Category Archives: Lapland Longspur

Photographing the Lapland Longspur and Thoughts About Composition

Photographing the Lapland Longspur

The Lapland Longspur is an uncommon winter visitor in SW Michigan. Come Spring, this species migrates north to colder climates. Finding a Lapland Longspur in early summer, interspersed with other ground feeders like Horned Larks and Vesper Sparrows is a real treat. These rare sightings put me on high alert. I do NOT want to miss the shot.

Photo of Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur
Head and Neck Framed in the Center.
ISO2000; f/8; 1/640 Second

Luxury of Composition

I found this avian treasure late one morning while driving on a deserted county road in the Allegan State Game Area. He was foraging in a spent corn field near the edge of the road ideally close to the camera. Warm earth tone colors dominated the scene; consisting of mostly dark, plowed chunky earth in umber and ochre colors. A few dried golden stalks from last year’s corn lay in the field, reflecting the morning sunlight and complementing the bird’s plumage.

Before I brought the car to a full stop, I lifted the camera, 500mm lens and 1.4 tele extender from my lap and rested it on the bean bag cushion protecting the car door window. The Lapland Longspur noticed me immediately and stayed less than a minute, but it was enough time to get off a couple quick bursts.

That’s often the way it goes. The bird is long gone before I have a chance to think about the compositional options available to me.

Compositional Guides

I feel less pressure when an uncommon bird is unafraid and lingers within close view of the camera’s lens. I find myself taking more time to compose thoughtfully and precisely.

DSLR camera composing guidelines (available via the menu system) are customized to help the photographer visually arrange what she sees through the viewfinder. They serve as a starting point by overlaying a 9-part grid intended to help compose more artistically.

This framework allows you to mentally apply the “Rule of Thirds” by compartmentalizing the image into equal parts, horizontally and vertically. You then compose the scene by positioning the subject(s) in the frame in or around those intersecting lines, thus leading your viewer’s eyes to your subject(s).

Photo of Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur
Framed with Guidance from the Camera’s Viewfinder Grid.
ISO1250; f/8; 1/640 Second

Compositional Food for Thought

I find that applying the Rule of Thirds helps me pull together and balance elements when I’m composing — to accentuate the subject in a more pleasing and/or stimulating way. It also helps me visualize a square frame through the viewfinder, instead of the usual rectangular frame. (NOTE: To read more about image composition, press this link.)

Judicious cropping in post processing becomes easier when I pay attention to the rule of thirds while composing. So often my images have the bird positioned smack dab in the middle. That’s OK, but sometimes it’s compositionally prudent to shift your subject away from the middle point and accentuate other parts of the scene that may reveal a more complete story.

Of course, it helps when there is something captivating within the scene of my viewing screen to pull together.

Setting the Scene

Although I mentally apply the Rule of Thirds when photographing birds, I do not activate the viewfinder gridlines in my DSLR cameras because I find them distracting. I am more likely to use the grids when photographing people or places… where I have the time physically manipulate the camera and/or the subjects before I start shooting.

Being Prepared Only Goes So Far

Ultimately, being prepared only goes so far in bird photography. If I stumble upon unexpected bird activity, the primary objective is to deal with the limitations of light and location and capture the moment quickly. There’s rarely time to stop everything to indulge in the lavish luxury of setting the scene.

That said, I like to think that my quick GET THAT SHOT response to bird photography also includes a spark of compositional creativity.   😎


Photo of Lapland Longspur

Photographing the Lapland Longspur – Dreaded Lens Flare

Lens Flare– Aack!!

Photo of Lapland Longspur
Lapland Longspur – A Rare Visitor at the Allegan SGA.
ISO 1000; f/8.0; 1/2000 Second

Photographing Lapland Longspurs

I was driving in the Allegan forest on a back service road when I came across a group of Lapland Longspurs foraging for seeds on the ground. I didn’t know what they were then, but I knew that these were birds I had never photographed before. I followed my usual pattern. I quickly and quietly pointed the lens out of the car window, got my exposure settings right, and started shooting. It wasn’t the most comfortable position to be in. The birds were on the ground and had to be photographed from the passenger side of my car. (I didn’t dare get out, or even move the car.) My camera’s weight was resting on the storage bin that I keep ready in the passenger’s seat. The len’s hood stretched outside the window and was tilted downward.

I always check the sun’s location before I shoot. I was facing the sun, so it wasn’t the best direction to be shooting, but the lens was angled downward, so I thought I’d be fine. The anxiety of missing the shot was upon me, with good reason. The birds stayed in place less than a minute before flying away. I was able to get off about 5 shots.

After the birds were gone, I took a look at the camera’s display. Lens flare had ruined my photos. The above photo of the male Longspur was the best shot, the other 4 were heavily washed out and pockmarked with flare. Very disappointing, especially because the Lapland Longspur is not a common sight for bird photographers in West Michigan.

What is Lens Flare?

Pointing the front element of your lens towards the direct and intense light of the sun causes lens flare. Once this bright light sneaks in and hits the camera’s sensor, your images will be subpar. Depending on the severity of lens flare, you will usually see round or polygonal blobs, streaking and washed out images, or images with very little contrast. The anti-reflective coating on the lens element does help minimize flare, but will not eliminate it entirely.

Avoiding lens flare is usually simple if you follow these steps:

  • Make sure the lens hood is attached to the lens.
  • Reposition yourself so that you modify the angle at which the sun hits the lens.
  • If you can’t reposition yourself, shade the lens with cardboard or your hand to minimize the impact of the direct light.

My long lens hood was attached and the lens was angled downward, but unwanted bright light still made its way in to my sensor. I should have taken a quick look at the camera’s display after my first shot and adjusted accordingly. Live and learn.

Next Time

All I can do is look ahead. Lapland Longspurs nest in the arctic tundra, but a few of them visit Southwest Michigan every winter. (NOTE: “Longspur” is a reference to the elongated claw on its back toe.)  I will keep searching this winter and hope that I get another opportunity to photograph these lovely birds.

If you are interested in learning more about the migration habits of the Lapland Longspur, here’s a link to eBird’s Migration Tracking.