Norway 2012 – Flatanger Eagles

After a couple of days with the musk oxen of Dovrefjell (see previous post), Arnfinn and I drove further north to the scenic coastal town of Flatanger, where Ole Martin Dahle and his White-tailed Sea Eagles awaited us, for a week-end of frantic photography. For a wildlife photographer Flatanger has it all : a charismatic animal, the largest eagle in Europe, great scenery and the magical nordic light. Ole Martin has been baiting sea eagles for over 10 years, and it takes a fantastic half day cruise to visit almost all of the 15 resident pairs through the maze of islets and coves that surround the harbor. You just have to decide the background and the lighting, and depending on the wind Ole Martin will position its boat and throw the bait fish so that the eagle performs the desired dive. Then it’s up to the photographer… and the gear !

To get a bit more into the details of what is required to get the best possible shots, here are a few points :

– Lens wise, 300 to 500mm sounds like the best bet. You will shoot handheld from a small boat, so anything above is likely to be too heavy for comfort. The eagles dive anywhere between 15 and 80m away from the boat, so a 500mm will be a bit too much for a close dive while a 300 will be too short if it’s far… I don’t recommend bringing a bunch of lenses and bodies and swapping too often for 2 reasons : the boat may rock unexpectedly and throw your unattended gear around, and also you want to get used to the balance of your body+lens combo for better tracking. My recommendation would be to make a choice and stick to it. All the pictures below were shot @500mm, except for the first one (70-200 @ 200mm).

– The auto focus capability of your camera will be tested. The eagles move surprisingly fast when diving, and the background as well, from sky to rock to sea with various lightings…. A slowish camera with an average tracking ability will struggle to keep the bird in focus.

– Whatever the performance of your camera auto-focus, the focus accuracy will also greatly depend on your ability to keep the bird into the frame throughout, and preferably around the center of it, where the camera auto-focus is the most precise. That will require a bit of practice, since :

– You are on a boat, and boats rock.

– The eagle moves fast, and takes a sharp and sudden turn when initiating the dive sequence… if you lose the bird there, you can as well drop the camera and watch it with your eyes….

– When pulling the fish out, the eagle comes to an almost complete stop, only to regain speed and elevation with a succession of powerful flaps after it is taken. Your tracking of the bird has to account for it.

– You also want a high number of frames/sec and a large buffer size… 10+ and 30+ (raw) will give obviously better results, as the action is too fast to decide the exact moment for a click.

– Neither you nor any of the automatic modes of your camera will get the exposure perfectly right on the whole sequence of a dive, so you absolutely want to shoot Raw to keep better flexibility for exposure and contrast adjustments during post-processing. My choice for exposure mode was almost always manual, as i wanted to keep a constant exposure throughout each sequence, trying to set the exposure before each dive depending on where it was expected to happen… it worked most of the time, but then of course when it was wrong it was really wrong !

All this to say that i was particularly glad to have the new Canon 1 DX in hand, which performed greatly in those conditions. I am of course not saying that you need such an expensive camera to take eagle pictures in Flatanger, but your “hit ratio” will be greatly improved.

In any case, Flatanger is a fantastic location, probably the best of its kind in Europe. And in addition Ole Martin is a great and entertaining guide, seemingly as passionate about “his” eagles as he was the first day.

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