tree Coming back you may want to check out the hunter wash from this side. If you decide to do that follow the fence line when it starts taking the left hand turn (north). The hike here is definitely more interesting. On my way back from hunter wash I tried to use memory instead of my GPS (thought I wouldn’t recommend this). I lost my way and wasted 45 minutes trying to get back to the parking lot.
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The shot below was taken about an hour before the sunrise. You can see the first light on the right upper corner.

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Cracked Eggs an hour before sunrise

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Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area

Don’t forget to visit the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area when visiting Bisti. This part of the  badlands is between Chaco Canyon and Bistsi Wilderness. This area was made famous by the discovery of a specimen of a dinosaur from the late Cretaceous Period. The specimen was unearthed by Charles Sternberg and is now preserved at the Museum of Evolution in Uppsala Sweden.
Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is known for its yellow capped hoodoos. It is conveniently divided into three main areas.
The main area ( The study area)
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If you’re coming from Farmington, take 371 south to mile post 61. Take a left turn to 7650. Go 7.6 miles and make a right turn to 7870. Go 7.6 miles until you come to a T-junction. Make a left and drive 2.6 miles to the parking area for Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah on the left hand side. There is only room for one car at this parking spot, but you can park on the road.
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From here to the trail head is 0.6 miles.
On my first visit, I arrived there around 2:30pm then set off around 3:30 to scout the area. As soon as I reached the main area, I went to the valley to explore. You can also get good views from the edge of the rim. Nonetheless, I wanted to photograph the yellow hoodoo which is shown here. I could see it from the valley, but there was no easy way to get up there. After trying many routes, I finally managed to reach the area. The first thing I did upon arrival here,  was to make note of the best way out in case I decided to stay late. The climb is scary and not for the faint of heart  (unless, of course, there is an easy way to get up that I was unable to find). A GPS unit is highly recommended to find your way around.
King of the wing
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This area is famous for the hoodoo with a long wing perched on a rock mound. To get to KOW take 7650 for 10.5 miles and turn left into a jeep trail that will take you to a windmill which you can see from the main road. You can park here or continue on the same trail for another 1/2 Mile. If you continue on the trail, then assure you have a high clearance vehicle since the road becomes rough. There is an open area on the left hand side where you can park. Once you park, head south towards the KOW. I parked beyond the windmill. To my surprise, there was another SUV already at the parking area. This area is tribal land so please do not camp here. You have to first go under the fence line heading south. After a while you come across a sea of green mounds that you have to cross. Some of the mounds are impossible to cross. The best way is to go around it. If you look to your right hand side you can see a small hill covered in wiry scrub. Head toward that and try to go around the mounds in a southerly direction. KOW is hidden from sight until you’re very close to it.
I was there at sunset with only a few clouds. I did star trails until 11pm.
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While my camera was running, I lay on a flat rock and looked at the stars and the beautiful milky way. I was annoyed by all the air traffic at night because it ruined many of my frames, thus creating more work for me. One should prepare for the cooler temperatures here at night. I started heading to my car close to midnight. It took me about 48 minutes to follow the route back using my GPS device. Make sure you have two headlights if you decide to get back at night in case one fails. It happened to me and the thought of spending the night there was kind of scary.
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Valley of dreams

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Approach

Take CR 7650 for 7.8 miles and then turn into 7870 and drive for about 7.5 miles. Turn left to an unmarked road and head north for about 0.4 miles. bear left and go another 0.7 miles then make a sharp left. Drive for 0.4 miles and park.
Once you have parked here, mark it on your GPS and head north. It is about a mile hike but you have to cross a few dry creeks to get there. As you travel, there are many interesting hoodoo formations including an ancient roman city, mushroom formations and hoodoos looking like temples. Mark these sights on your GPS while scouting so you can come back to these when light is better.
There is another group of hoodoos called Valley of dreams east. I found these less interesting, but you might think otherwise. You can drive right up to these hoodoos so they are ideal for star trails. While the camera is running you can sleep in the safety of your car.

