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 7D also fires 10 frames per second.

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

Fighting on the Lek is extremely fast, so fast the camera cannot adjust to focusing on it with auto-focusing. I tested this and had terrible results. So how can this be approached? 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 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, 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. 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.

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.  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.  That means going further away (back).

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 do often.  Observing behavior on the Lek has shown me that when one male chases another, and that male stops to take a stand, there will be a fight very shortly.  Focusing on one of the birds at that moment and quickly reframing is critical to capturing the action.  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 remaining the same – ISO, shutter speed and depth of field. I used continuous auto-focusing (AI servo mode), and I expanded 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 better stop action results – especially in the wings.