Over the last year, many of us have taken solace in watching the wildlife in our gardens. This mindful practice is calming and rewarding and can be done in the house through the kitchen window, or outside on a nice day in a quiet spot. Being at home more during lockdown has had its perks. Learning, in particular, about the birds which visit our gardens and what they get up to is surely one of them. But what if you wanted to go one step further and actually photograph or even film your garden birds?
There is nowhere better to practise your wildlife photography and film making skills than on your own home turf. That said, getting a quality shot of a blue tit or green finch can be surprisingly challenging, testing your powers of composition and fieldcraft to the max.
Here are some top tips from Simon King to help you:
- Learning about your garden’s lighting
- Learn about the birds your trying to photograph
- Start with the bravest birds
- Feed the birds
- Take a seat and consider a hide
- Hungry for more – consider a longer lens
- Always put the welfare of your subject first
- Patience and enjoy the wait as much as the photography
See the light
Consider how the light will fall in your garden during the course of the day and choose the time you photograph to coincide with the lighting conditions you find most appealing. In particular learn the journey of the sun across different areas of your garden and how these light up or move into dark shadow. Birds tend to feed early in the morning and towards dusk. These are both beautiful times of the day, often known as the golden hour, because the sun is at a dramatic angle, giving soft shadows without the harsh midday sun.
Learn about your subject
Next, do as much research as you can to help understand the character of the birds you want to capture. The more you know, the better you can predict the behaviour of an animal and therefore get better pictures. It is very easy and relaxing to sit in your garden and watch your garden birds, noting when they visit, where they like to go, what interesting behaviours you would like to capture, and how confident they might be if you were to sit quite close with a camera.
When you first begin, start by concentrating on those birds which are brave and used to coming into your garden, rather than heading off to an unfamiliar field or stretch of water. You can then concentrate on developing your photographic skills rather than trying to get close to shy animals.
Feed your subject
After you have decided where and when you want to photograph your garden birds, you might want to put up a feeder or two to attract them. The most difficult part of photographing birds is the speed with which they move! Therefore if you introduce a feeder, you have a chance of capturing them being still in one place for more than a second. This is particularly useful if you are new to photography, or you have a basic camera or smartphone and you cannot adjust the shutter speed. Our hanging Steel Bird Feeders are good for this because the birds cling to the outside mesh or one or the perches and are therefore easy to see and to photograph.
For more information on feeding birds, take a look at our bird feeding guide.
You can also create your own natural feeder which will please your avian visitors and give you great photographic results.
- An attractive branch or log.
- Drill with 5mm wood bit.
- Portable hide, toilet tent or a sheet and a shed.
- Sunflower seed, mealworms, peanuts and other bird food.
How to Make Your Own Natural Bird Feeder for Photography
Secure the branch or log in a position where the background is neutral – a hedge or plain wall at least 4 metres away is ideal. And ensure there are surfaces that are close to horizontal. This may require a timber stake secured into the ground, a table or a patio umbrella stand. Drill a number of shallow holes, about 5-8mm deep, in the upper surface of the branch or log and along the vertical edges also. Fill the holes with a variety of foods, like sunflower seeds, dried mealworms and peanuts, and wait for the visitors to flock, giving you lots of opportunities for attractive images of your feathered friends.
Take a seat
Now you just need to sit and wait. This is where your patience comes in. Depending on how confident your garden birds are, will determine how close and where you can sit. Consider using your garden shed as a hide. Or you could invest in a Simon King Wildlife Hide if you intend to take up bird watching more frequently. Place it about 3-4 metres away from your feeder, branch or the area you are hoping to photograph. A hide is a particularly useful piece of equipment if you intend to photograph nesting birds because it will ensure you are having no impact on the parent birds feeding their young.
If you are enjoying your photography and want to invest in more kit, one of the best things you can look for is a long lens, enabling you to ‘get closer’ to birds which are more elusive. What you buy will all depend on your camera and the location in which you want to film. Lenses can be incredibly expensive, so you could think about buying different lenses for your smartphone first (these can be incredibly cheap) which will give you some experience and a chance to experiment before coughing up.
Always put your subject’s welfare before your photograph and never ever disturb wildlife to get a picture. It might seem incredibly exciting to get close to a bird’s nest and photograph eggs or young fledglings, but the chances are the parent birds could abandon their babies because of what you’re trying to achieve.
Experiment with different exposures, compositions, shutter speeds, camera angles. Even the most familiar animals and plants can be seen in a new light. And if you want to invest in more tech, you could think about a camera with a remote trigger. If you leave the camera (safely!) in place for a few days, the birds will get used to it a lot more quickly than they would get used to you being sat there.
Imagination and patience
Try to envisage what you want to photograph and how it will look before you head out with a camera. Use your eyes and ideas without putting a camera to your eye. And don’t let photography get in the way of enjoying contact with the natural world. Getting a good photograph is fun, but if the photographic opportunities aren’t great, take the time to watch, listen and learn about the wild world. Your experiences will be richer and more fulfilling. And your photography will be even better next time because of what you’ve learnt!
Good luck and wishing you many hours photographing the beautiful birds in your garden!