General tips

1. Take a GPS and extra batteries. Map will be useful if you don’t have a GPS.

2. In Bisti, walk west if you got lost. This will take you to the road.

3. Do not go there in rain. You will get stuck.

4. Scout the area in advance.

5. The best pictures are taken during the blue hour (an hour before and after both sunrise and sunset)

6. Take plenty of water and a headlight in case you decide to walk to the car in the dark.

7. No cell coverage.

If you find any of this info is inaccurate then please let me know so that I can make corrections.

Finally I have a new FB page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Harsha-Jayawardena-Photography/356029497940998 Please like the page if you want to follow my Photography.


My day trip to Sax Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota

I had the weekend off and decided to go  Sax Zim Bog looking for owls. I saw only one Great Grey Owl in poor lighting and no hawk owls.. However I got to see a Northern Hawk Owl near Duluth.. He was corporative for few minutes before flying off.

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Finches at the feeders were very active.

Common Redpoll

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These are the only Great Grey Owl shots I got. .

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Stay tuned for trip reports on Canadian Rockies and Bisti Badlands of New Mexico.


Saw Whet Owl

Saw Whet Owl is one of the cutest owls you can find in North America. These owls are particularly friendly and tolerate the proximity of humans. This owl is about the size of an American Robin.They typically spend their daylight hours sleeping on a branch just above the eye level. At night fall they begin their hunt for small mammals like mice.
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I have been fortunate to find a saw whet owl close to where I live every winter. This winter was no exception. My first two outings around Christmas yielded nothing. Not only did I not find the owl but I also lost my tripod head which came undone from the tripod while I was navigating among the thick brush. Little did I know that this was a blessing in disguise. Three days later when I realized that I lost the tripod head I decided to go looking for it. Fortunately, I could still see my footsteps in the snow. After 45 minutes of searching I found the tripod head. Just a few feet away the saw whet owl was waiting for me. To my surprise it was very alert. The big yellow eyes followed my every move.
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Two days later we had 5-6 inches of snow. The temperature was a frigid 1*F with gusting winds. Against my better judgement, I decided to head over to the nature center looking for the owl. I found the owl about two hundred feet to the north of my original sighting. The owl was clearly not as impressed with me. It hardly open its eyes.
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After observing the owl for about 30 minutes I was ready to head home but decided to get a picture from a different angle. Then I noticed the mouse. The owl had caught a mouse and gone to sleep holding on to it. I am sure he/she was saving the poor mouse for a snack later on. harshaj_150104_50 copy 2web


Image

My Best images of 2014

It has been a great year and I am looking forward to next year for good photo opportunities. Here are my favorite images of the year. (Go to my website for larger versions. http://www.harshaj.smugmug.com)
Happy New Year
1. Rise above the clouds_ Mt Rainier, Washington USA

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2. Wildflowers_ Columbia River Gorge_ Oregon
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3. Ruby Beach Sunset_ Washington
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4. Proxy Falls, Three Sisters Wilderness, Oregon
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5. Snowy Owl Hunting, Minnesota
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6. Great Fountain Geyser. _Yellowstone NP
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7 Yellow Hoodoos_Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness , New Mexico
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8.Star Trails, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness
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9. Elk_ Yellowstone NP
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10. Hawk Owl
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Bristlecone pine tree under the canopy of the Milky Way Galaxy

Bristlecone pine trees are some of the oldest living things in the world. They are found at very high elevations usually above 9000 feet. They prefer soil rich in dolomite. Dolomite has a high concentration of calcium magnesium carbonate (very alkaline) and only very few species can grow in this soil. Bristlecone pines thrive in this harsh environment. This particular forest is part of the Inyo National Forest in California. Getting there is easy. Take highway 168 just north of Big Pine. Follow Hwy 168 east 13 miles to White Mountain Road. Turn left (north) and drive 10 miles to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. There is a $3 fee. If your pressed for time take the Discovery trail (1 mile) which is shorter but has two of the most famous photogenic  trees. This tree had been dead for a while. Harshaj_061207_1655web This living tree ( 3000-4000 yrs old) sits right next to the dead tree. Harshaj_061206_1505web The Methuselah Trail is 4.5 miles long and has an elevation gain of 900 feet. This trail takes you to the world’s oldest tree. The tree is estimated to be 4,743 years old and not marked to avoid vandalism. This is a view looking south from the Methuselah Trail. harshaj_130711_375web Patriarch Grove Take the gavel road for 12 miles  from  Schulman Grove . The Patriarch Gove has the largest Bristlecone pine tree in the world. It is well-marked on the  Timberline Ancients Nature Trail.  Elevation here is at least 11, 000 feet. If you walk southwest from  the parking lot for less than 1/4 mile you come across several very photogenic pine trees. harshaj_130710_307web This brings me to the title picture that is displayed above.  In the next post I will talk about planning and making this shot. Stay tuned.


