Sometimes there are days that you just can’t get out of the house: Your spouse needs the car for the day, or the car is in the shop, or a heavy snowstorm makes it a wise decision to stay home. Whatever the reason may be, you know you will be home for hours, with your photography gear in plain site just sitting there waiting to be used. Backyard bird photography to the rescue! This is one of the reasons that I maintain bird feeders in my yard (the other being that the birder in me simply enjoys attracting them for my viewing pleasure).
I could write a book on the topic, but I’ll make it short and sweet for easy fast “blog” type reading. If there are any points you would like for me to elaborate on in more detail just let me know and it would be my pleasure to make a separate post about it.
Common Redpoll, male, Canon 7D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/6.3, ISO 800.
There are two main strategies for backyard bird photography that I use. The first is feeder setups, the second is the good ‘old fashioned wait-and-see stakeout. Being prepared is key. I always have a selection of perches at the ready stored in my garage. Those have been carefully selected during walks in the woods. I also keep my feeders filled so I do not have to wait to re-attract the birds to my yard.
The first step is to chose a prime spot with a good background. This can be tricky if your yard is small because you will want to keep the sun and distracting elements (e.g. your house, or your neighbour’s swimming pool) behind you. If it sunny outside that can mean either only a morning shoot, or an afternoon one, as you will otherwise surely have unwanted elements in the background. Yet another reason that I love cloudy days for outdoor photography! Photographing your subjects under a large shade tree can work too. Using a wide open aperture can nicely blur out hedge rows or fences giving you nice backdrops. The image of the Common Redpoll above, and the Pine Siskin below both feature my fence as a part of their backgrounds.
Pine Siskin, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/125s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
Setting up your perches lower than your position, forcing you to point your lens down towards your lawn to give you nice greens, works very well too. Just make sure to remove potential unwanted elements out beforehand, such as fallen leaves and dandelions. Rocks and logs works well for this, especially for ground feeders.
Chipping Sparrow, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/800s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
Photographing birds directly on the ground can provide some very intimate images, giving the impression of being at one with the subject out in the wild, rather than in a cluttered backyard. Lying down on fresh grass is also not as messy as doing so in wet sand or mud, and besides, the shower stall and laundry machines are just a few steps away!
White-crowned Sparrow, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/160s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
The same strategy works great with snow:
Dark-eyed Junco, slate colored, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/640s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
In every image above food was strategically provided to lure the birds in to a pre-planned spot, hence the term “feeder setups”. For birds perching on branches, the perches were placed very close to the feeder, giving the subjects an area to land on and to be photographed before hopping on to the feeder. Two or three branches can be placed, but it best to keep those at a minimum to better predict where the birds will land. I prefer to use just two, one at either side of the feeder. You can also block all feeder access holes save for one, and use only one branch on that side, for even better predictability.
For low perches such as rocks, logs, or just the bare ground, seeds are spread onto them, preferably in a way that they are hidden so they will not show up in your photos. Nyger seeds and black sunflower seeds seem to work best from my experience.
The “stakeout” strategy is simply to get into place and wait for the birds to show up. The thing to keep in mind is that almost all birds coming in will be doing so in search of food. The difference being no perch has been manually set up for the purpose of bird photography. It is simply waiting and hoping for a good opportunity. American Robins foraging for worms and grubs, Mourning Doves snooping around for spilled seeds, or insectivores gleaning prey from leaves are such examples. It could also be individuals hanging out for their turn at the bird feeders – especially if there are more birds than places to feed…they will often wait in the branches for the next available spot. The following images were taken from the “stakeout” strategy:
American Goldfinch, male in breeding plumage, Canon 30D + 100-400L @400mm, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/250s., f/6.3, ISO 800.
American Robin, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/250s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
Red-eyed Vireo, Canon 7D + 500mm f/4 II + 1.4TC, manual exposure, evaluative metering, 1/200s., f/5.6, ISO 800.
As you can see, yards can be quite productive for bird photogrpahy. No gas spent or wear and tear on the car to travel to a location; food, bathroom, and “warm up” breaks can be easily taken (especially handy on cold winter days), and once done you are already home to start processing the images…or take a nap!
Fun tip to end the post: Being concealed almost always results in more birds coming in, or at least closer. Although a “pop up” tent works wonders, I’ve been known to use any yard object: lying prone under a picnic table or kneeling behind the barbecue, sitting on the ground behind a lawn chair, or simply hanging out inside the garage with the door slightly open.