Dealing with challenging conditions

Every trade has its own specifics, and this applies also to photography, or wildlife photography to be more precise. To get things right you need to have the photographic skills to create the best possible image under the given circumstances. Unique behavior usually happens within seconds, and if you miss the opportunity you might not get a second chance. You have to stay focussed and alert, and try to anticipate the behavior of your subjects to get the results you are looking for. You have to manage everything correctly that is under your own influence, such as exposure, composition (framing), equipment (choice of lenses), etc. In most cases this by itself is already difficult enough, let alone if you add the environmental conditions that mother nature throws at you once in a while.

I went back to Alaska for a week of bald eagle photography with my friend Robert O'Toole. It was my third visit to the Kachemak Bay area located on the southwest side of the Kenai Peninsula. Timing is everything and the month of March proved to be the ideal time for weather and eagle activity. If you go earlier you run the risk of very cold weather and lots of ice in the bay, and if you go later it will be too warm and the eagles are preparing for their breeding season. We photographed the eagles from a boat, which allows for plenty of flexibility and different backgrounds. One thing I like about this area is the stunning scenery and mountain views combined with access to little bays and inlets.

The weather is a major player when it comes to taking great images. One thing is for sure that the weather in Alaska is never as they tell you in the forecasts. You have to pick a week and hope that you get rewarded with the best conditions. Last year we had a combination of great conditions, with snow, sun sets, and high overcast with great soft light. The temperature was always around freezing, which is the normal pattern for the time of the year. This year in the first week of March the conditions where very challenging. The temperature was close to 40F, and most days had heavy overcast with rain or wet snow showers. The light was very dull and grey. Also the eagles behaved differently this year with the warmer temperatures. They did not seem that hungry and active. Many times they were just sitting high up in the trees looking at us as if we were aliens. Even more reason to be on top of your game, and not to miss the great action moments.

If the conditions are really poor and there is simply not enough light to get sharp flight images, I automatically switch my camera to "blur-mode", and try to create pleasingly blurred images of flying eagles. I use a shutter speed anywhere between 1/15s and 1/60s, and try the pan with the bird at the same speed as it is flying. If you do it correctly, you get some parts of the bird relatively sharp while the background shows pleasing, soft streaks of color. Obviously, you have to lock focus on the bird's head or shoulders, just as you do to make a sharp image. It is not an easy task to get a good pleasingly blurred image, and you have to take a lot of images to end up with some keepers. At the back of the camera they often look pretty good, but once you download them on the computer and view them at a larger screen, you end up deleting a couple more. It is just a matter of keep trying, but it is a fun game when the light is very poor.

Since I hardly have the luxury to spend a couple of weeks in the same location with the same subject, I like to revisit a subject more than once, as that will give you a well rounded set of images that covers different behavior under changing circumstances. It also gives you the opportunity to focus on alternative compositions, and allows you the experiment, because you know you have already some great images in your portfolio. The chances are high that I will be photographing bald eagles again in 2014, just because it is so much fun to do.