Kick-off Your Garden Bird Photography Project

With my 12-step guide to setting up a simple but effective photographic stage…

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This is a great project for the time-constrained weekend photographer. The setup is simple. There are no specialised tools or fancy gadgets. You just need to spend a little time considering the location and that’s pretty much it.

Below you’ll find some logical steps to setting this up, plus a slideshow of ‘setting up’ pics and an example right at the bottom of the article. Once you’ve gone through the initial setup, you can develop it over time: adapt it for specific species; change it for the seasons; refine it for sunrise and sunsets. Essentially, you reap the rewards with minimal effort and maximum gain.

Kick off your project now!

The timing is perfect. Our British garden birds have finished their partial moult and are looking in tip-top condition once again. The bugs and seeds of summer are finishing and as autumn progresses the garden birds will grow more reliant on your bird feeders.

Year-round enjoyment and productivity

This setup can stay in position all year round. In fact, the longer you have it in position, the better. The birds will come to visit your setup simply out of habit as part of their local food forays. You can adapt it for the changing seasons with appropriate perches, e.g. blossom for spring, berries and golden leaves for autumn, etc. Once established, you can also modify the angles to capture backlit shots with sunrise and sunset light. It’s a versatile project and it’s right on your doorstep.


THE GARDEN BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE

What’s the best camera for the garden bird setup?

In theory, this garden bird set-up should work with any camera. In practice, you really need something that will focus fast and (even more importantly) take the shot instantly and without the delay of shutter-lag.

Garden birds are twitchy flighty little subjects and won’t hang around for a point-and-shoot shutter delay. So, from this point, let’s assume that we are using a DSLR. As for the crop-sensor vs full-frame argument, don’t worry about it. It’s irrelevant here. Whatever you have will work because in this setup, you are controlling the camera-to-subject distance.

What lens should I use?

Ultimately, this will depend on your chosen subject and setup. We’re concentrating on the common or garden favourites, not golden eagles in Finland. So, think sparrows, finches, tit-family, starlings, robins, etc. My favourite lens for photographing garden birds is my Nikkor 200-400mm VRII because it gives me an 8x magnification at a minimum working distance of 2m meters – compared to a 600mm’s 12x magnification at over 5m.

“But that’s frickin expensive!” I hear you cry. Yes, but let’s have a look at a standard 75-300mm f/4.0-f/5.6 kit lens on a crop-factor DSLR. With this set-up, you can have an effective 9.6x magnification factor at 1.5m or less… even better!

Tip: Zooms are great for hide work, because even though your shooting position is fixed, you can still reframe with a zoom. So, it’s spot on for when a larger bird, like a thrush, lands on your perch. The most important feature is a close working distance.

Photographing from within a dome hide. Photograph by © Elliott Neep

Do I need to support the camera?

Your camera and lens will be aimed at one specific point for extended periods. So, unless you have titanic biceps, use a tripod with suitable head. The position will be relatively fixed, so there is no need for a pricey gimbal. A ball head or three-way would do. The advantage of a gimbal is that it will stay in position without having to lock it allowing for tiny movements with a fingertip. A monopod is a poor choice here as it needs constant hand-holding and the lens will be waving about.

Tip: An alternative to the tripod is a small table or stool with a double beanbag, the benefit being that you can leave it in position and use your tripod elsewhere.

Won’t the birds see me?

The stage in front of the hide. Photograph by © Elliott Neep

You do need to remain hidden and out of view the whole time. To hide myself and equipment from view, I use the stalwart Wildlife Watching Supplies Large Dome Hide. WWS also sell a Bag Hide, which is pretty useful if you don’t want a permanent hide in the garden discolouring your lawn. Just position a chair and throw the bag hide over you and your kit.

There are cheaper alternatives to WWS, but you do get what you pay for. If you’re serious about your wildlife photography, it’s worth the investment as WWS gear can be left in position for years. I’ve bought some cheap rip-offs from Amazon, but they just break, or the material wears through and bleaches quickly. Fine for quick projects, but just consider this carefully.

Other alternatives? Pop-up tents, a scrim-net, bamboo/wicker garden screen, or simply photographing from an open house window or shed door. The hides just give you the flexible option. The basic idea of all this is just to conceal yourself and the camera.

Another thing to bear in mind when choosing between a hide or scrim… Something that covers you completely, like the dome hide, means you are free to move and stretch your legs and have a measure of comfort – pouring yourself a nice hot cuppa, for instance. If you use a basic screen, you will have to stay completely still the whole time as you’ll be visible from above and behind.

