How to Photograph Wildlife in Your Backyard

photograph wildlife in your backyard

The average backyard or back garden is bursting with wildlife. From frogs in your pond to foxes foraging around the borders, there is much to photograph at all times of the year. With a bit of know-how and preparation, it’s possible to shoot an exciting range of subjects right on your own doorstep.

Read on to find out how to attract wildlife to your garden, what gear you’ll need, plus top tips to help you light and compose your images along with the best camera settings to make the most of your encounters.

Birds in Your Backyard

Birds are one of the most visible of all backyard wildlife and given a little know-how will reward the patient photographer with some fantastic images.

Blue tit (Parus caeruleus) two perched in winter, Scotland, UK

What’s the approach?

Most back gardens attract a good variety of birds, especially if you give them a helping hand by providing them with food, water and somewhere to breed. One big advantage of photographing garden birds is that they are likely to be more easily approached than their secretive country cousins. This means it’s often possible to capture frame-filling images by sitting quietly close to where they are feeding.

For more skittish species, use a small portable hide (blind) to conceal yourself, which will also ensure the birds behave naturally. Attract birds into your back garden by providing a range of foodstuffs as well as clean water in an accessible pool. Nest boxes erected in suitable spots will help encourage a greater number of species to your patch.

photograph wildlife backyard
Blackbird (Turdus merula) male in snow, Scotland, November

Best time of day

Birds tend to be active for most of the day, but often have a peak of activity early in the morning and again towards the end of the day.

What gear do I need?

To capture a medium-sized bird at a decent size in the frame, you’ll need a telephoto lens of at least 300mm. If this is coupled with a camera that has a cropped sensor, then this effectively increases the magnification, which is very helpful when photographing birdlife. A camera that is capable of shooting at 4-5 frames per second or faster will increase your chances of capturing action shots.

Read more: What’s the best camera for wildlife photography?

Lighting and composition

Timing your shoot to coincide with peak bird activity early in the day will also mean catching the attractive morning sunlight that will bring out the rich colours in a bird’s plumage. Shooting with front lighting often suits birds best, although some species work well when backlit. Soft overcast light is great for revealing plumage detail.

photograph wildlife backyard
Blue tit (Parus caeruleus), silhouetted with wings held aloft. Scotland. 2008.

What settings should I use?

Typically, you’ll need a fairly fast shutter speed to prevent any blurring from subject movement. A shutter speed of at least 1/250th sec is advisable for most species but when tackling faster moving action aim for 1/1000th sec or faster. Set a wide aperture such as f/5.6 in Av mode and increase the ISO setting if necessary to obtain the required shutter speed.

Mammals in Your Backyard

Often more secretive than birds, mammals can present a greater challenge but with the right approach it’s possible to photograph a wide range of species.

photographing wildlife backyard tips

What’s the approach?

Mammals are surprisingly regular visitors to gardens and, just like birds, it’s often food that encourages them to visit. By putting out a regular supply of nuts and seeds, as well as meat scraps, you’re likely to attract a variety of mammals. Other species will visit to feeds on worms, slugs, and other insects, and can be of great benefit in controlling pests in addition to becoming photographic subjects!

photographing wildlife backyard tips
Pine Marten (Martes martes) on garden lawn looking at camera

Many mammals rely on scent and hearing much more than sight, so you’ll need to remain still and try to keep downwind of your subject to avoid spooking them. An alternative approach to sitting behind the camera is to use a remote shutter release that you can fire from inside the house. Regular contact will also help habituate many species and over time they will learn that you are no threat and behave naturally when you’re around.

What gear do I need?

The recommended kit for photographing mammals often depends on the size of the species, but a telephoto zoom in the range of 100-400mm will give you plenty of options and also help with composition. Many mammals are most active when light levels are very low, which may mean you need to use flash or another artificial light source, such as an outside light.

Best time of day

The period from dusk to dawn is usually the best time to shoot predominantly nocturnal mammals such as badgers and hedgehogs, but other species such as squirrels and foxes are active by day.

photographing wildlife backyard tips
Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) emerging from hollow log in woodland. Yorkshire, UK.

Lighting

If possible, try to capture your subject bathed in the warm light of sunset or sunrise to add extra appeal to your shots. When using flash, use a second unit if possible to improve the quality of lighting and fill-in deep shadows cast by the main light.

What settings should I use?

When light isn’t in ample supply, always shoot with the widest aperture setting possible to help generate the fastest shutter speed. You can often obtain sharp pictures of mammals at shutter speeds as slow as 1/30th second if you time your shot well, and have your camera mounted on a tripod to prevent camera shake.

Read more: How to photograph wildlife in low light

Amphibians & Reptiles in Your Backyard

As natural habitats decline, frogs, toads, and reptiles are becoming more reliant on gardens as a place to feed and breed – good news for wildlife photographers.

photographing wildlife backyard tips
Common frog (Rana temporaria) in garden pond in spring. Warwickshire, UK

What’s the approach?

During the spring, frogs and toads migrate great distances to return to breeding pools and this is a great time of the year to photograph them. Outside the breeding season, some species will remain in or close to your garden pond or may seek shelter in other damp parts of the garden.

A night-time foray with a torch (flashlight) will determine what you have lurking in your flowerbeds, and these can be photographed as they go about their nightly rambles.

Common frog (Rana temporaria), adult in garden pond. Warwickshire, UK, April.

What gear do I need?

A short telephoto zoom with a focal length range of around 70-200mm is ideal for photographing amphibians and reptiles. It’s useful if your lens is close focusing to achieve a good image size.

Alternatively, you can fit extension tubes, which enable the lens to focus closer or fit a macro lens instead if you have one. Use a flash for night-time shooting and add a diffuser when working close to the subject to spread the light more evenly.

Best time of day

In the spring, frogs and some other species will be active during the day, but at other times of the year evening or early morning is best.

photographing wildlife backyard tips
Common frog (Rana temporaria) male calling, in garden pond in spring, Warwickshire, UK

Lighting

Indirect natural light is good for photographing subjects that are either wet or have reflective skins to reduce problems with contrast. When using flash as the sole source of illumination, try to diffuse it in some way or bounce it onto the subject to create softer lighting.

What settings should I use?

Some species can remain very still, so provided your camera is mounted on a tripod or supported by a bean bag you may be able to shoot at shutter speeds down to ½ sec when using natural light.

For flash photography, use manual (M) mode to set the shutter speed at the flash sync speed (usually around 1/125th second) and use a mid-range aperture of f/8 to provide sufficient depth of field to get the eyes sharp.

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