The following piece is aimed at newer photographers that are preparing for their first trip to Conwoingo Dam to see the eagles as they flock to the dam in the winter.


Have fun and enjoy the spectacle at the dam. It’s an amazing spot to see eagles fly, fish, fight, and co-exist with the rest of the area wildlife. Don’t be intimidated by all the large lenses and expensive equipment out there, in my three seasons of going to the dam, I’ve yet to meet an unfriendly person out there. Ask the experienced photographers for advice and tips and I’m sure they’ll be glad to help. Look where they are looking and if you start to hear people taking pictures, grab your camera.

What's Your Goal?

Think about what kind of photos you want. Are you hoping to get a shot of an eagle that you can frame and hang on your wall, or is this the first time you’ve ever seen an eagle in person and you’d be happy to get a picture that documents your first eagle encounter?  There’s a range of reasons for going out to Conowingo to shoot eagle pictures. Generally, I think of eagle photos as falling into one of four broad categories:

1) Portrait shots. In some ways this is the most basic eagle photo, showing an eagle perched on a branch in a nice pose, or in flight with (or without) a fish in her/his talons.

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2) Action shots. This is what I’d guess most photographers at Conowingo are hoping for--photos of the eagles just as they hit the water to pick up a fish, or the fight that follows a successful catch.

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3) Environmental shots. These shots show the eagle against the spray of water, or flying across or above the dam.

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4) Animal behavior shots. These are photos that you probably don’t want to hang on your wall, but these photos show the eagle(s) doing something interesting, like taking the bite out of a fish that he/she just caught.

The photo below is a shot of a 1st year eagle that's snacking on the head of a catfish.  It's interesting, but I'm pretty sure I don't want that hanging on the wall in my living room.

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Shooting Photos with shorter lenses.

There’s lots of good shots to be had at Conowingo with a point and shoot camera, a short lens, and even a cellphone camera. Here are some things to think about if you are shooting with one of these:

1) Look for eagles in the trees along the shore line and behind the parking. In particular, younger eagles (as evidenced by their not totally white heads) are not “afraid” of people will often land in trees right above the fence line.  The photo to the right was shot at 380 mm.

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2) Look for “environmental” shots. A shorter lens might not get you that close up of and eagle as she/he grabs a fish out of the water, but you can get some really spectacular shots to eagles flying over the dam and rushing water.

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3) Try positioning yourself downstream from the dam across small island (along the fence line or near the boat launch), sometimes the eagles will dive and fish here and you’re more likely get a close up here with a shorter lens.  In fact, sometimes the eagles are “too close” for larger lenses and entire eagle does not fit in the frame. 

If its open, and you're nimble, you can climb down to the rocks just below the fence line.  The photo to the right was shot from the rocks at a focal length of 248 mm.

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4) Shoot off a tripod, or at least stabilize yourself on the fence line. This will limit the mobility of the camera, but this will give you sharper images.

5) Shoot video instead of stills. You won’t get a picture to frame and put on your wall, but you might get a video of some great action.

Extending Your Range

There are a few things to consider for your next trip if you’re hoping to get a little more reach:

- Rent a larger lens, there are various online and local sources for lens rentals.

- Try renting or buying an teleconverter. These could extend the range of your lens by 1.4, 1.7 or 2.0 times. Keep in mind that with a teleconverter you will lose at least one stop of light, and your autofocus might not work as well. For Conowingo, I’d stay away from the 2.0X  teleconverter as the loss of light with this type of teleconverter will make it really difficult for the autofocus function on the camera.

Take lots of pictures.

Pictures are “free” and limited only by the size of your memory card. If all those photographers with those giant lenses got “perfect shots” after one visit to Conowingo, they wouldn’t be back day after day and year after year. I was at the dam last weekend and it was “slow” and I still took about 500 photos, and I ended up with 2-3 that I’m happy with. Expect to get a lot of unusable shots, like:

Eagle Butt shots.   Great action, but a terrible angle.

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Terribly Out of Focus Shots.  

The autofocus sometimes  just can't stay up with the action.  This would have been a excellent chase and fight, but the autofocus on my camera just couldn't keep up with the eagles.

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Shots with Distracting stuff in the background.

Beware of the background in your shots at Conowingo, there lots of stuff there that will ruin an otherwise great shot:

     - Branches

     -  Wires

     -  Towers

Some Bad Backgrounds

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So go out, have a great time, and get some eagle pictures.   Best of Luck.

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