How to Photograph the Backyard Birds of North America

backyard birds of North America

Photographing birds in your backyard is a fun and easy way to add images to your wildlife portfolio while getting to know some of your neighborhood feathered friends. And the backyard birds of North America give us plenty of subjects to capture!

backyard birds of North America

Early morning hours will fly by as you try to track the frenzy of bird activity, all magnified through your telephoto lens.

Photographing birds in your own backyard is very convenient. It is accessible year-round, requires no travel, can be done in as little as 30 minutes per shooting session, and is easily timed with any desired season or weather condition.

In this article, I will share tips to get you started photographing the backyard birds of North America.

Backyard birds of North America

Photogenic birds are widespread across the backyards of North America, so regardless of where you’re based, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for great backyard bird images.

It is important to do your research to find out what species of birds will be visiting your own backyard. This will allow you to plan your photography of different species around the seasons.

It also makes the experience more rewarding as you begin to recognize the different characters and their specific behaviors and traits.

You may even begin to identify an order to the visitors to your backyard and be able to predict their arrival.

In my region of the Pacific Northwest, it is always the cheeky chickadees that show up first to my feeder. Their commotion quickly attracts dark-eyed juncos and the spotted towhee.

Tight flocks of tiny bushtits will sometimes flutter in for a short stay, often crowding the perch and feeder. Northern flickers, Steller’s jays, song sparrows, American robins, downy woodpeckers, and a variety of hummingbirds often join in.

backyard birds of North America

However, nature is ultimately unpredictable, and you may be in for a surprise visit at any time, so keep your eyes peeled and your lens at the ready!

Some of the most common species to keep an eye out for across North America include:

  • American robin – can be found in nearly every backyard in North America, often hopping on lawns looking for insects and worms.
  • Blue jay – A characterful bird often seen in suburban environments. They can mimic the calls of other birds and offer up beautiful colors in their plumage and expressive faces for photography.
  • Black-capped chickadee – a cheeky, charming bird with a distinctive call. These agile little birds can be quite acrobatic and offer up interesting poses for photos.
  • House sparrow – these birds often gather in flocks and can be found in most of North America.
  • Northern cardinal – a popular photography option for their vibrant plumage, more so on the males of this species, they will frequently revisit birdfeeders and are most common in the Eastern regions of North America.
  • American goldfinch – these vibrant backyard birds make charming photography subjects; during the breeding season (summer), the male goldfinch will have a black cap, black wings, and bright yellow plumage.
  • Red-winged blackbird – the male in this species is identified by striking red and yellow shoulder patches.
  • Downy woodpecker – these birds can be wonderful visitors to your backyard. They are talented climbers and can be seen hopping up and down tree trunks, which can make for great images.
  • European starling – introduced to North America in the 1890s, they now have become one of the most common birds here. Adult birds north of the latitude of New York City may travel to the more southern regions of North America in winter.
  • White-breasted nuthatch – one of few birds that can walk headfirst down trees, these charming backyard visitors can be found across most of North America.
  • Tufted titmouse – more often found in the Eastern regions, these birds have an inquisitive nature and will use old woodpeckers’ holes or nest boxes for nesting.
  • Bluebirds – there are multiple variations (Eastern, Western, and Mountain) of this charming and beautiful bird, found in different regions of North America. They make fantastic photography subjects with their bright colors, more notable in the males.

Backyard bird plumage can change around breeding seasons, so it is worth doing your research to know when to expect certain colors in your portraits!

The behavior of these birds can also change at different times of the year, and some species found in backyards will be seasonal visitors, so may only be able to be seen and photographed at very specific times of the year.

Top Tip: As you are learning to ID your backyard visitors, it may be helpful to keep a guidebook at hand. You can go back over your images at a later date to identify and learn the species.

Read more: 7 Ways to Capture Character in Bird Photography

Selecting a site in your backyard

Your first step in backyard bird photography is to select a site. Observe each area of your yard to find where the birds are most active. This is best done in the early morning, when birds are busy feeding and singing.

backyard birds of North America

Select an active site that receives plenty of light during morning or evening. These are the best times for photographing busy birds in good light. Next, we need to create an arrangement of perch, background, feeder, and photography blind.

Read more: How to Attract Birds to Your Garden for Photography

Selecting a perch

It is worth proactively selecting and setting up a perch on which to focus your bird photography. I recommend locating your perch so that it is exposed to the sun during sunrise or sunset for golden hour photography.

I typically use an organic perch, such as a branch. You can also use an interesting object you already have around the yard, such as the handle of a garden shovel, the edge of a planter, the back of a garden bench, or some whimsical garden décor.