Setting Exposure for Bald Eagle Photography at Lock and Dam 14 by Larry Williams

Harsha asked me to provide a short Blog on how I set up exposure for photographing Bald Eagles at Lock and Dam 14.  This is not an easy endeavor to undertake.  The migratory eagles are at Lock and Dam 14 from December through February.  The skies are usually over-cast 90% of the time.  Under these circumstances, selecting the correct exposure to photograph eagles in flight is a challenge because they have very white heads and tails with extremely dark bodies and little light to work with.

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Like many of you, bird photography is my recreational passion.  Setting exposure in shifting light is a continual challenge and a learning experience which I’m forever trying to improve.

Exposure generally consists of three elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  However, in my opinion, how the camera measures light and White Balance (WB) are two other factors that contribute to a well exposed photograph.

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Utilizing a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV and a Canon EF 500mm f/4 L lens, I start off with the following settings:

                        ISO: 400

                        Shutter Speed: 1/1600 of a second

                        f/stop: 5.6

                        Light Meter: Evaluative, Partial, Spot Metering

                        White Balance: Auto WB

                        Mode: Manual

ISO: I try to use the lowest ISO possible which is usually 400, but I will adjust the ISO from 100 to 1600 depending on the available light.  Higher ISO settings often tend to become “noisy” or “grainy”.  Each model of camera has its’ own limitations.  The newer cameras like Nikon D800, Nikon D4, Canon 1DX, and Canon 5D Mark III are producing some excellent noise free photographs at extremely high ISO settings.  (More on this later in “Putting it all together“.)

Shutter Speed:  I like to use 1/1600 of a second to help freeze the eagles wings and to decrease camera shake.  Remember, just because you might be using a tripod, there is still shaking of the camera.  Eagles are not Hummingbirds, they have a relative slow wing beat.  You can freeze their wing motion with as little shutter speed as 1/1000 of a second.  (More on this later in “Putting it all together“.)

f/stop:  I start out using an f/stop of 5.6.  The widest aperture of my 500mm lens is f/4.  I’m not to concern with Depth of Field, because telephoto lenses give very shallow DOF.  (More on this later in “Putting it all together“.)

Light Meter: I have used Evaluative, Partial, and Spot Metering in the past. If you can hold the “Spot Meter” on a flying eagle, that’s probably the most accurate, however, I have been using Evaluative Metering lately because I can’t hold the “Spot Meter” on the moving subject.  Heck, I’m lucky to keep the bird in my frame.  In my opinion, each of the above metering systems end up taking a light reading of the background usually the sky or water. (More on this later in “Putting it all together“.)

White Balance: I use Auto WB about 95% of the time.  White Balance can be adjusted in Post Processing as needed, but usually, it’s pretty much on the mark.

Mode:  I use Manual Mode probably 90% of the time.  The other 10% is either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority.  (More on this later in “Putting it all together“.)

I then point the camera at the Service Lock and take a light reading on the gray paint of the doors.  This light reading gives you a perspective of the available light.  I use the color of this door to obtain a “Neutral Gray” light reading.  It may not be an exact rendition of a “Neutral Grey” exposure card, but it’s close enough.  “Neutral Gray” can be thought of as a color in the middle of absolute black (no light at all) and absolute white (100% of all colors in the light spectrum).  Kind of in the middle of the Eagle’s white head and their dark body.  Hymmmm. 

Looking at the meter, I determine what the exposure is.  It could be under-exposed or over-exposed.  The degree of exposure is also shown by the swing of the pointer into the positive or negative light meter bar.

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Putting It All Together

 

The first exposure correction that I make is usually to adjust the ISO.  I adjust this setting so that I am “over-exposing” a bit. 

