Wildlife Photography: Start With Birds in Your Own Backyard
“Wildlife photography” sounds exotic, rugged, exciting—and daunting. But it’s as close as your own backyard: Birds!
In my little suburban Connecticut yard, I’m regularly visited by dozens of species of birds—including tiny hummingbirds and the humble sparrow…fat robins, brilliant-red cardinals and the regal pileated woodpecker…gigantic wild turkeys…and occasionally magnificent hawks that rest atop my tall white pine.
It’s challenging and lots of fun to capture these creatures in close-up, impressive photos that you can display and share with others—and you don’t need expensive equipment to do it. Here’s how to get started in your own backyard on mastering the art of photographing birds…
Choose an appropriate camera and lens. You can photograph birds reasonably well with any camera, whether it’s a DSLR, one of the increasingly-popular mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras (MILCs) or even just a compact camera with a built-in lens. But because most birds are small—and tend to fly away if you get too close—you’ll need a lens that has a long enough focal length to fill the frame with a bird from a moderate distance of, say 10 to 12 feet. The way focal length applies to different kinds of cameras means the numbers aren’t always comparable, but a telephoto or zoom lens of 200mm or longer or a zoom camera with a “10x” or greater zoom range should work fine to start. After you start shooting, if you find you’d like a longer “reach” than what you have, you can buy the desired equipment. With DSLR lenses and some mirrorless-camera lenses you can also buy a tele-extender that multiplies the focal length of the lens, typically by 1.4x.
Attract birds with feeding stations. The best way to attract lots of birds is to offer them a free meal. There are many styles of feeders ranging from clear acrylic tubes to big open trays, but the type and quality of the seed you choose is more important than the feeder. (More on that below.) Important: Choose feeder locations that offer plain and simple backgrounds so that your subjects aren’t competing with a busy background in your photos.
Select the right feed. If you’re not familiar with what kind of seeds the birds in your area prefer, call or visit the nearest Audubon sanctuary or look online for guides (great site: allaboutbirds.org). Then, the seeds you choose will dictate the specific birds that you attract. Examples: Use suet cakes to attract woodpeckers…
…and nyjer seed to bring in goldfinches and house finches…
Black oil sunflower seed appeals to the widest variety of birds. It may be days or even weeks before lots of birds find your feeders, but once they do, they’ll become regulars as long as you keep up the supply of food.
You can also plant natural sources of food, including berry bushes and sunflowers. I plant tithonia (Mexican sunflower) every year to attract lots of hummingbirds (butterflies love it, too)… hanging pots with bright red or pink flowers will attract hummingbirds, also.
Provide water. Birds also love a reliable source of fresh water. Birdbaths and fountains work well, but an old baking dish on the ground works, too. An inexpensive solar fountain will keep the water moving and that helps attract birds and keeps the mosquitoes away.
Provide a simple perch near your feeders. It’s great if your feeder is near trees so that you can capture birds as they are perched. Here’s a simple way to get more natural-looking shots if you don’t have such ready-made perches: Choose attractive twigs or vines, cut them a foot or so long, and attach them with duct tape to the poles or hooks that hold your feeders. The birds rest on these perches while they open shells or wait for their turns at the feeder. Pre-focus on the perch…and wait for birds to land.
Be stealthy and patient. Birds are skittish, so it’s important to keep a low profile and stay very still. Pros use camouflaged blinds, but setting yourself up 10 feet or so from the feeders works okay. Wear dark clothing, and try hiding behind a trellis or a small shrub or a corner of your house. It takes time to get good shots, so be comfortable in a lawn chair while waiting. You can shoot through windows, but the quality is better without the glass. Tip: If your windows have screens that open, you can sit inside next to an open window and wait for the right moment to shoot.
Learn and follow the birds’ feeding schedule. Most birds are most active early in the morning and in the last hour of daylight. These are by far the best times to shoot.
Exposure tips: If your camera offers it, choose the “aperture priority” exposure mode and set it to a “wide” (a low number) aperture. Shooting at a wide aperture—such as “f/2.8” rather than “f/8”—produces less depth of field (near-to-far sharpness) and helps toss the background out of focus, making your birds look crisp and almost three-dimensional in comparison. If your camera has a “burst” (continuous shooting) mode that automatically shoots a series of photos in rapid succession when you press the shutter button, try it out—it’s sometimes that second, third or subsequent shot that proves to be the keeper.