A little knowledge goes a long way…

Carefully consider the subjects you want to photograph and do a little research about their feeding habits. I’m not talking about crafting a thesis, just a quick gander on Wikipedia or the RSPB A-Z guide. It’s great to know what they eat and whether the birds favour perches or ground-feeding.

For example, blackbirds and thrushes generally prefer the garden lawn, feeding on grubs, worms, and wind-fall fruit on the ground. Sparrows, tits, warblers, wrens, and finches prefer the shrubbery, trees and hedgerows, picking off seeds, berries and small insects hauled up in the twigs and buds. Starlings and robins could be anywhere! Putting a little effort into this will really pay dividends in the future.

Tip: For ground-feeding birds you can use an old table. Lay some turf in a plastic tray full of soil (so that you can water it and keep it alive) or place a gnarly old branch or log on it surrounded by lots fallen leaves. Hey presto! A ground-level stage.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Goldfinch on teasels – scrim net background. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ/4.0

How do I make this look natural and not fake?

The images you are looking to capture should reflect the nature of the subject. The best example being goldfinches and woodpeckers: Goldfinches are perfectly adapted to perch on the finest seed-heads and peck out tiny seeds, so give them a teasels or thistles positioned close to a nijer-seed feeder. Just check out that shot above. Looks natural? It’s all staged.

Woodpeckers spend their lives clinging to the side of tree trunks and heavy-branches, hammering out beetle grubs. So, find a hefty branch or log and set it upright to resemble a tree trunk. Drill a few holes in the side (out of view of the camera) and stuff them with peanuts or fat-balls… more examples to follow.

Please be aware, that if you begin feeding birds, you make a commitment towards their welfare and once the birds rely on your feeders, it could be devastating to simply stop. Don’t be one of those photographers!

What feeders should I use?

Hanging a mixed-seed feeder. Photograph by © Elliott Neep

If you can hang a range of feeders with a variety of foods you will attract a wider diversity of birds. For example:

  • Wire mesh style nut feeders for tits and woodpeckers;
  • Clear plastic tube seed feeders for tits, sparrows, and finches;
  • Raw peanuts, hazelnuts, and bacon rinds for jays and magpies (on ground);
  • Fruit, mealworms, whole oats for blackbirds, robins, and thrushes (on ground).

Suspend the feeders on a pole-feeder or from a bracket on a fence post. You could also hang them from a bird table or even hung from an overhanging tree branch. If you’re starting from scratch, it may take a few days for the local birds to discover the new source of food. Be patient. If you feed them, they will come. Blue tits are often the first on the scene but other species will soon take notice. During cold spells, birds may feed all day long, but generally the feeders will see most traffic in the morning and late afternoon.

Tip: I use a 4-arm feeder pole, with a different type of feeder hanging from each hook. Then I simply rotated the pole to present a different feeder over my perch.

Where should I site my feeders and hide?

The simplest approach is to stand in your garden with the sun behind you. Study your garden. Observe where the sunlight strikes and in which direction the light falls. Ideally, you want a patch that is evenly lit, with a plain background that is over five metres away – preferably one that does not have too many deep shadows or highlights. This could be a fence, garage wall, hedgerow, etc.

Tip: Even though I have a very long garden, the light is very patchy because overhanging trees and the patchy ‘hedge background’ is just horrible. I solved the issue by studying the light and hanging a scrim-net over the greenhouse (a willow/grass garden screen would work equally as well)

How do I get those shots?

Light? Check. Background? Check. Shooting position? Check.

OK, so you’ve read-up on the garden birds, bought a couple of feeders and found a good spot for your garden bird shoot. Now to put it all together for some photography.

Garden birds are usually so twitchy that predicting where they will land is a bit of a minefield. With a perch in place, adjacent to regular food supply, you can anticipate where they will land, setup your camera in advance, and speed up your reaction times to photograph them. The feeder, perch, and camera position is fixed so you can come back to it time and again without having to do the set-up over and over.

