Originally published in Points West magazine
How I Got That Shot: Bald Eagle in Flight
By Rob Koelling
New York photographer Jay Maisel has a bit of advice that I try to keep in mind whenever I am out shooting photos: always look behind you. This is easier said than done, especially when I am focused on a particular animal or scene.
In December 2019, I drove up the North Fork Highway, which stretches between Cody and the East Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. My friend John Campbell, a retired biologist, was with me. We had gone up to watch the bighorn sheep during the rut.
The highway runs alongside the North Fork of the Shoshone River, and we soon found a herd of sheep near a spot where we could pull over and watch. I was facing away from the river, and was photographing some rams when John said, “Did you notice the bald eagle on the river?” I had not.
My view of the eagle was not good, so I drove up until I found a pull-off where I could turn around, then I drove back toward the eagle. Once I was off the road, I changed my camera settings to ones I thought would work for a bird in flight on a cloudy and dark winter afternoon.
A note on equipment: it does make a difference. The lens I use is very light and maneuverable, which allows for fast panning. The camera has a large sensor, which allows the image to be cropped in without too much loss of quality, and for a fast burst mode.
I have my best luck in photographing a bird in flight right in the first three or four seconds after it launches. Because birds are moving their slowest at liftoff and their wings and feathers are spread for maximum lift, it is easier to lock in a focus. Often, an eagle will give a few clues that it is about to launch, such as shifting its weight or relieving itself.
This bald eagle was perched on a scenic dead tree branch over the river. Once he began to open his wings, I started firing. I shoot in burst mode, which on my camera is 9 frames per second. Luck plays a big role in my bird photography. I was fortunate that this eagle flew slightly toward me, and I was able to get this image.
About the author
Rob Koelling is a retired Professor of English at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming. He spends most of his time chasing birds in Northwest Wyoming.