How to Shoot a Bald Eagle

Every winter, the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Maryland is home to countless Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Seagulls, Cormorants and other water like birds. My first visit to the dam was last year, when I rented a Canon 400mm L f/2.9 IS USM lens from

I quickly learned that not only was my Canon 60D faulty, but I also was a complete idiot in trying to capture huge Bald Eagles in flight. Even with my mumblings and cursings, I managed to capture a few half-way decent photos, vowing that I would be back the next year better prepared.

After upgrading my camera to a Canon 7D and lots of practice, I took the plunge and rented the super telephoto Canon 500mm F/4.0 L IS from Ordering the lens, Gitzo tripod, and Wimberly Gimball II Head, the staff were meticulous with my order. As I already own an Arca Swiss Mount plate, I didn’t include it with my order. On the day of shipment, Borrowlenses called me to make sure I really didn’t need a mount plate. The last thing they wanted to happen is for me to not have what I needed to have a complete tripod/lens kit.

Arriving in a huge box by a friendly Federal Express person, I quickly opened up the box and put the kit together. Now the excitement begins as I can’t wait to play with this huge lens while birding.

Teeny camera – BIG Lens

With the whole kit and kaboodle of camera’s, lenses, extra batteries and memory cards, and the hefty tripod, I loaded up the car and headed out before dawn to reach the dam around sunrise. It was to be a cold day even though a high of low 50’s was promised. A lot of standing around leads to a cold body. So I bundled up like a powder puff kid and off I went.

Arriving at Conowingo Dam, Turkey Vultures lurked about, watching over the parking lot with a keen eye hoping for some breakfast.

But the stars of the day were to be the Bald Eagles. Setting up along the chain link fence, I began the long and patient wait for the Eagles to make their presence known. The morning started cold and cloudy, but moved on to a warmer and sunnier day. But the Sun was the only one that was smiling between the two of us. It proved to be another day of mumbling and cursing.

You see, I always have difficulty finding focus. No matter how hard I tried, I kept capturing shots that were blurry. Of course, that being said, the first challenge for me was that I discovered that my sensor was super dirty ! I never noticed all the specks and dust until this morning. As a girl scout, I’m always over prepared. But invariably something is forgotten. Today’s forgotten item – the all so important lens cloth and cleaning kit. Cursing and doing the best I could with what I had available to me, I continued to try to shoot.

Setting the camera on Aperture Priority, I selected F/7.1 and with the sun I was able to drop down to an ISO of 400, allowing the camera to select the shutter speed. It has been always suggested that when photographing birds in flight to use the AI Servo option (Canon) which allows the camera to continuously focus. Allow me to say, that AI Servo doesn’t work for me. I find it continuously searches and inconsistently focuses on my desired subject.

Centered focus point – yep, still no focus. Auto 16 point focus – yep, still no focus.

But the unfocused shots didn’t discourage me as I kept trying by going back and forth between AI Servo and One Shot focus. Centered Focus Point, to Autofocus 16 points. Surely something would be a keeper. One great success though was my exposure. Now shooting exclusively in RAW, and using a -2/3 Exposure Compensation, I was able to capture the birds without blowing out their heads and tails.

Perhaps in the maxed out 32 Gig, 1200+ photos that were taken today, surely there is a gallery shot in there somewhere. Lots of patience required as the activity was slow today. Watch and wait..hope that a Bald captures a fish and the subsequent battle for the fish occurs.


Stay tuned for my next post on my efforts for that “Gallery Shot” of the Bald Eagles. At least one more visit will be taken this week before having to return my borrowed lens.

40 replies »

    • Thanks Justin ! So happy you enjoyed this post and sharing my suffering through my attempts in capturing these images. I feel they are better than last year’s, but still wanting perfection. 🙂 Hope to see you back soon! Bella

    • You are so kind John, and it’s wonderful to see your comment this morning. You would love to visit them as there were more than 50 eagles around the dam. I’m sure there were more. They are fat and sassy because of the easy Shad pickings.

