The instant image feedback from digital cameras and the lighter weight of many of today’s telephoto lenses have spurred many birdwatchers these days to carry photo equipment into the field. And many of them practice their bird photography in their backyards.
Your backyard bird feeders can provide a steady stream of photographic subjects. One advantage is that the birds become familiar with you and are usually not scared away, allowing for a closer approach. You also have a predictable location where the birds will land, so you don’t have to chase them in the field.
As easy as this might sound, backyard photography can come with its challenges when you’re trying to get an aesthetically pleasing image. Elements in the background such as a house, power lines, busy tree branches, and feeders where birds perch on manmade objects distract from the birds’ natural beauty. Mixed light in a yard can also hurt the outcome of your photographs. Depending on the location of your feeder, you could be shooting up at the birds or shooting into shade and dark shadows.
One way to avoid all these challenges is to use a ground tray feeder when taking photos. If you already feed birds with tube feeders or other hanging feeders, keep them up until you’re ready for a photography session. Then remove your hanging feeders and poles and replace them with a ground feeder, and soon you’ll have the birds coming in low to feed. The benefit is that the ground will be your background. I choose a lawn or other unobstructed area to place the tray feeder in front of. This way, I don’t have to deal with bright spots of sky or dark shadows of trees or other foliage.
The background and 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 shooting. When I’m finished with the shoot, I put everything back the way it was.
To get the best possible light angle on your subjects, position yourself so the sun is at your back, which will reduce the harsh contrast on the birds. For top-notch results, first choose the background that you would like in your images. Again, a flat area of lawn or ground works best. Then walk toward the sun and place the feeder on the ground. Continue walking about 15-20 feet toward the sun and place your blind. Now you should have your blind, feeder, and background all in line with the sun.
Find a few branches from trees or bushes in your yard to use as perches for birds. Place the branches above the feeder, and the birds will start using them to stage before making their final approach to the tray. The perches will help you get nice images of the birds with a smooth out-of-focus background. I use inexpensive camcorder tripods to hold and position my perches around the feeder. This allows you to move them around easily and make quick adjustments to the angle of the perches. Leaves on a plucked 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 zip-tie it to the tripod. For smaller perches, I use flower tubes (the ones roses come in).
To increase your productivity, it’s best to use a blind such as the doghouse blind made by Ameristep. It’s a quick and portable pop-up blind that folds up into a bag. The blind may not be needed for most of the tame birds at your feeder, but it will help with the more skittish species. Another great option for a blind is the Lenscoat LensHide, which is a camouflage fabric throw-over blind that takes just seconds to set up.
With your perches set above the feeder, and your blind in position, you are now ready to take pictures. It should not take long before birds start using the tray feeder, especially if it’s near the location where your hanging feeders were.
An open tray feeder can have a lot of birds feeding at the same time. To get the birds to stay on your perch and not all jump down to the feeder, I place a piece of cardboard over 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 approach from). Now the squirrels will feed away from your setup.
Once you have bird activity and a collection of images, switch out the perches for variety. Angling the perches down toward the feeder will increase your photo productivity, as the birds creep down the perch to the food.
Backyard bird photography is a lot of fun and can be quite addictive. And it’s convenient, since you can run inside to refill your coffee and get more birdseed for your subjects. I was a birder before I became a professional bird photographer, and I still find bird photography to be the best form of birdwatching. During this time of staying at home, head to your backyard to photograph the wonderful birds that bring us so much joy.
This article was first published in the September/October 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.