How To Photograph Garden Birds
Whether you’re new to photographing birds or have some experience it can be very rewarding taking pictures of the birds that visit your garden. It can sometimes be hard to get close enough to birds in the countryside but in your garden, birds often hang around long enough and near enough to enable you to get some great shots. And with birds visiting every day you’ll have lots of opportunities to experiment and perfect your technique.
To begin with you’ll need to attract birds to your garden. There are lots of things you can do to make your garden bird friendly but hanging up some feeders is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll have a variety of species come visiting.
Once birds have found your feeders let them get used to them for a while before you venture outside and start snapping. During this time spend some time observing them to find out the times when they visit, any perches they use before flying to the feeders, and where you’ll need to position yourself and your equipment to get their best angle.
Setting up a perch
Although you can photograph birds at your feeders they don’t always make the best backdrop. Birds also tend to move around a lot near feeders so for inexperienced photographers it can be hard to capture a bird without too much blur.
Setting up a perch near a feeder solves this problem, as most birds will spend a little time on a perch before they fly to the feeder, and you’ll get a much more natural looking photo. You may already have as suitable perch nearby such as an attractive bush or tree. If you don’t then find a branch, a log, or a piece of driftwood, or get creative with a decorative object such as bamboo, a Christmas wreath, or dried reeds or grasses. Check out your local home accessories department for lots of ideas. Alternatively, you could use a plant in a container which you can move around to find the right spot.
Don’t choose a perch that is too large as this will dwarf the bird, particularly as garden birds are fairly small. And choose a perch that is dark in colour rather than light which can distract the viewer. You may want to add some accessories such as berries, moss, or lichen, to make the perch visually appealing, but again don’t go overboard as it’s the birds that needs to be the main focus of your photographs.
You can secure your perch to an old tripod or metal stake with garden ties, clamps, or tape. Place it on a slant to make it more visually interesting and make sure it is out of shot of the feeders.
Wherever you choose to situate your perch, remember the welfare of your garden birds comes first, so don’t place it anywhere where cats and other predators can attack them as they wait to fly to the feeders.
A bit of background
Once you have chosen a suitable perch you need to think carefully about where you place it. Make sure there are no posts, branches, or other objects behind the perch that could intersect the body of the bird or look as though they’re growing out of its head.
The background to the perch should be as plain as possible and far away so it remains out of focus and the bird stands out. Ideally it should be at least twice the distance between the bird and the lens, and check that there is nothing that can reflect light in the background.
For natural looking photographs try placing your perch in front of foliage or for a pretty springtime look some blossom. You may even wish to hang a sheet of fabric behind the perch in a suitable colour or pattern to disguise fences or walls or anything else unsightly. This way you can experiment with different colours to create interesting compositions.
Get the light right
Lighting is one of the most important things to think about and can make the difference between a good and a great photograph. The ‘golden hour’ is well known as being the best time to take photographs and for garden bird photographers it often coincides with the times birds are at their most active. Very bright days with no clouds are not good as the images will have strong shadows and high contrast. As long as it’s not too dull, you should be able to get good images all day when It’s overcast.
What is the golden hour?
The golden hour refers to the period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset. The sun is low in the sky and the light is softer and warmer. For photographers it is the perfect time to take portrait and landscape shots.
When the sun is low on the horizon its rays must pass through the atmosphere for a greater distance which reduces their intensity. The light is diffused and shadows are longer and less harsh which adds a lovely dimension to photographs. As more blue light is scattered the light appears redder which can give photographs a kind of magical glow.
Although the golden hour is roughly an hour after sunrise or before sunset, its actual length will depend on where you are and the season. And of course there are two of them in one day. The further away from the equator you are the longer the golden hour lasts. If you get far enough away from the equator such as Iceland or Norway in some seasons the golden hour can last all day.
To make the most of photographing birds during the golden hour you will need to plan ahead and get your camera equipment set up and tested before the start of the golden hour. You will need to shoot fast to make the most of the limited time particularly as light conditions can change rapidly.
Shoot with a wide aperture and adjust the white balance on your camera so it doesn’t overcompensate for the golden tone. Turn off the auto settings and pick ‘cloudy’ or ‘shade’ instead.
For dramatic shots try incorporating flare during the golden hour. Flare happens when the sunlight hits your camera lens and distorts the image slightly adding sunspots to the resulting photograph. You could also play with silhouettes by photographing birds directly in front the setting sun, although you may need to increase exposure to stop them looking too dark.
Front lighting or side lighting is best although you can create beautiful silhouette shots with back lighting. The light should hit the bird straight on but you need to ensure you or any equipment you’re using is not casting a shadow on it.
If the lighting in your back garden is very poor then you could try using a fill flash which can improve colours, fill in shadows, and provide a catchlight in the bird’s eye. However, be aware that a flash may startle birds and they may leave before you have time to capture them.
If your garden birds are used to being with you in your garden then you may be able to shoot them without concealing yourself. Otherwise if you want to photograph birds from outside you will need to cover yourself.
Cheap wildlife one-man hides or blinds can be left out in your garden all year round or you could make your own hide from branches, offcuts of wood, or even an old door. Make sure your hide is comfortable enough that you can stay in it for extended periods of time and has room for a tripod and chair if you don’t fancy staying on your feet for hours.
Alternatively, you can shoot birds from inside your home. You can either point your camera out of an open door or window, or you can shoot through glass as long as you put the lens hood right up to the window to avoid reflections. You could also set your camera up outside and use a cable release to shoot from the comfort of your armchair.
Photographing birds from upstairs can also give you another perspective and you’ll find lots of natural perches in treetops.
Most photos of garden birds are likely to be ‘portrait’ style shots where the bird is the main focus, and the background and surroundings are secondary.
For portrait shots you should choose a shallow depth of field for the aperture, so that you separate the subject from the background. If you have a high-quality lens you should be able to shoot with the aperture wide open with little loss of sharpness. For lower quality lenses you may have to close the aperture slightly to ensure a sharp image. In most cases f/5.6 of higher should get the bird in focus.
The shutter speed needs to be fast enough to get a clear image without blur. If you are using a telephoto lens with significant magnifying power then 1/500 or even shorter may be required depending how fast the bird is moving, and how light it is. If light is poor then you may have to set a longer exposure if you don’t want to use a high ISO setting. Once you have put in some practice you should be able to lower your shutter speed.
The ISO setting should be as low as possible. To find the correct ISO setting set it to zero, adjust the shutter speed to 1/500, and the aperture to f/7.1. Point your camera at the perch and take a photo. Make sure that it’s sharp and exposed and check the histogram for any data on the left-hand side which means it’s underexposed. Underexposed images will have a lot of noise and the detail will be poor, so increase the ISO if necessary.
Keep adjusting and taking photos of the perch until you have got the exposure right and but remember you will need to make more adjustments as the light changes.
Throw away the rule book
All of the advice above will give you the best chance of getting professional-looking photographs of your garden birds.
But of course, it’s up to you how you shoot them, and over time you will develop your own style.
Some of the best garden bird photographs can be completely spontaneous and caught in the moment. However, the more you practise the more you’re likely to get lucky and just so happen to be in the right place at the right time.