Top tip for choosing a perch: Be selective. Look for something with colors that complement the bird or the season. A holly branch with red berries and dusted with snow would make a complementary perch in winter, or try something with interesting texture, such as a branch covered with lichen.

backyard birds of North America

I like to make my perches portable by attaching them to something like a light stand or tripod. This makes it easy to move the perch around, and to adjust its height and orientation.

A stationary bush can make a good perch, especially if covered in spring flowers, but it may limit your choice of backgrounds and positions for the blind, which we will cover below.

When using any large perch like a bush, the birds will often be darting around between many different perching options. This can be frustrating as you try to follow them while looking through your telephoto lens and attempt to acquire focus at each stop.

Luckily, birds will typically have two or three favorite perch locations. Figure out which of these has the best background and wait with your lens focused there.

Choosing a background for backyard bird photography

In bird photography, we typically want to have a uniform out-of-focus background that lets the bird and perch stand out. To throw the background out of focus, we will use a large lens aperture (discussed more below) and select a uniform background located far from our perch.

Hedges or heavily leafed trees make great backgrounds. Avoid anything with repeatable patterns, such as a fence or house siding, as such patterns will be distracting, even when out of focus. Ideally, the tone and color of the background will contrast with, or even complement, the bird.

backyard birds of North America

I often like to have my background in the shade while the perch and bird are in the sun, just to make the bird pop out of the background.

My backyard has a 15-foot-high, 40-foot-wide dark green arborvitae hedge. With my perch typically positioned 30 to 60 feet in front of it, the hedge is thrown completely out of focus when shot through a 200-600mm lens at f/6.3.

Read more: Depth of Field for Beginners – Bokeh, Focus, and more

Seasonal backgrounds

The background can also add a seasonal element to your photograph. Autumn-leafed trees are a great example.

backyard birds of North America

In this case, consider moving the perch a bit closer so that the colorful leaves are out of focus but are still identifiable as leaves.

In winter, I like to include some snow in the background, but in the shade and illuminated only by the blue sky.

backyard birds of North America

This cold blue background complements a bird perched in warm morning light.

Photo blinds for backyard bird photography

You have many options for blinds. Blinds can be as simple as a blanket draped over you and your camera while you sit still in a lawn chair, or as complicated as a purpose-built wooden structure.

Locate the blind up against a tree, hedge, or structure, versus standing out by itself in the open grass. As a minimum, make sure that you visually break up the outline of your human form and that you are very still.

Practically, though, it is very nice to have a blind that conceals your presence while giving you a comfortable place to sit for a couple of hours with your tripod, and perhaps with some snacks, coffee, and a couple of bird identification books.

backyard birds of North America

Pop-up photography blinds, like the Grouse V+ from Tragopan, are a convenient option. They are easy to set up but also easy to store away when not in use.

My telephoto lens has a minimum focus distance of about 8 feet, so I typically set up my blind about 10-15 feet from the perch, which the songbirds in my region readily accept. You will need to feel out how close you can position the blind for the birds in your area.

Top Tip: The camera in your blind should be at the same height as the perch so that you are shooting at the bird’s eye level, and so the bird is aligned with your chosen background. This is why I like to have a portable and height-adjustable perch.

Positioning the feeder

I recommend keeping a feeder in the general area of the yard in which you want to photograph, but choose a location that keeps the birds safe from predators while feeding. This attracts birds to this area regularly.

Then, on the morning of your photo shoot, you can move the feeder into its position for photography.

The birds will quickly find this new location if it is within around 30 feet of its regular location. Birds on your perch will typically be looking at the feeder or at the other birds on the feeder, so position the feeder somewhere between your blind and perch.

backyard birds of North America

This will cause birds on the perch to face in the direction of your blind more often, which means you get to photograph the front of the bird instead of its backside.

Positioning the feeder higher, lower, left, or right causes the bird to position itself and to look higher, lower, left, or right. Experiment with feeder positions to get the poses you want.

If you have more than one feeder in this area of your yard, you might want to temporarily remove the other feeders during your photo shoot so that all the bird action is focused on the one feeder you are photographing at.

Read more: Bird Photography Tips – Shooting Bird Portraits

Setting up your camera

A telephoto zoom lens gives more compositional options when shooting from a blind and allows you to adapt to birds of different sizes as they visit your perch.

backyard birds of North America

A lens with at least a 300 mm focal length is a good choice. I shoot with the Sony 200-600 mm f/6.3 lens on a camera with a crop sensor (300-900 mm equivalent focal length).

I’m typically at 600 mm for the smaller songbirds and 300-400 mm for the larger birds, like Steller’s Jays or northern flickers.

Mounting the camera to a gimbal head on a tripod is ideal. A ball head or pan-tilt head can be made to work, but you will be continuously composing on a little bird hopping all over the place.

