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Photographing birds through windows

Photographing birds through windows
This image of a Pileated Woodpecker is Laura Erickson’s best through-the-window-glass photo, taken in November 2018 on the day the triple-pane window was installed. She used her camera’s high-speed burst and took about eight photos. This was the only one showing the full length of the bird’s tongue. Photo by Laura Erickson

Just about all of us have photographed birds through a window at one time or another to verify an identification, document a rare bird, or create a keepsake of a cool sighting. Unfortunately, images through window glass can be marred by glare and reflections or obscured by window screens, dirt, or moisture between the panes. And autofocus may zero in on the window itself, rendering the bird out of focus.

One of my best pictures ever, of a Pileated Woodpecker with its long tongue fully extended, was taken through triple-pane window glass. The bird flew in just minutes after the brand-new window had been installed, so the glass was immaculate. But even the best photos taken through window glass would virtually always be better with the window open.

My dining room, family room, and home office serve as photo blinds, with easily opened windows looking out on feeders, birdbaths, and bird-attracting vegetation. Unfortunately, opening an unscreened window invites mosquitoes, wasps, and other insects into the house along with hot or frigid outside air, so I do this only when I’m actively taking photos. Before I open the window, I pull the shade down over the upper pane on my double-pane window and close the shades on other windows in the room, turn off any lights, and close doors to the rest of the house. The few times a bird has flown in through a window when I’ve been photographing, it instantly turned tail and flew back out through the same open window, the only bright spot in the room.

There’s no trick to taking photos through an open window, but if the window is closed when a good bird appears, opening it risks scaring the bird away, and some windows don’t open. Here are a few tips for taking usable photos through window glass:

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  • If you have an ideal window for viewing birds, keep the window screen off except when you want to open the window for fresh air.
  • Keep the window clean. Even the tiniest speck of dirt, and sometimes glass itself, can trick a camera’s autofocus.
  • Hold the camera as close to the glass as possible to reduce the area of glass you’re shooting through. Bringing your camera closer to the window than its minimum focus distance also makes it easier to focus on the bird.
  • When possible, shoot straight through the window rather than at an angle to minimize the effects of glass. Window screens always mar photos, but the effect will be minimized if you’re shooting at right angles to the screen.

The principles of taking photos through a car window are similar, with a few extra considerations:

  • Turn the engine off to prevent its vibrations from blurring your images.
  • Photos through the side windows, even when closed, invariably turn out better than ones through the curved windshield.
  • To hold a long-lens camera steady from a car seat, clamp your camera on a car window mount made specifically for this purpose, rest the camera on a beanbag set on the bottom of the window frame, or attach a short length of foam water pipe insulation or a pool noodle on the top of the glass. Pipe insulation has a lengthwise slit that makes it easy to secure on the window; you’ll need to slit a pool noodle yourself.

Ironically, the windows that give us splendid looks at birds put those very birds’ lives in jeopardy. Screens on double-hung windows are set on the outside and make the window more visible to birds. In my home office, rather than removing the screen, I sliced a large area of it where it attaches to the frame and affixed Velcro around the edges to hold it tightly closed when I’m not photographing birds. Screens on crank-open windows don’t protect birds since they’re inside the glass. However, you can find other ways to protect birds at those windows and others at American Bird Conservancy’s website.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

Laura Erickson on social media