One of my favorite “rites of spring” to photograph is sharp-tailed grouse dancing on their lek. For a couple weeks, every morning in early April the males gather before dawn on their dancing grounds. Each male stakes out about one square yard as their own personal stage on which to dance. They defend every inch of their territory with talon and beak from rival males on adjoining territories. Sometime around sunrise the females arrive and stroll through the lek, checking out the boys, and deciding which of the males are worthy of passing on their genes to the next generation. Usually it is the more dominant males in the center of the lek that get most of the attention from the ladies.
When I created this image I was looking to do something a little different. So a couple of hours before dawn I set up in my bag blind facing toward the east. I then spent possibly the coldest two hours of my life sitting on the frozen tundra waiting for the birds and the light.
For a shot like this, with tough lighting and fast action, I find it easiest to shoot in manual mode. I set my meter by spot metering a part of the sky close to, but not including the bright sun. This gives me a good average reading that will allow me to shoot with or without the sun in the image. I can shoot within about 10 or 15 degrees of the sun and still get a good exposure. Then it is just a matter of getting the right bird, doing the dance, in the right spot, with the right wing position, turned the right way, without another bird in the background, without lens flare (because I am pointed directly at the sun), and without a distracting twig in the foreground. Oh yea, it needs to be sharp too.
See… nothing to it!
Good Luck and Good Light!
Image: Sharp-tailed Grouse Dancing on Lek, Seney National Wildlife Refuge, MI