I generally expose for the white of the eagles’ head.  Why? Because when an eagle is in flight and the background is the sky, “lightmeters” will read the sky not the eagle, thus under exposing the bird.  If the “light meter” is set in the Spot or Partial Metering Mode, you still get a light reading of the sky because of the difficulty in holding the spot on the bird, therefore I have been using the Evaluative Metering Mode.

Manual Mode

As stated above this is the mode that I use most of the time.  I have my camera setup so that I can adjust exposure from the neutral position with a flick of my index finger, controlling the f/stop using the Main Dial next to the shutter release, or by thumbing the Quick Control Dial on the back of the camera for shutter speeds. 

Using the Main Dial, I can open up the exposure by clicking it to the left one or two times from f/5.6 to either f/4.5 or f/4 or closing the aperture down by clicking it to the right.  The “sweet spot” of my 500mm lens is at f/4.5, however, by originally setting the f/stop to f/5.6 I have more room to increase or decrease exposure at will.  Usually, I only have time to adjust it by one or two clicks either way.

Using the Quick Control Dial virtually does the same thing for exposure, but utilizing the Shutter Speed.  By setting the original shutter speed to 1/1600, I then can then decrease it to 1/1250 or 1/1000 or up to 1/2000 well within good wing freezing speed as needed.

Shutter Priority

After setting the “Neutral Gray”, you can set your camera mode to “Shutter Priority”.

For the most part, this will give you some good photos, however, by sliding the exposure wheel to the right 1/3 to 2 f/stops you will over expose the photo to compensate for the light meters‘ reading of the sky.  This then will give you a better exposed eagle, but the sky will be very bright.  I’m usually more concern with good exposure of the bird, not the sky.

Aperture Priority

This mode basically works the same way as the Shutter Priority except you are dialing in the Aperture that you desire.

I use Shutter and Aperture Priority when the light is constantly changing.  For example, on a sunny day with a lot of Cumulus Clouds drifting by, the subject (eagle) can fly into and out of either the shadows of  clouds or into or out of the sunlight.

Auto ISO

Auto ISO is becoming a very good tool.  I think it’s best used in either Shutter or Aperture Priority.

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Photographers at LD 14

 

A Couple of Helpful Hints

 

1.   Under exposure causes “noise”. 

2.  Looking at the histogram also helps to a degree, but remember, you are exposing for the bird, not the sky or water.

3.  A photograph that is a bit over exposed will give you less noise and more color to work with.  A balance of “Black” and “White” is really what exposure is all about.  Remember, “Black” is void of color and “White” has all colors.  To dark gives you noise and less to work with in Post Processing, to much light is like looking at the sun, it’s blinding, and called “Burned Highlights”.

4.  After you have everything set, take a few photos of the seagulls.  This will show you what your exposures are like.

5.  The light is always changing, so constantly check your exposure either by metering the gray door, or shooting gulls.

Good shooting!

About Larry.

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Larry ‘s first camera was a “Kodiak Instamatic“.  He purchased his first SLR camera in 1968 while serving in Viet Nam as a Combat Medic with the 9th Infantry Division of the U. S. Army.  In those days, Canon had just incorporated a light sensing system in the Canon FT QL SLR 35mm camera which cost $150.

After returning home, Larry graduated from college and later became a Registered Respiratory Therapist.  The majority of his working career was dedicated to directing the Cardiopulmonary and Neurodiagnostics Services at Agnesian Healthcare in Fond du Lac, WI.  He initiated a hospital based Durable Medical Equipment company, a Sleep Disorders Center, a family practice clinic, along with many other endeavors.

The joy of his life is interacting with  his two adult daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth and both granddaughters.  His partner, Gloria keeps him on track and greatly encourages his photography.

Larry’s passion for nature photography keeps him “Chasing the Light” at home in Silvis, IL and throughout North America and the Caribbean.  His favorite subjects are Eagles and Hummingbirds.  When in the Caribbean, while Gloria soaks up the sun on the beaches, Larry is out scouting the islands with camera in hand for indigenous hummingbirds.  It’s always a thrill to travel to new places with his photo friends.  Nature photographers have a deep connection that is always a learning and joyful encounter.


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. https://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

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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