This story originally appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
If you’re an aspiring bird photographer but you can’t afford to jet off to Africa or even the Everglades where world-famous photography opportunities abound, consider an option closer to home. Perhaps even at home!
Backyard bird photography can be wonderful in many ways. The birds are close, accustomed to human activity, and you can lure them into range legally using food, water, shelter, and perches, which are techniques that you can’t employ in most wildlife refuges or national parks.
Here are a few tips and tricks to improve your bird photography results in the backyard.
1. Start at the busiest, birdiest part of your yard.
Before you accuse me of being Captain Obvious, think about this: Notice the areas where birds are the most active and see how you can take advantage of this. If the bird traffic flows in a distinct pattern, watch it and see where you can position yourself to get some great images. In my yard, the birds leave the edge of the woods, fly to our brush pile where they stop to look around and make sure the coast is clear before continuing to the feeders. Once at the feeders, the chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches grab a seed then return to the brush pile or a nearby tree to crack it open. I’ve taken many a photo of these birds engaged in this regular feeding pattern.
2. Place natural-looking perches for the birds to use.
Photos of birds on feeders are fine, but they don’t look as pleasingly natural as an image of a bird on a branch. Place a nice branch near your feeder or birdbath and watch for the birds to use it as a stopping point. This allows you to control the composition of your images. You can position yourself for the best light angle and the best background. Just remember to switch perches occasionally so all of your images don’t look the same. I use any means necessary to employ nice-looking perches. If I can stick them in the ground next to the bird bath, that’s great. Sometimes I’ll use a cinder block to hold them up. Or hand clamps. I’ve even been known to mount a nice branch to the deck railing with screws.
3. Clean and fill your feeders.
If you plan to shoot some images of birds on feeders, do the birds a favor and clean the feeders. Yes, you can remove bird poop in Photoshop, but why spend time doing that? Clean feeders are not only more photogenic, they’re also healthier for the birds. And don’t forget to fill the clean feeders with a fresh batch of food. If your feeders still look gross after a thorough cleaning, it’s time to go shopping.
4. Check the background.
Nothing ruins a bird photo faster than something distracting in the frame—something that lures the eye away from the actual subject matter. As you’re setting up for your backyard photo shoot, take a few test frames and look at what’s in the background, foreground, and elsewhere in the frame. I once took a beautiful shot of a male painted bunting in a friend’s suburban backyard in Florida only to notice later on (when I was back in Ohio) that the cement goose decorated in blaze orange in the adjoining yard had photo-bombed every frame. Of course, if you’re shooting with a shallow depth-of-field, most anything well in front of or behind your subject will be pleasingly blurred out. Check first and either remove offending objects or change your position to exclude them from your images.
5. Use a blind.
Even though our backyard birds know us, they will still be skittish when you suddenly appear, 10 feet away from the feeding station, pointing a camera at them every time they approach. One solution is to use a small blind in which to conceal yourself. I have a small, portable, pop-up blind called a “Doghouse” that is made out of camouflage-patterned material and has zip-open windows on all four sides. I usually place the blind where I want to use it a day or so beforehand to let the birds acclimate to it. Then I recruit someone from our household to come out with me to do the old fakerooski. Two of us go into the blind and one of us comes out. I stay inside and the birds, who cannot count (as far as I know), think the blind is empty and resume normal activity immediately. If your feeders are right outside your window, a pair of blankets or sheets hung over the window, with a small peephole in the middle at the right height for watching and shooting, can work just as well.
6. Turn off sounds.
Most birds won’t tolerate the beeping and clicking of cameras, if they can hear them. The same goes for flash photography, and for the sounds on your mobile phone. If you want a long and satisfying photo session, keep things quiet and natural.
7. Time of day.
The best light for bird photography is early and late in the day. Fortunately, this is also the time when the bird activity in our yards is at its peak. Midday sunlight is strong and can give your images a washed-out look. As you prepare for your backyard photo session, choose two vantage points where the sun is at your back: one for use in the morning and one for use in the late afternoon. This will garner the best results for lighting up your subjects.
8. Shift your focus.
Midafternoon, when the sun is high and bright, doesn’t mean you have to stop shooting. There are lots of other photo subjects. Bird activity at the birdbath will increase in midday. Adding a nearby perch or two will give your birds a place to stop inbound and outbound. And some may even stay around to preen after bathing. Hummingbird foraging activity continues throughout the midday and afternoon hours. I’ve found that a stick with tiny, hummingbird-foot-sized twigs placed near the best patch of blooming flowers, or near the most-popular feeder, will give me many opportunities for shooting perched hummers.
9. Shoot now, look later.
When you’re all set up and ready to take some photos, get a few test shots and check the image quality. Make the necessary adjustments to your camera settings and get ready to shoot. Resist the urge stop and look at each image on your camera’s LCD screen. Shoot first. Check images later. Otherwise you might miss that five-second visit from your most-wanted subject, or a perfect pose that you were hoping to capture.
10. Don’t shoot through glass.
Images shot through windows are fine for posting on social media or emailing to your friends. To get the best results—no matter what quality camera you possess—don’t let anything come between you and the birds. Even if your camera and lens cost more than a new car, a single pane of glass between you and the ivory-billed woodpecker on your suet feeder will render the image slightly less sharp than if you shot through an open window.
Those are just a few tips—I’m sure you can think of others. If you have some and you’d like to share them, send them in and we’ll do our best to add your tips to ours. You can also post them on our Facebook page, facebook.com/birdwatchersdigest.
Bill Thompson, III, is editor and co-publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest. He never tires of photographing birds in his rural yard near Whipple, Ohio.