How to Photograph Garden Birds
Photographing birds in your garden has some obvious advantages, but there are plenty of challenges too. Not least space, where to shoot from, backgrounds and attracting the birds.
You probably have your own ideas on photographing garden birds. But what follows is my own take on the subject, and my advice is mirrored in what I do in my garden and in a small patch of woodland I have set up as an outdoor studio.
In this article I have concentrated on attracting birds to food, but water will also be a big draw and creating a small drinking pool will pay dividends during dry periods. Similar techniques can be used to photograph visitors coming to water as detailed below.
Feeding garden birds
Because I make part of my living from photographing bird feeders, I often have a variety hanging up with various foods. Within reason, the more feeders you hang then the more birds you are likely to attract.
I have feeders with fat, niger seed, and sunflower hearts which attract a wide range of birds such as fat-loving nuthatches, tits, great-spotted woodpeckers, and goldfinches. Greenfinches, chaffinches, and occasional bramblings – along with just about all other species – love sunflower hearts.
It is important to keep the feeders topped up. If you leave them empty for a few days, you can start to lose your birds as they move away from the area. As well as the feeders, I have logs both placed upright and on the ground which have channels chiselled into them in to which I place fat. These also work as good photography props.
For a decent variety of birds to visit your feeders. they need to have some refuge – such as a bush or tree nearby – that they can dive for if a sparrowhawk appears. The feeders should be placed close to where you intend to photograph so the birds are used to coming to that spot.
Backgrounds & direction of light
A good background is key, and having one can be a big challenge in a small garden. This also needs to work with where the sun moves during the day, ensuring that conditions remain optimal for your image.
Your garden’s aspect will likely dictate which way you will shoot, and from where. So if achieving a smooth, uncluttered background is challenging then you can create one using a board or sheet painted in colours replicating foliage. Once this is erected and positioned so it is out of focus, it can look very natural.
In autumn, I often use sprigs of autumn foliage fixed behind my perches to give an autumnal feel.
While front lighting will bag you some pleasing shots, you can get creative with your lighting and go for backlighting and side light. It is great to experiment, and using reflectors or LED lamps are other things to make lighting interesting.
Concealment or shooting remotely
Some of the birds in my garden are so tame that I can stand next to the feeders and photograph without hiding away. However, it takes time to habituate your visitors, and so the likelihood is that you will need to either conceal yourself in a hide, perhaps partly convert your shed, or you might be able to shoot from a house window.
This depends on your backgrounds and lighting too, so you might be a bit tied to shooting in one direction.
There is an alternative that is quite appealing, and that is staying indoors and shooting remotely. For this, you would set your camera on a tripod and use an electronic trigger – of which there are many very cheap options on the market with ranges of 50 metres or more.
You can also trigger most mirrorless camera brands these days via an app on your phone, whereby you can see the image, adjust exposure and so on. The downside is that most of these don’t work well beyond 10 metres.
Choosing the best perches
Looking for and setting up perches can be the fun part of photographing garden birds. I have spent countless enjoyable hours wandering through woodlands, looking for the perfect perch.
You want to make your shot look natural, so put some thought into creating your set. Look at other pictures of garden birds you like, and decide what looks natural and what looks staged – then think about your own interpretation.
There are some obvious perches that work really well for certain species. For example, logs can have holes drilled into them or a groove chiselled out to place fat in for woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Teasels with niger seed sprinkled in their tops are great for goldfinches. It is a bit of a cliché, but a robin on a fork handle or sprig of holly always look good. If snow is in the forecast then make sure your perches are set up before it arrives, as it will look a lot more natural than if you have to try and place snow on a perch yourself.
Read more: How to Build a Photography Hide
Once you are ready to photograph, it is time to take the feeders down. You need to leave one food source up, though. For this, I use a fat feeder called Flutter Butter for fat-loving species as this slows the birds down and, as the name suggests, encourages them to flutter a lot.
This creates a queue of birds, so also ensuring your visitors are perched for longer. Perches should be set close to the feeder, but out of shot.
If you are looking to shoot flight shots, then place your perch a couple of metres from your feeder in the same plane of focus. This gives you a chance of capturing birds flying from perch to feeder. If you are going for action shots, then very fast shutter speeds are required. At least 1/2000th sec is needed to freeze a flying blue tit, although ideally a speed of 1/3200th is best to be safe.
If you are shooting portraits of your garden birds on perches, then try not to plonk the bird in the centre of the frame. Think about placing your subject at points of the frame that make a more interesting composition. You might want to use foliage as part of the picture, or elements of your background to complement the composition.
In short, be adventurous and try to use your imagination!
Read more: How to Build a Bird Reflection Pool