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The instant image feedback of digital cameras and the lighter weight of many current telephoto lenses have prompted many birders to take camera equipment into the field. And many of them practice bird photography in their backyard.
Your garden bird feeders can provide a constant stream of photographic subjects. One advantage is that the birds become familiar with you and are generally not frightened, allowing them to approach closer. You also have a predictable location where birds will land, so you don’t need to chase them into the field.
As simple as it may seem, garden photography can present its challenges when trying to achieve an aesthetically pleasing image. Background elements such as a house, power lines, busy tree branches, and feeders where birds perch on man-made objects distract from the birds’ natural beauty. Mixed lighting in a yard can also harm the results of your photographs. Depending on the location of your feeder, you might shoot at birds or shoot into shadows and shadows.
A tray feeder will attract birds to your photo studio. Photo by Alan Murphy
One way to avoid all these challenges is to use a floor feed tray when taking photos. If you already feed birds with tube feeders or other hanging feeders, keep them awake until you are ready for a photo shoot. Then remove your hanging feeders and posts and replace them with a ground feeder, and soon the birds will be coming low to feed. The advantage is that the terrain will be your background. I choose a lawn or other open area in front of which to place the feeder. This way I don’t have to deal with bright spots in the sky or dark shadows from trees or other foliage.
The background and the feeder should be in the same light. This will also give you a nice shooting perspective, as the birds will be at eye level or below. I only replace my hanging feeders with the tray feeder on the day of filming. Once the shoot is finished, I put everything back to how it was before.
To get the best possible angle of light on your subjects, position yourself so that the sun is at your back, which will reduce the sharp contrast on the birds. For top-notch results, first choose the background you want in your images. Again, a flat area of grass or soil works best. Then walk towards the sun and place the feeder on the ground. Continue walking about 15 to 20 feet toward the sun and place your shade. You should now have your blind, feeder and background aligned with the sun.
Find a few branches of trees or shrubs in your yard to use as perches for birds. Place the branches above the feeder and the birds will begin to use them for staging before making their final approach to the tray. Perches will help you get beautiful bird images with a smooth, blurred background. I use inexpensive camcorder tripods to hold and position my perches around the charger. This allows you to easily move them and quickly adjust the angle of the perches. The leaves from a torn branch will eventually wilt, so if I know I’m going to have to deal with that, I put the perch in a plastic water bottle and attach it to the tripod. For smaller perches, I use flower tubes (the ones where the roses come in).
To increase your productivity, it is best to use a blind such as the niche blind manufactured by Ameristep. This is a quick and portable pop-up shade that folds into a bag. The blind may not be necessary for most tame birds at your feeder, but it will be useful for the more finicky species. Another great option for a blind is the Lenscoat LensHide, which is a camouflage fabric blind that takes just seconds to install.
With your perches placed above the feeder and your blind in position, you are now ready to take photos. It shouldn’t take long before birds start using the tray feeder, especially if it’s near where your hanging feeders were.
An open top feeder can feed many birds at the same time. To keep the birds on your perch and not all jumping to the feeder, I place a piece of cardboard on the feeder with a hole in the middle, allowing only one bird to feed at a time. The others will wait on your perches, providing great photo opportunities.
To keep squirrels away from the feeder, I place a handful of peanuts at the base of a nearby tree or fence post (depending on where the squirrels are approaching from). From now on, squirrels will feed on your installation.
Once you have a bird activity and a collection of images, change the perches for more variety. By angling the perches towards the feeder, you will increase the productivity of your photos, as the birds descend from the perch to the food.
Backyard bird photography is great fun and can be highly addictive. And it’s convenient, since you can run inside to refill your coffee and get more birdseed for your subjects. I was a bird watcher before becoming a professional bird photographer, and I still find bird photography to be the best form of bird watching. During this time at home, head out into your garden to photograph the wonderful birds that bring us so much joy.
This article first appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.