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I hire lenses too! It’s a great way to do things. I am looking forward to the gallery shot. You obviously set the bar very high as I would be pleased with many of the shots you already have.

    • Thank you so much Rachel ! I love renting – you get to pretend you’re a big boy, without the huge money down. Yes, I suppose I have set the bar high. First criteria, must be crisp, crisp, crisp. That brings it down to maybe one shot? LOL !

  2. I really like your blog, that’s why I’ve nominated you to the very inspiring blogger award, visit my blog to know how it works 🙂

  3. Hi Emily, so glad I checked in today and found your posting of the Cononwingo Dam eagles! You did up getting some terrific shots!
    I really like the third from last where the lower eagle is reaching up with that skyhook to grab his friend’s fish!
    I too have used borrowlenses and been very happy with them.
    I would expect that using a 7D you should *always* be on AI Servo for BIF and other action shots.
    On my 7D I have found that Center Point Expanded (in the custom settings) works best at least for me for obtaining focus.
    Are the eagles there mostly out of range for a 300-400mm lens? Is a 500 minimum required?
    I ask this because I *can not* shoot BIF using a tripod. I shoot all flights handheld, so I can pan and follow. I could hand hold a 400 2.8 or a 500 4 but that would get tiring.
    Well anyway I was really happy to see you post here and looks like you had a super time!

    • Can’t tell you how HAPPY I am that you dropped in today. I really needed some coaching. I really need to use the tripod for that 500mm lens, but will promise to handhold my 100-400mm to pan and shoot. I did all right, regardless of the tripod.
      I haven’t put up my ‘best’ shots yet as I’m thinking of creating a sale gallery.
      Ok..I’ll be a good girl and use AI servo, and will adjust the center point expanded as you’ve suggested. Thanks for that tip!
      For the distance, they can be close and they can be far. Sometimes they fly overhead and forget getting that bird in the 500mm – they’re too big for it!
      Can’t wait for round two with your coaching Phil. Thank you so much!

    • Oh ! I thought of a question – when using AI Servo, do you press and hold the shutter button halfway continuously while tracking the bird? Option (B) just press and shoot? Option (C) press and release the shutter 1/2 way until the subject gets to where you want to capture the shot?

      • Ah you forgot option D. I use BBF (back button focus) I have the * button on the back assigned to focusing (not the AF On button) and I have the shutter butter dedicated to metering (which I almost never pay any attention to) and taking the picture only. I like to keep focusing and taking the picture as two seperate actions.
        I have been using BBF exclusively going back to the 90s on an EOS 1n film body and feel it is the only way to go for action or just about anything else.
        Hope this helps. 🙂

  4. Great pictures. You might consider dropping down on the bank if its not too cold and windy. The perspective is much different. It would probably be difficult to setup a tripod down there.

  5. WOW, WOW, WOW!! Just amazing…. These are really beautiful captures of such an amazing raptor. WOW! The focus seems fine in these, and it was interesting reading the comments for sure. I sure wish I had that lens at times… 🙂

  6. Wonderful post and I really enjoyed the pictures! You are amazing with a camera. The vultures photo is over the top!! And I love the bald eagles in flight! Brilliant : )

    • You are too kind Judy – really ! Funny, as I love the vultures shot also. I think it has so much character and funny story with it. It’s truly an amazing experience to watch them in action. Thank you so much for your kind comment.

  7. Stunning…
    ¸.•*¨*•.♪♫♫♪Have an inspired, grace filled week! .♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸ ♥
    ˜”*°•.˜”*°•.˜”*°•.★★.•°*”˜.•°*”˜.•°*”˜” 🙂

  8. Wow. You have some great shots. I am off to photograph some birds, many eagle sites, in Fla. I find my 7D works well for birds in flight. I researched some custom settings on the internet and tried them out on some geese. Although not nearly as good as I wish, I am getting better. I have a 150-500 f5.6 Sigma. It works fairly well but wonder if I should rent the Canon 500. More research. Really enjoyed your blog. Got to work a lot on mine.

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