The 4P approach to backyard bird photography tips

Song thrush singing from a perch

Perch

The perch is as almost as much a part of the image as the bird. Birds like to use perches as waiting posts when the feeders are busy. Birds are wary creatures and they like to perch and have look before going in for food.

To find suitable perches just go for a walk in the woods or along a beach and look for branches on the floor, dead trees, drift-wood etc. Keep an eye out for interesting colors and textures and avoid ones that are light in color as they can be distracting, especially on bright days.

Try to use perches that have no obvious marks where twigs or branches have broken off or where the end has snapped off. Sometimes these imperfections can be hidden on the rear side of the perch out of view of the camera.

Also make sure that the perch isn’t too big for the birds that you’re photographing – you don’t want the perch to become the main subject of the photograph rather than the bird.

For small birds, use a small branch. For bigger birds like woodpecker, you’ll need a log. A good technique is hollowing out part of a branch and filling it with seed or peanut butter. This encourages the bird to stay on the perch to feed but conceals feed from the photograph.

You can secure a small perch with…

  • an old tripod (pick one up from ebay)
  • garden ties
  • string
  • tape
  • Clamps

It just needs to be adjustable so you can control the height and angle of your perches. Once you have your perch in place pre-focus your lens on it. It will be quicker to nail the focus when the bird lands.

Look how the same species a blue tit can produce different images by switching perches and backgrounds.

Look out for perches when going for a walk.

Bigger perches

If you’re lucky enough to have Jays or woodpeckers visit then we need bigger perches. You can have a go at planting a log inside a big pot. A Christmas tree stand works well too.

A perch setup for a woodpeckerYou can move this log around to get the best light at different times of the day and year.

Yellow Wagtail

 

Pond

Providing moving water will boost your backyard bird photography up another level. This doesn’t mean you have to dig a large pond. A small container of water with a dripper will still attract birds to bathe and drink. By doing this you will attract species even if they don’t eat bird seed. Shooting low across the water gives best results. You’ll either have to lay flat or raise the water container to your seated eye level. To start with it takes more effort than perches but you’ll get more birds visiting and more variety of shots.

 

Gold finch in a backyard pond

Make sure to erect a perch close to or above the water for the birds to land on before or after drinking or bathing. One thing that works really well is slow dripping water – they hear the water and are attracted to it. Birds can see moving water from above and much prefer it to still water.

Ground Feeding Birds

Some birds feed on the ground. For these you don’t always need perches. If you shoot from low down you can get a nice effect with birds on the ground.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in a backyard

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in a backyard
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in a backyard

I don’t recommend this if you have cats in the area. The birds will be a much easier target on the ground.

If you are trying to setup for backyard bird photography it makes sense to discourage cats from entering your backyard.

I use a motion detecting device that emits a harmless sound that cats avoid. It’s not cheap but it works and the birds are much more confident of staying in the backyard.

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in a backyard
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) in a backyard

Try Shooting through a Window

Another technique that works well is to shoot through an open window in your house, especially when it’s cold. This gives you a lot of flexibility and a warm, dry place to wait for the perfect shot. I usually hang a piece of camouflage netting over the window so that I don’t need to worry about sudden movements frightening any birds away.

Try using fill flash

If the lighting isn’t particularly good in your backyard or if it’s good at sunrise but poor at sunset or vice-versa you should have a go at using fill flash. Some wonderful results can be achieved because when done correctly it can fill in shadows, improve the colors and provide a catch-light in the eye of the bird.

Try Remote Controlling Your Camera

A great way to get even closer to the birds is to put your camera close to the perch and use a remote shutter release while you are much further away. If you do this you will need to pre-focus on the perch and then wait for a bird to land in the right spot.

Even better is if your camera has live view. This allows you to view what your camera sees from a computer screen, focus and take the shot when you’re ready. I have quite a lot of success with this and often do it while I’m sitting at my computer processing my photos.

A Word of Caution

The welfare of the birds is more important than any photograph. Following the following points will keep the welfare of the birds your top priority.

  1. Clean your feeders and water containers on a regular basis. Because a lot of different birds visit feeders on a regular basis, a lack of cleanliness can spread avian diseases.
  2. Make sure that when you position your feeders they’re in safe locations that make it difficult for cats to get to them.

Further Reading

The following articles will help you to make the most out of backyard bird photography:

Beginners Photography – If you’re new to photography or just need to brush up a bit, these beginners photography lessons will have you picking up your DSLR and having fun in no time! You will learn all about the exposure triangle, depth of field, the histogram and exposure compensation.

Basics of Bird Photography – Discover some of the basics to master when photographing birds.

Lighting, Composition and Exposure – Make sure that you get lighting, composition and exposure right.