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Garden bird stageFollow my 12-point set-up guide for your garden bird photography stage

  1. Measure a minimum of 5 metres out from the background (your fence, a screen or scrim net, or your hedge) and set a marker in the ground for your perch. Ideally, the further the background is the better. We’ll call this point “Marker A”;
  2. For the camera position, check the minimum focus distance of your lens and measure this same distance, plus a little extra, from Marker A (heading further away from the background;
  3. Set another marker in the ground and call this one “Marker B”;
  4. Set your camera on its tripod over the top of Marker B;
  5. Now you have a point of reference for both your camera and the perch. Together, these two markers (A & B) represent your minimum distance set-up;
  6. Take a moment to consider how close you will be to the birds. They have a great vision and hearing, so you can’t be right on top of them if you’re going to blaze away with the shutter. As a guide, my camera is about 3m from my ‘small bird’ perches, which seems fine, if I’m careful with the shutter;
  7. As Marker B will be your shooting position, first make sure your autofocus can lock on to the Marker A. If it struggles to lock on, you are too close, so move Marker B further away;
  8. Next, focus-lock on Marker A, recompose the viewfinder with background in view, and take a couple of test shots wide-open to f/8;
  9. Review the images and check the effect on the background. Is it still diffused? Does it distract? You want it diffused – a soft wash of colour. If there is still too much ‘detail’ in the background, either move bother markers further away from the background until your are satisfied, or move sideways to see if there is a better background;
  10. Once you’re happy with the background (it is worth taking time on that) and the distances between markers, set-up your bird feeder over Marker A;
  11. Add a ‘perch’ close to the feeder. This could be a small branch or even just a garden cane clamped to a post or an old tripod.
  12. Let the whole setup bed-in for a few days. I know you will be chomping at the bit to get firing, but let the birds settle in with the feeder and observe as they start using the new perch.

What do you I with my camera?

I’m going to try to do this with the minimum of technical jargon. There are four main areas you need to consider. Aperture, Depth-of-field (DOF), Shutter speed, and Focus.

Aperture Settings

Great-spotted woodpecker. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6

We’re going to use the Aperture to control how much of the image is in focus. We want to isolate the birds from the background by keeping the bird in focus and the background blurred. To do this you need to open the aperture wider, e.g. f/4, f/5.6…

You will be photographing at close range to your subject, compressing the DOF. Think of DOF as a sandwich. The DOF is the filling. The out of focus areas are the bread. The closer the subject is to your camera, the thinner the filling. If you want more ‘filling’ you need to close down the aperture (bigger f/number). Conversely, the further away, the thicker the filling. Hope that makes sense.

DOF is a problematic issue when shooting at close range and here’s why. The maximum aperture on my 200-400mm is f/4, but if I am shooting at its minimum focus distance of 2m, I would have less than 5mm DOF which forces me to be ultra-selective with my focus point accuracy and the bird’s position – ideally parallel to my camera.

I really prefer to shoot a little deeper at such close range – f/6.3 to f/8 – as this will give me up to 12mm DOF, meaning that if the focus falls on the shoulder or wing, there is a good chance the eye will still be in focus.

The issue when closing the aperture down too much is the trade-off in shutter speed and the background can become distracting, where ideally you want something soft, smooth and diffused, to make the subject pop-out. It’s a personal choice, but given the UK’s rubbish weather, you’ll probably find your aperture is wide-open more often than not!

Focus Settings

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Goldfinch on teasel – side on to maximise DOF. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S at ¹⁄₁₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6

Moving a single focus point around in time to capture the fleeting pose of a small bird on a twig is a real challenge. This is what I do, but I’ve been doing it this way for years.

An alternative is to use all the focus points and pre-focus on the perch. When you’ve watched it for a while you’ll see that the birds have a favoured landing spot. Focus on this. When the bird arrives, wait until it turns to the side along the line of the perch, so its head and body are parallel to the camera, maximising your DOF.

If it doesn’t turn to the side, wait for the next one. To keep the bird in one spot for just a few seconds longer, you can add a small amount of fat (ground-up fat ball or lard) to the back of the perch/twig. Just make sure it is out of view from the camera. If the birds are comfortable and hang around, switch to a single focus-point and focus more accurately for head-on portraits.

Shutter Speeds

The subjects are generally small and fast-moving. They don’t sit still for long. So, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze them in sharp focus. For such fast-moving subjects, we need to keep a close eye on the shutter speed. Avoid shooting with anything slower than 1/200th sec.

Ideally, 1/500th sec or faster will make sure the flightiest birds stay nice and crisp. You can set your ISO to automatically maintain that 1/200th sec minimum, or manually increase your ISO.

Tip: It’s better to have a sharp shot with some ISO noise, than a clean blurred shot that is of no use to anybody.

