Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek Photography


Recently I photographed a Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek to take advantage of the possibilities for shots I could not even try to capture before. Armed with a newer camera, the Canon 7D Mark 2, I tested its ability to capture images of the birds fighting and flying into the Lek. It has the advantage of a 1.6x factor which makes my Canon 600 F4 IS lens a 960mm lens, so I can stay further back without disturbing subjects. It produces high-quality images at higher ISO settings (up to 1600). And it has auto-focus settings that can be tweaked. I won’t go into detail here about those settings because it is a complicated matter beyond the scope of this article. The 7D2 also fires 10 frames per second.

The fighting and flight situations require setting up the camera differently.

Fighting on the Lek is extremely fast, and it is very brief. A very long fight is about 2 seconds, and most are under 1 second. The action is so fast the camera cannot adjust to focusing on it with auto-focusing. I tested this and had terrible results. Newer focusing systems that automatically “see” the subjects could have better results. So how can this be approached with the 7D Mark 2 (or most DSLRs)? First, use focus-lock. Then, adjust the ISO so you can have enough shutter speed to stop the action (1/4000sec – 1/6400sec) and adjust the depth of field to capture the birds as best as possible within the plane of focus (F 7.1 – F 8.0). Note that I was using an F4 lens, so that is up to 2 stops of the depth of field.

I shot in manual mode, metering the snow and adjusting ISO high enough so the snow would pop when I took a picture (having chosen “show flashing highlights” in the camera’s menu), viewed it, and saw the flashing of the snow. I always have “show flashing highlights” set. Then I back down 1/3 stop at a time with the ISO to the point where no flashing occurs. For the fighting shots I present here there was flashing at ISO 800. I went down to ISO 640 and there was no flashing, so that was perfect. I set the camera in the “one-shot” mode, which locks focus. That way I use the center focusing point to acquire auto-focus on the stationary subject (one of the Grouse), and while keeping the shutter button halfway pressed I re-frame and fire a burst upon fighting. The plane of focus remains unchanged as I re-frame and during shots. This works pretty well as long as the birds line up somewhat parallel to me, and that is the only time I try for fighting images. As the birds change relative position to me and line up again I must refocus and re-frame and be ready to fire a burst again. Sometimes they walk away from each other and then suddenly reverse course and line up, ready to fight.

Why don’t I just move the focusing point to the left or right and focus on one of the birds? There is not enough time.

I’ll explain.

The birds often change their relative position to me so one of them is slightly closer to me than the other. I want focus on that bird, so the depth of field (2/3s of which moves back into the scene) has the best chance of capturing both birds in focus when they fight. If I am focused on 1 bird and the other one suddenly positions itself slightly closer to me (and I was committed to moving the focusing point) I would be required to move the focusing point to that bird. Often there isn’t time to do that because they often fight right after slight shifts in position. I would be caught fumbling with buttons instead of firing shots. It is quicker to focus on the closer bird with the center point and recompose the image, and be ready to fire a burst. When the birds are ready to fight at any moment it is critical to be ready to fire a burst at any moment. Moving the focusing point and refocusing takes more time than moving the lens to refocus and recompose. If you don’t believe me try it yourself. I am just conveying to you how I increase my chances of success, especially when there are typically few fights, and fewer that line up well enough and not too close or too far away from your stationary position in a blind or partial blind. I had plenty of trial and error to help find the best solution.

The birds are lined up somewhat parallel to me. I focus on one of them and re-frame, and keep the shutter button halfway pressed.  This is a photo taken during cloudy conditions days before the action shots below, and the birds are too close to me for a fighting image.  Full sun (or a very bright cloudy sky) is required for the action shots in order to have enough shutter speed and depth of field.  And more room must be left in order to keep wingtips in the frame when the fighting happens (as compared to the image above). 

All 4 fighting shots at 1/4000 sec, f/8, ISO 640

I fire a burst (press the shutter all the way down) when they fight and hope they stay within the plane of focus. They often do. 

Critical tip: Observing behavior on the Lek has shown me that when one male chases another that is running away, and that male stops and turns around to take a stand, there will be a fight very shortly after.  Maximum concentration and focusing on one of the birds at that moment and quickly reframing is critical to capturing the action.  Remember, if the birds are not lined up absolutely parallel to me I focus on the closest one.

Capturing flight shots of birds coming into the Lek requires different settings for focusing; the other settings remain the same – ISO, shutter speed and depth of field. I use continuous auto-focusing (AI servo mode), and I expand the center focusing point out to 8 points. If any part of the birds remains in touch with anyone of the 8 points focus is maintained.

Both flight shots at 1/4000 sec  F 7.1   ISO 500

Update:  4 – 9 – 2018  More from the lek:  A little haze over the morning sun this day, but very bright.

March and April 2019 (below) I made sure shutter speed was at 1/6400 sec, which meant moving ISO up a bit. I get better stop action results at 1/6400 sec, especially in the wings.