The Eagle Hunters of western Mongolia are a proud and hearty people that have an immense sense of culture. They also practice a particular form of falconry in which they hunt with eagles. My goals for photographing them within the context of their environment were three-fold: convey the expansive landscape of the region, feature the power of the eagle, and highlight the traditional dress that is ever fading in the historical cultures of the world today.
1.) This first photo establishes where are, and our starting point. A pair of eagle hunters traverse the open landscape bordering western Mongolia and Kazakhstan with their avian assistant with horse in tow. While it does show the landscape, there is little drama and the other goals are not present.
2.) Here you can see I move in close to my subjects; I’m using a 16-35 wide angle lens which allows me to keep the three subjects in prominence while also capturing a dramatic background. The lighting looks a bit flat in this shot, but up close I am able to find better results. We keep the horse out of the shot – we don’t want competition for our focus – the men and their eagle.
3.) In my third image, which is at a right angle to the direction of the sun, I have attached a polarizer to my wide angle. You can see how much more dramatic the light appears. This image also highlights the problems of working with dramatic light – very harsh shadows were cast every time the eagle moved its wings.
4.) The wing of the eagle is now down, but the man that’s controlling the eagle is casting a shadow on his assistant. As my goal is to bring this culture into the light and share it, it’s not an ideal result to have half of my subjects in shadow.
5.) I decided to get lower and shoot upwards to bring in some of the openness of the sky in hopes of creating more of a story than in the previous shots. Always keep experimenting within your photographic goals!
6.) The result is that I don’t have nearly the problems of the previous images with the shadows. This is a very satisfying image to me and meets the goals I set for myself in terms of capturing the men, animal, and landscape. This is where some may stop, thinking they’ve captured the shot they are looking for. In an effort to see what else is achievable, I begin working the scene a bit more.
7.) I’m standing at eye level again with the hunters, but the problem with this shot is that the man closet to me is staring straight at me. I like to maintain anonymity when I am taking pictures, and would prefer that the subject is not staring straight into my camera.
8.) I ask him to look straight ahead, but now with movement of doing so, it’s the eagle mugging for the camera. This isn’t necessarily a bad composition, but I would prefer the eagle in a different position.
9.) I move a little bit further around and discover I love the way the light is falling across the main eagle hunter and his beautiful fox fur hat. However, as you can see, I have moved in too close to get all three subjects in the frame.
10.) I decide to back off a little bit, and now I am getting what I am looking for. I love the fact that the man in the middle is kind of looking my way without staring straight into the camera, the assistant is looking off to his left, and the eagle is conversely looking off in the opposite direction. There is a nice balance to this image, with no shadows on their faces. In addition, the eagle has nice light on his eye. This to me is a winner.
11.) I also like this last photo because it has a nice sense to it; the eagle is looking further opposite now, and is even more absorbed in what is going on in the landscape, rather than in what the photographer is busy trying to achieve. Both of these final two images are very strong photos for me, and I am very happy with the results.
A good balance of compositon, dramatic light, openness of the land, traditional wardrobes – it all comes together in a very nice way in these last two images!