Bald Eagle Portraits

Updated: Jul 1

Powerful, majestic, iconic, charismatic, bald - all words regularly used to describe me, but I think are equally applicable to the star of this blog post; the bald eagle.

Bald Eagle, Side-On, Screeching, on a black background
Bald Eagle, Side-On, Screeching

It's been a while since I photographed some eagles (Feb 2016, to be precise), and I particularly wanted to photograph a bald eagle this time. They have a wonderful graphic quality to them which I think makes them perfectly suited to low-key portraits. The white head, golden-yellow beak, yellow eye, and receding chocolate brown body. It's a recipe for a striking image.

bald eagle leaning forward and screeching
The Screech

Sadly, we don't have bald eagles in the wild here, so these were all taken at a conservation centre, in the UK.


In addition to the visual qualities of the birds, they're also very emotive in their expressions, and hugely emblematic in different ways to different people.


When I think of bald eagle imagery I think of the way they're used in the USA to represent the principles and character of the nation. I think, in modern culture, that's overwhelmingly how the bald eagle is used and seen. I quite like playing with that idea too. Both reinforcing it at times, and questioning it.


Here's a tricky light to get right, and I'm not sure I quite did. I like it, but it's a bit two-dimensional, maybe.


Initially I had intended to convert all these portraits to black and white, as I wanted that purely graphic aesthetic. So they were all shot with that in mind. In the end I only ended up keeping these two in monochrome.


Here, we've got a good screech going on. This is pretty much exactly what I was going for on the day, but ultimately I probably prefer some of the other shots more, as I think this comes off looking a bit route-one. Still nice though.

Bald Eagle - Black & White, screeching
Bald Eagle Screech - Black & White

These photos are all shot with natural light, affording the bird the space and freedom to position itself and posture as it chooses. So they require a little analysis to figure out the angle I need for the light I want, and the shadows I need to achieve this look. It also takes a certain amount of patience to kneel down on my creaking knees for some time, waiting for him to screech.

Why did he screech? Did something catch his eye, or was it something he heard? The fact that we'll never really know what it's like to be in the mind of these animals is one of the key drivers of my portrait series'. We can only wonder what these creatures are thinking.

black and white photo of a bald eagle
Bald Eagle - Black & White

The visuals of these aggressive-looking screeches imply quite an epic, piercing eagle call. If you imagine a film of the American West, with a dramatic eagle call echoing over the mountains or prairie below, it fits the scenery perfectly. In reality bald eagles sound nothing like that. It's kind of a shame. They sound more like an asthmatic dolphin.

Have a listen here to the sound of a bald eagle, and also the sound of a red-tailed hawk, which is routinely used in film and TV to imply eagles.


Still, as feeble as it sounds in comparison to the classic foley artists of Hollywood, it's a sound that will always evoke a reaction in me. In Vancouver, 2012, we were beside a lake in Stanley Park when this call rang out and 20-30 black-headed gulls leapt into panicked flight, pursued by a resident pair of bald eagles. It was an incredible airborne dog-fight, as they singled one out and attacked from above and below. I think on that occasion the gull got away; dodging talons several times. A local told us she comes out every day to see them, prompted by their recognisable call. Apparently they would take a gull most days, over the winter months.


Here I tried to retain some background context, just to mix things up.

Bald Eagle Screeching
Bald Eagle Screeching

Talking of mixing things up, here's another idea I've been playing with recently. I'd say it's still in the 'experimental stage', but I'm trying to play with combining warm and cool colours in portraits. I was tempted not to share this - the advice is always to only show your best work. But hey, this is a blog, and I want to share things I'm working on, and which will hopefully develop and progress over time. As a style/project, it's a further departure from the eye-witness tradition of wildlife photography, as this light was not coloured like this in-camera, and neither would it be in nature. Not sure if the balance is quite right, but it's definitely an interesting result.

portrait of a bald eagle's head in blue and yellow lighting
Bald Eagle Dream

The last one is a pretty classic pose at first glance. A strong posture, looking towards the light. In fact the wing reveals that he's actually looking back over his shoulder here. Visually, that adds tension and dynamism, which I like over some of the static poses above. Metaphorically it leaves a lot to read into as well.

Bald Eagle on Black background
Bald Eagle on Black


Framed photo of a bald eagle, in the Winter Park Art Trail
Winter Park Art Trail

Hey, good news; This last photo features in the 2022 Winter Park Art Trail, in Colorado, actual USA. I can't think of a better place for it than the Rocky Mountains :-)


The Art Trail is a series of 35 outdoor public art installations set up along a Fraser River, for hikers to discover along the route. I like to think this image will offer a close-up to people who experience these birds soaring high above them in the summer skies.


If you're in the area, you can find my photo on the trail here.


Thanks to all in Winter Park for including me :-)


-

George

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Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white

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