So use the tripod mainly to support the weight of your camera at the proper height, but keep the head loose for tracking the bird. A monopod with a tilting head or something like the Wimberley MH-100 MonoGimbal Head can also work.

Camera settings to start with

Here are some camera settings to dial in as you start to photograph your backyard birds.

  • Set the aperture to the largest available on your lens, typically f/4, f/5.6, or f/6.3, for a defocused background.
  • Set the shutter speed to around 1/400 sec to start with. Adjust this according to how active the bird is on your perch. You may be forced to use slower shutter speeds in the lower light of early morning or late evening.
  • Set ISO to “Auto,” perhaps with a maximum of ISO 3200 or ISO 6400, depending on your camera. We will cover noise reduction later in this article.
  • Configure your focus settings to continuous auto-focus with focus point tracking. On Sony, I use expanded flexible spot. If your camera has focus tracking features such as “eye,” “animal,” or even “bird eye” autofocus, be sure to try them!
  • Set up drive mode for continuous shooting at your camera’s maximum frame rate.
  • Turn on image stabilization, vibration reduction, or in-body image stabilization.
  • Shoot in RAW or RAW+JPG mode. You will take advantage of RAW files to reduce image noise in post-processing.
  • The default settings on most cameras activate the focus while partially pressing the shutter release button. I prefer to move focus activation to a separate button on the back of the camera. This lets me press and hold focus with my right thumb, and then, when the bird’s pose is right, trigger bursts of photos with my right index finger. Consider switching to back-button focus on your camera, though it does take some getting used to. The camera settings above allow you to keep your focus on two main tasks: acquiring and maintaining focus on the bird’s eye, which is the most difficult task in bird photography, and releasing the shutter when the pose is right.

Read more: How to Improve Your Wildlife Action Shots

Day of the shoot

You’ve got all your camera settings dialed in. Birds are swarming your backyard. It is finally time to get into your blind and make some photos!

1. Move your feeder into location, if it is not already there, and remove any other feeders from the area.

2. Get into your blind dressed for the weather with snacks, coffee, an extra camera battery, and an extra memory card.

If the perch, feeder, and blind have been set up in advance, many birds may already be in the area and quickly keep the perch occupied. It can be a frenzy of activity, especially in the early morning, and especially with small songbirds.

backyard birds of North America

3. When a bird lands on the perch, acquire focus on its eye or head, and compose the shot.

4. Watch for an interesting pose or behavior, and shoot bursts of images when it happens. Shoot at least 3-5 frames per burst, and many more if the behavior is good.

Expect to shoot several hundred photos in a shoot, only a few of which will end up being sharp and interesting.

5. Notice which bird poses include a highlight in the eye of the bird, and focus on shooting those poses. An eye without a little sparkle simply looks lifeless.

6. When composing, it is often best to have the bird on one side of the frame and facing or looking into the opposite side of the frame.

backyard birds of North America

Your viewer’s eye will instinctively want to look at where the bird is looking, so don’t have the bird looking out of the frame or that’s where your viewer’s eye will also go.

Your time in the blind will be divided between dull periods of waiting for birds to show up to your perch and frenzied activity trying to follow the birds through your telephoto lens when they are present. It really is quite fun!

Read more: The Essential Guide to Composition in Bird Photography

Post-processing backyard bird photos

Your first post-processing task will be downloading and wading through the hundreds of images you just took.

Choosing your best images after a shoot can be a difficult task, but don’t be afraid to be ruthless. Immediately delete all images with out-of-focus eyes. Then look for interesting poses or behavior, and that sparkle in the eye.

backyard birds of North America

For managing noise in high ISO images and improving image sharpness, I like to use Topaz DeNoise either during or immediately after the RAW conversion process.

I have also become impressed by the “DeepPRIME” noise reduction technology available in DxO PhotoLab.

Read more: 8 Post-Processing Tips for High Quality Images

In conclusion

These tips give you a good starting point from which to explore your own creative options for backyard bird photography in North America. I hope you find as much enjoyment photographing birds in your backyard as I do in mine.

Photographing these little biological marvels is both a joy and a worthwhile artistic and technical challenge.

With much time in the blind and after wading through hundreds of images, you will soon recognize individual birds and their individual behaviors. You might even start thinking of them as little friends, which brings a special satisfaction of its own.

Visit Brad's website

Brad Mitchell is a Washington State based photographer and writer specializing in outdoor adventure, travel and natural history of Washington, the Pacific Northwest and beyond. His images appear in publications around the world and are offered as fine art prints through his website. Experience Brad’s enthusiasm for photography and outdoor adventure on his YouTube Channel.

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