Nature Photography Subjects to Shoot in Winter
Winter is an exciting time for nature photographers in the UK. Each winter we see a huge influx of birds coming to Britain to take advantage of our relatively mild winters. Numbers are boosted further if temperatures drop in Europe and, should we have a cold snap, many of these birds become more confiding as their need to find food becomes more urgent.
Here are some ideas for subjects to photograph this winter… and it’s not all about birds!
Birds in snow
A friend has just told me that we are going to have more snow than usual this winter. I didn’t ask how he knew, but my suspicion is it will be some tabloid scare mongering about a ‘perfect storm’ of energy prices going up and temperatures going down.
So, as you’ve guessed, I am sceptical about the prediction but grateful to my friend for reminding me that it’s time to get ready. I live in Cornwall where we don’t get very much of the white stuff, but each winter I prepare a bird photography area in my garden by setting up some attractive branches and other props with a view to training the birds ready to perform in the event of snow arriving.
Anyone with space for a bird feeder in their garden has the opportunity to photograph birds. I recommend thinking of as many different ways as possible to feed the birds in the garden; start doing that now and keep it going all the way through winter.
So, I put out four different types of feeders: peanut, niger seed, mixed seed, and fat ball. I also have logs which are drilled with holes into which I push peanuts and suet.
I tend to have some teasel heads which I fasten in position and sprinkle with niger seed to attract goldfinches. I also put out occasional windfall apples, and I have a low bird table to attract ground-feeding species such as dunnock, robin, and blackbird.
Setting the scene
As well as feeders, I am always thinking about the photographic appearance of the bird-feeding area. I will use this to take photos of birds whether we have snow or not, so I want it to look good.
Usually, I like to set up thin lichen-encrusted branches close to the feeders for the birds to land on, but I am aware that snow doesn’t stick well on thin twigs! The first bird to land will vibrate the branch so much that all the snow will fall off.
So, if I am anticipating snow I tend to use more substantial branches and logs to decorate my bird-feeding area. These are ideal for drilling holes so it is easy to get birds feeding on hidden peanuts. I always save logs with deep natural holes in them because these are ideal for stocking up with handfuls of peanuts which can be placed out of sight.
A bird table at the height you intend to sit is ideal. Here you can get shots of the birds at eye-level. It might not look very photogenic to start with, but imagine it covered with snow and everything is transformed.
If snow isn’t likely, I sometimes put a piece of turf on top to get shots of birds apparently on the ground. Any bird table must be stable and quite large; I often use a picnic table with a sheet of something on top to protect it.
Occasionally, I hammer a nail through from underneath and use this to push an apple onto from above, this stops the apple rolling off onto the ground beneath.
Since this is garden bird photography, I like to experiment with other props such as plant pots, spade handles and the like. Plant pots are great because they can be filled with hidden bird food, though I tend to find that I have to part-fill them with something else and then just put a small amount of food nearer the top.
It’s important not to have too much food in the garden to avoid attracting rats. Where food is accessible from the ground, I would suggest only putting out as much as the birds will eat during the day.
Throughout this ‘staging’ process, it is important to consider where you will sit to take photos. You might shoot from the window of a house or a shed, or you could use a portable hide. Consider the angle of light and the appearance of the background.
When photographing from a hide, shed, or house window, I always use a tripod because this enables me to leave the lens completely still between periods of shooting. On the tripod I use a gimbal head which keeps the large telephoto lens in balance.
Many of my ‘bird in snow’ photos are taken with a 300mm lens because it has a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8, useful for low-light photography. I sometimes combine this with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter.
A telephoto zoom lens would be useful for its adaptability in photographing birds of different sizes, but these tend to be slower in focusing and have smaller maximum apertures so making them less suitable on dull days.
Exposure & focus
With a telephoto lens and a moving subject, the aim is to have a shutter speed fast enough to keep everything sharp. So, I usually use my lens with the aperture almost wide-open and then I check my shutter speed. If it isn’t fast enough, I increase my ISO until it is.
Most often I use a full-frame Canon 5D Mark IV for birds in the garden, unless I am photographing them in flight when I use a faster camera. With the 5D I tend to use an ISO of up to 800, only rarely increasing it beyond that point. I like to have a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second or faster even for fairly static portraits of garden birds, but I will continue to take photos at shutter speeds as slow as 1/100th of a second (accepting that only a small portion will be properly sharp).
Generally, I find that when we have snowfall we either have a sunny day or a dull grey day; we rarely have a day where the light levels change regularly. If this is the case, then the best way to set the exposure is in ‘manual’ exposure mode.
