Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

November 15, 2010

Horned Lark, Composition, Cropping

Filed under: Birds, comparisons, composition, technique — richditch @ 8:56 pm
Horned Lark 40%

Horned Lark 40%

A sod farm in the Sonoran desert is definitely an anomaly: an expanse of short green grass needing a lot of water and care in an other wise dry and dusty landscape of sparse vegetation and vert little water. As anyone who thinks about it probably would conclude, a sod farm in such a location would be a magnet for birds not normally seen in the area.

A local sod farm near Scottsdale, AZ, attracts birders who come looking for interesting species. I saw my only AZ Buff-breasted Sandpiper at this same sod farm many years ago, and my only Lapland Longspur for AZ here as well.

I spent a couple of hours here on the weekend trying to relocate a Sprague’s Pipit that put on a good show for other birders earlier in the week, but I wasn’t able to relocate it. Nor could I find any of the McCown’s or Chestnut-sided Longspurs that others had seen. Instead I saw American Pipits and Horned Larks, including the bird shown in this post.

Although I find Horned Larks in many other locations in AZ I’ve never much good luck in getting close to them. As birds of flat open places it is difficult to “sneak up” on them and to be close enough to ground level for good photos. But I lucked out with this cooperative bird on Saturday. It was part of a flock of larks that landed on the sod near the edge of the dirt road I was on, and when the flock moved on this one bird stayed near the road. I was able to fill most of a 4GB memory card while shooting from inside my car. I use a monopod jammed between the driver’s seat and door to support my Nikon D200 with 300/2.8 AF-S lens and TC20E 2x converter (600/5.6 equivalent lens). The car makes an excellent mobile blind that helps me get a lot closer to many species.

The image at the top of this post is a large crop to show as much of the lark’s features as possible. This is only 40% of the 10MP image produced by the D200. I rarely crop this much from any image, preferring instead to keep the subject a bit smaller in the frame and show the habit in which I find the bird. Excessive cropping is a sure way to reduce image quality as you are tossing out valuable pixels that contain important image information. Cropping always makes the noise inherent in an image more prominent, shows up the slightest hint of missed focus, and reduces fine detail. This is true no matter how many pixels you start with; excessive cropping is never a substitute for getting closer to your subject.

In the best of conditions an image will hold up to a large crop, but the exposure and focus need to be spot on in the original for this to work.

Horned Lark 75%

Horned Lark 75%

This is a less severe crop from the same original, representing 75% of the full frame. With this composition I am able to show more of the habitat where I found this bird and introduce more color to the image in the process. I’ve placed the main subject off center, with more space in front of the bird than behind it. I think this version has the best balance and most comfortable feel.

Horned Lark Full Frame

Horned Lark Full Frame

This final image is the full frame as I took it. It shows that even with a lot of focal length it is difficult to get a small bird large in the frame. It also shows how I typically work, using the central auto focus sensor in my camera and then cropping somewhat in post processing to adjust the framing and composition.

November 13, 2010, Nikon D200, 300/2.8 AF-S plus TC20E (2x), ISO 400, 1/64th second @ f/11, monopod from car window. Post processing was kept to a minimum: about 1/3rd stop reduction of exposure in raw conversion (the original was bright but not overexposed); a slight boost in saturation; a slight boost in contrast. No noise reduction was used or needed. Sharpening was confined to the lark alone.



  1. I remember seeing my life Horned Lark at the very sod farm you are talking about. I had gone out there twitching a Longspur that had been reported. Now in Idaho for the last few years I literally have dozens of Horned Larks in my backyard. I never tire of seeing them.

    Comment by Birding is Fun! — November 15, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Nice study of cropping and composition using a lovely bird. I also like the 75% crop, but then I long ago bought into your philosophy and include the subject’s surroundings into most of my wildlife photos. (I’d like to think that is for artistic reasons and not simply because I cannot afford enough focal length!)

    Comment by @Bosque_Bill — November 16, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  3. Rich,

    These images are wonderful examples composition & cropping and the effects that cropping can have on the image. Even at 40% of the original frame your horned lark has lovely details and sharpness which shows me your focus was spot on.

    Comment by Mia — November 17, 2010 @ 4:36 am

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