Your own back yard is a great place to start photographing birds. In fact, it’s a great place to continue photographing birds and to practice birds in flight photography.
In this blog, I’ll share my back yard bird photograph tips and set ups, along with a few of my photos and camera settings for the bird photographs.
The nice thing about back yard bird photography is that you can get away with shorter focal length lenses to photograph birds by using blinds to get closer to the birds. I’ll talk more about blinds and camouflage techniques later in this blog.
When starting in back yard bird photography, you can begin with a focal length of 300mm. However, 400-500mm is preferable. A 1.4x teleconverter can be used to get to this focal length but this may affect your image sharpness and focusing speed.
An entry level DSLR can be used, but cameras with 6 frames per second or higher frame rates are better for bird photography, especially birds in flight. Cameras with good continuous focus modes are also beneficial for birds in flight photography. However, cameras with higher frames per second and better continuous focus modes are usually more expensive.
It’s important to plan out the location of your bird feeder. Birds need adequate cover for security and access to a water source. Tree and bushes, especially Evergreens provide good cover for the birds. We have a Red-tailed hawk that frequently patrols our bird feeder for prey. The birds use our evergreens for cover to escape from the hawk.
Also consider where you want to set up to photograph the birds when placing your bird feeder. Should you place it near a window (although this may impact the sharpness of your photos – more on that later), or near a doorway or some other cover for the photographer.
Camouflage and Blinds
Many people locate their bird feeders near a window to photograph birds. I prefer to photograph the birds from outside using a blind rather than photographing through a window. Photographing through glass can cause glare and impact the sharpness of your bird photos.
Blinds work really well for back yard bird photography. Birds come a lot closer to a blind than to a human figure. I have had birds come as close as 10 feet from the blind.
I’ve used a couple of inexpensive approaches for blinds to photograph birds in my backyard: hunting blinds and sealing off a doorway using a canvas tarp.
An inexpensive, single person hunting blind can be used for bird photography in your back yard. The benefits of using a hunting blind is that it can be moved any where in your yard to photograph the birds. The down side to this approach is the set up time for the blind.
Camouflage Tarp to seal off a Doorway
Using a Camouflage Tarp to seal off a doorway or other area in your yard is another approach to conceal yourself from the birds while photographing them. Nails, screws, or velcro can be used to secure the tarp. You just need to cut a hole a little larger than the diameter of your lens to expose the lens to photograph the birds. I folded the tarp to fit the size of the doorway and duck tape to hold the shape of the tarp and hole for the lens.
The benefits of the tarp approach are ease of set up and additional warmth of being in an enclosed area in the winter. The down side is that you can’t move the tarp to other locations like you can a hunting blind.
Clean backgrounds are important for bird photography. You should try to exclude the bird feeder, hooks, and extra tree branches from your photographs. Sometimes these items can be removed from the photo in post processing but that can take quite a bit of time and effort. It is easier to plan your composition without these items included in the photo.
Here are a few ideas for a cleaner composition
- Attach a branch to one of the hooks of the bird feeder or on a separate pole near the feeder. The birds will use this for a landing spot coming to/from the feeder.
- A fresh snow makes a great background and foreground for bird photography. Birds will often feed on the seeds below the feeder and the fallen seeds can easily be removed using the Clone Stamp or Healing Brush tools in Photoshop.
- Look for isolated branches or branches in evergreen trees close to the feeder. It’s worth the wait for the birds to land here for a cleaner shot. Blurred out and darkened evergreen branches make a nice background for bird photographs.
Birds in Flight Tips
Birds in flight make some of the most beautiful nature photographs. They are also one of the most difficult subjects to photograph in nature. Here are a few tips for birds in flight photography to practice in your back yard.
- A fast shutter speed is really important. You will need a shutter speed of at least 1/1250th of the second if not faster. So choose sunny mornings or afternoons and don’t be afraid to raise your ISO and remove the noise in post processing.
- Pre-focus on an object on the same plane as where the birds normally fly. I pre-focus on the feeder and try to capture the birds as they fly to and from the feeder. Pre-focusing will help to speed up focusing on your camera.
- Use a continuous fast frame rate when shooting birds. This will fire off more shots at a faster rate giving you a better chance of getting a sharp image. If your blind is close to the feeder, you may need to use a silent shutter mode on your camera to avoid scaring away the birds.
- Study the habits and patterns of the birds in your back yard. They will frequently follow the same path to the feeder, land on the same perches, etc. This will help you anticipate where the birds will be so you can set up your shot and pre-focus your camera.
Written by Martin Belan