Many of us love watching the birds gather around the seeds and suet we put out for them to nosh on. And many of us like to pull out the camera and photograph them while they're busy flitting around the feeder. But have you ever wanted to get great photos of the birds with a more natural, wild-looking background, sans plastic-and-wire feeder? Boost your bird photography skills with a few tricks for setting up your backyard as a prime spot not only for birds to eat, but for them to get their portraits taken as well.
I talked with wildlife photographer Donald Quintana who often will use his backyard as the setting for his bird photography. He has great advice on getting started with how to set up perches, build a blind to hide behind to help capture natural bird behaviors, and what to look for when beginning to photograph.
Bird feeders are great for attracting our feathered friends, but they aren't such a pretty background for photos. Instead of aiming your lens at the feeder, set up perches where birds who are waiting for their chance at the feeder can wait. It will be these birds, on these purposefully pretty perches, that you'll want to photograph.
Find fallen branches and logs to use as a perch. But don't just set a log in the middle of the lawn, where buildings, sheds or other objects will be in the scene. Make sure your background is as natural looking as your perch. Notice in the photo above that the background is the trunk of a tree, lending beautiful color and texture to the photo while remaining a simple backdrop that helps the bird stand out as the center of focus for the image.
Quintana recommends finding Christmas tree stands and old tripods at garage sales. "I use the type of tripod that has a hollow handle. These are great for holding branches as well as floral water tubes. Floral water tubes are great for freshly cut branches that have flowers on them. This keeps the flower, buds and leaves alive and looking good. You can buy them in bulk on line or stop by your local florists."
There are some great tricks for making the perches extra attractive for birds. Quintana says, "Christmas tree stands work wonders for holding logs. I usually set them up near my feeding stations where I’ve placed suet for Woodpeckers. I’ve found that the woodpeckers will usually stop off at the log before moving onto the feeder. I will also drill holes in the log and fill them with suet and the woodpeckers will come to that. Sometimes I place peanut butter with birdseed in it on the backside of the log to attract nuthatches."
Because many birds will land near feeders and check out the area to see if it's safe before going in to feed, set the perches fairly close to the feeders so that the bird can easily use the perch as this stop-off point. You'll start to be able to predict when birds will move between the feeder and the perch you've provided, and capture photographs when they land.
Quintana notes that it may take awhile to get birds used to the new perches. "Some birds are fairly tolerant while others are a little bit skittish. After you establish your feeders, the birds can become use to your presence." How comfortable you want birds with your presence will also depend on what gear you have. If you have a longer lens, you can stay farther away from birds, but if you have a shorter lens, you'll want to get the perch as close to you as possible while allowing enough distance that the bird still finds it a comfortable place to land.
"If you need to get closer, you can set up a pop-up blind to keep you hidden," says Quintana. "I’ve used a blind before as well having shot from my front porch which is about 10 feet away from my set-ups. Once you establish a feeder, the birds can become rather tolerant and a blind might not be necessary. If you are just beginning to establish feeders and the birds seem skittish, you could start with a blind. It would definitely help. If you are using a shorter lens, you definitely want to be in a blind to get as close as possible."
The next tricky part is learning your favorite camera settings for getting professional looking photographs. Soft backgrounds allow the bird to stand out in its setting, such as in the photo above. A fast shutter speed is also necessary to capture the fast action of birds flitting between feeder and perch and hopping around.
"With smaller perching birds, I usually set my aperture to no greater than f/8 and the fastest shutter speed possible," says Quintana. "This aperture allows me the ability to get the whole bird in focus and because these little birds move around rapidly, you need a pretty fast shutter speed to capture the behavior and stop their movement. I also make sure the distance between my set up and my background is great enough to ensure I get those soft backgrounds."
Take this opportunity to read through your camera's manual to fully understand how to use its different modes like manual, aperture priority and shutter priority. Experiment with using different settings to see what works best for you, and learn your camera well enough that you don't have to look at it to be able to adjust settings while you're shooting. All this will help in capturing the action as it happens and miss fewer shots.
Taking notes on your backyard birds
It's a great idea to note down which species are showing up at your feeder, and also take notes on their behaviors. Taking notes will help you more sharply observe behaviors you want to try to catch on camera, and studying your notes will help you better predict when those behaviors will happen. Who is fighting with whom, courtship song and dance routines, and other behaviors other than perching and feeding are interesting to get on camera. Also, because you never really know who will show up at a backyard bird feeder, you might just be able to catch photographs of rare visitors.
"It’s fun to see the variety of birds that come to my feeders," says Quintana, who keeps a list of all the species that visit his feeders. "It’s also a wonderful way to catch vagrants or those occasional birds that are off the beaten path."
Quintana notes that keeping a list will reveal both what time of day and what time of year certain visitors will be most active, so you'll know when to be outside with your camera. But taking notes is not just about your own fun. It is also about the health of the birds.
"If you begin to notice birds that have tumors or other defects, it’s time to take down your feeders and clean them. Bird feeders are a great place for avian disease to spread. If you notice sick birds, take your feeders down for a couple of weeks and clean them with bleach and water. Same thing goes for your bird bath. Try to keep them clean."
Backyard bird photography is a perfect place to hone your skills. Since the wildlife is coming to you, you don't have to worry about if a species will show up during the short time you're in an area, or worry about moving gear from place to place. It's a low-stress way to learn your camera backward and forward, practice your skills at tracking birds with your lens as they fly and move around, and learn a lot about the bird species and their behaviors as you spend hours watching them.
For learning more about backyard bird photography, Quintana recommends reading "The Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography" by Alan Murphy, which provides a lot of detailed advice on set-ups for many different species, how to attract different species depending on what you'd like to photograph, and how to capture birds in flight.