It might take a few shots to get the exposure correct but once you have done this it won’t need to be adjusted until the light level changes. To test your exposure take a photo of a snowy area close to where the birds are feeding and adjust the exposure settings until the snow is as white as it can be without burning out (use your histogram or highlight alert to check this).
I invariably use autofocus for birds in snow. On Canon it is the AI servo mode which follows the subject, and on other systems it might be called ‘active’ autofocus or something similar. The only time I have problems with autofocus is during snow fall when it can gets confused by the white flakes in front of and behind the subject.
When this happens it is important, in an instant, to switch to manual focus. I find this is most easily done using the back-button focus technique.
TOP TIP: Birds will invariably kick the snow off a branch in their rush to get food. To reinstate it, I pack a small amount of snow onto the branch quite firmly. This will stay in place but doesn’t look very natural. To combat this, I pick up some light fluffy snow and drop, or throw, it onto the packed snow. This gives it a more natural appearance.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when bitterns were incredibly rare breeding birds in the UK. Now, thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, who have significantly improved the quantity and quality of our reed beds, there are more than 200 male territories. Almost all of them are in East Anglia and The Somerset Levels. If you live in these areas and visit reed beds regularly, you have a good chance of seeing bitterns throughout the year but, for the rest of us, we have to wait for the winter when our breeding population is boosted by birds arriving from the continent, seeking milder weather.
In very cold winters we can have a lot of bitterns, some turning up in more marginal habitats where they wouldn’t usually be found including small reed beds, ponds and marshes. In icy weather bitterns, which usually like to stay hidden in dense reed beds, are sometimes forced out into the open to find food. Where a lot of bitterns are trying to eke out an existence in a small area, disputes will break out and some birds will be forced to fly more often than they would usually to find alternative feeding areas.
When photographing a bird in flight I use the follow-focus (AI Servo on Canon), I set my camera to burst mode, and I set my image stabilisation to mode 2 (active). I also use a cluster of five focusing points rather than just the central point (which I use for more static bird shots), because this gives me a better chance of keeping the focusing points on some part of the bird.
Panning with a bird in flight is difficult because they have a habit of changing direction and speed just when you are about to press the button, but one thing we should concentrate on is to keep moving the camera and lens smoothly before, after and during each press of the shutter release.
Clearly winter can be a good time to photograph bitterns, but we also need to be sensitive to their needs. It is vital that we don’t disturb them, so good fieldcraft including camouflaged clothing and slow, quiet movements are essential.
If you are in a spot where bitterns have been seen then it is all about patience, this is what wildlife photographers need in buckets full.
With the necessary waiting time involved, I use a tripod and gimbal head supporting the longest lens I have. I sometimes start off thinking I can hand-hold a long lens but various parts of my body soon begin to complain. It isn’t usually possible to stalk a bittern because of the difficult terrain in which they live, so stand still and wait for the bird to come closer.
It is essential as wildlife photographers that we avoid the desire to get too close, and as soon as we sense that we have caused the subject to respond to our presence, even momentarily, we should freeze and wait for its normal behaviour to resume. If the bird continues to look nervous then we should move away very slowly.
Read more: How to Photograph Bitterns
There are natural history subjects to be found literally everywhere. Look on the branches of trees, stone walls, rocks and even gravestones in churchyards and you will find one fascinating subject: lichen.
Lichens are formed when a fungus and an alga work together. They grow best in clean air and their abundance is often used as an indicator of the amount of pollution in the atmosphere. The colours and shapes they form can be remarkable and attractive making them a great subject for macro photographers.
There are three main types of lichen: foliose are leafy in shape; crustose form a crust-like thin layer on a surface; fruticose can be upright, cup-shaped or hang from trees.
Dull days are best for this sort of close-up photography; if it is a little too bright try using a reflector to fill in the shadow areas. To photograph lichens, you will need a macro lens and a tripod. Don’t be lazy by trying to take short-cuts: do the job properly or you will be disappointed when you take a close look on the computer screen.
Set up the camera firmly on a tripod that gets down low to the ground. Attach a remote release to trip the shutter without vibration. Use a small aperture if you want to show a reasonable amount of the lichen sharp, or experiment with a wider aperture if you are looking for something more creative.
Compose the photo so the most significant part of the subject is off-centre (you might want to use the rule of thirds for example). Now use LiveView and manual focus to get the focus exactly right. You might find that you need to use focus-stacking to get all of the subject sharp but the background out of focus.
TOP TIP: Be prepared to spend ten minutes finding the best specimen before you spend half an hour taking a photo of the wrong one!
Winter is always an exciting time for photography with great light and new opportunities but it’s never the same without a cold spell and snow. So, even with rising energy prices, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some proper winter weather and to keep warm I’ll be doing outdoor aerobics with my big lens and tripod!