How close should I be?

Once you’re all setup and ready to photograph, there will be a period of refinement. When you’re photographing, you may notice there are better backgrounds, so you need to realign your shooting position. Or, you might just need to do a little gardening.

If the birds don’t acclimatise to the shutter noise, you are simply too close. Don’t panic. Simply move your hide and shooting position a little further away and try again the next morning. This will take some trial and error, but it is really worth it. Your project will be so much more rewarding if the birds are nice and relaxed and oblivious to your presence.

Your garden bird photography sessions

Obviously you will need to make sure that your feeders are well stocked. However, during your sessions, tape over some of the feeding holes, so only one or two birds can feed at any one time. You’ll then have more birds using your perch while they wait for space on the feeder.

Remember, only tape the holes when you’re photographing. The birds should feed freely otherwise. Please clean the feeders regularly. Trichomoniasis is a real issue!

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Goldfinch on teasel. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6

When you get inside the hide, set your aperture, your ISO setting and focus your lens on the perch. When the camera is fixed, you can also switch off the whirring stabiliser. Keep movement to a minimum and stay put – don’t keep getting in and out of the hide to adjust the stage.

When birds begin to land, you’ll be tempted to fire away and capture your reward. Just keep your powder dry and hold off the shutter for a little while. Let the birds settle into a feeding pattern. Observe where they land most and frame-up that area in advance. When a bird lands there, wait until it turns or perches side-on and take a few shots. You want that catch light in the eye. It really brings the photograph to life.

Going forward, always keep disturbance to a minimum. It requires a just a little preparation… If it’s cold, make sure you will be comfortable and warm. Wear the proper gear and gloves (dark colours). Take a sleeping bag into the hide if necessary – kick off your boots, climb in the sleeping back and sit down. You will always disturb some birds when you enter and leave the hide. Don’t worry about it. They will return.

GARDEN BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY CHECKLIST

  1. Check the feeders
  2. Check perch is still in place 
  3. Check you have your batteries, cards, etc. 
  4. Drink and food? 
  5. Been to the loo? 
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
Goldfinch on teasels – laurel background. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6

MY GOLDFINCH TEASEL STAGE

My simple goldfinch stage uses a standard feeder pole, large nijer-seed feeder, a plant pot, small stake, and a teasel. It is essential that you check and revise this perch/feeder arrangement. Too close and the feeder will appear in the image, too far and the birds may fly away without landing. There is no rule here, just trial and error.

  1. With the camera set-up on Marker B, set a plant pot next to Marker A, push in a stake and tie the teasel to the stake – this will be your perch;
  2. Using a plant pot means you can move the teasel around easily to get the best background. I repeatedly check any adjustment through the viewfinder, until I am satisfied;
  3. Next, stake the feeder pole close to the teasel perch and hang the feeder so it is just above the teasel;
  4. Goldfinches are quarrelsome birds. As soon as the seed supply runs low, the birds bully each other off the feeder. Those that lose their place come to rest on the teasel;
  5. Sprinkling some nijer seeds on the rear-side of the teasel keeps them there a little longer.

 

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Once you’re setup, you can play around with various perches and stages. Hot weather forecast? Install a bird bath. Photograph by © Elliott Neep, captured with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ4 G VR II AF-S lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6

Is there anything else I need to know?

  • Use thin or fine twigs for the smaller species like sparrows, robin and tit-family. A chunky branch will unbalance and dominate the photograph.
  • The converse is true for larger birds where you should really have a chunky branch for a woodpecker or jay.
  • When constructing a feeding station, always leave a plain twig or piece of cane to act as a ‘regular’ perch so the birds habitually perch upon it.
  • When it comes to photography, swap the regular perch for something more attractive and seasonal.
  • Avoid nails in favour of a clamp or twine so that the perch is easy to change to suit the season, giving you complete control over the image.
  • Play around with different backgrounds using coloured or black card/material.
  • Add a daylight-balanced constant lighting source for backlighting and side lighting. Constant source lighting is far less disturbing than a flashgun.
  • ALWAYS CONSIDER THE BIRD’S WELFARE

So my friends, I hope you enjoyed this garden bird photography guide. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Now it’s time to get out there and find your garden bird photo site and get to work.

Now read my 30+ wildlife photography tips

Credit: Thanks to my mate Angus Stead for stepping in and modelling for the setup shots. Cheers me old mucker! Go and check out his awesome photography.