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How to get started photographing backyard birds

photographing backyard birds
A male Western Tanager finds a sturdy perch in Kern County, California. Brian E. Small took the photo with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N and a Canon 600mm f/4 lens.

It’s sunrise — a new day’s first rays of light are just peeking over the nearby mountains and illuminating the surrounding vegetation in a warm bath of golden light. As the day starts, I’m sitting quietly in my photo blind waiting for a great bird photography opportunity to happen. The predawn is quiet, but as the sun climbs higher in the sky, the chip notes of Yellow-rumped Warblers catch my attention. A Black Phoebe snaps nearly invisible insects from mid-air and then returns to the same perch again and again. Lesser Goldfinches chatter and squabble among the flowering plants next to me, and an Anna’s Hummingbird buzzes back and forth, searching out small morsels of food. 

So where am I? Tucked into the remote wilderness of California’s Santa Monica Mountains? On a chaparral-covered hillside somewhere in Santa Barbara County, perhaps? Or maybe I’m at a famous birding hotspot like the hillsides that surround Morro Bay a little farther north. Actually, the answer is that I’m in my own backyard smack dab in the middle of the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and its 11 million-plus residents!

That’s right; I’m photographing a variety of beautiful birds 20 feet away from my own kitchen and all the other comforts of home. In sports, they use the term “home field advantage” to describe the natural advantage a team playing a game in its home stadium enjoys. Well, the same principle applies to bird photography, too. By photographing at your home “stadium,” you can enjoy the benefits of working on your own turf because of the natural advantages you have at home. So, what are these home field bird photography advantages?

The biggest and best one can be summed up in one word — control. By photographing in your own backyard, or, in some cases, your front yard, you have complete control over everything that can and will affect your images. When you are away from home, you are often at the mercy of many things over which you have no control. Just a few of these include the weather, the lighting, the backgrounds, compositions, where birds are active, where and what they perch on, how close you can get to them, and much more. In your own yard, you truly can control most, if not all, of these things. When you begin to work with the birds in your yard, you will soon discover that these are the elements that can factor into making a pleasing photograph of a bird.

Through the years of my career as a bird photographer, I have met many aspiring bird photographers during my travels. I truly enjoy meeting and talking to people who have an interest in learning how to make beautiful images of birds. But many of the folks I’ve met who are just getting started are intimidated by the beautiful images they see in books and magazines. They wonder how the photographer got so close to a bird they can’t seem to get near. They don’t understand how the photographer was able to photograph the bird perched on such a gorgeous tree branch in beautiful light and with such a pleasing, out-of-focus background. It amazes them that the photos they see published look so much better than their own. If you count yourself in that tribe, I’d suggest that you begin learning your craft in your own yard.

There are many good reasons for both beginner and advanced bird photographers to spend time working with the birds in their own yards. As I stated previously, you can control so much of what it takes to create a beautiful photograph of a bird. However, in my mind, the best reason for beginners to work in their yards is the ability to learn through trial and error. It makes much more sense if you’re just starting out to gain experience close to home rather than when you’ve spent lots of time and money on a photo trip. By learning different photography techniques, making mistakes, and then correcting those mistakes at home first, a new photographer will be better prepared when the time comes to head out into the field.

Photographer Brian Small - How to get started photographing backyard birds
Photographer Brian E. Small snaps a selfie in Kidder County, North Dakota. His gear for the day was a Nikon D850 camera and 600mm f/4 lens. He travels far and wide to photograph birds and also takes bird photos from the comfort of his yard and the yards of friends.

Equipment for photographing backyard birds

With today’s digital cameras, it has become easier than ever to learn and refine bird-photography skills through trial and error. Digital cameras give you the ability to instantly check your results, allowing the chance to tweak on the spot if needed. For example, if a background doesn’t look good, you can change your position. If your exposure is off, you can adjust your camera settings accordingly. If the perches you’ve selected aren’t quite right in the image, you can change them.

It shouldn’t take a lot of money spent on photo equipment to get started. It’s not necessary to invest multiple thousands of dollars on camera equipment right away if you’re new to the hobby. Generally, to photograph the birds that frequent your yard, you won’t need an ultra-expensive 500mm or 600mm super-telephoto lens. In many cases, you can use something like a 300mm or 400mm fixed focal-length lens or a zoom lens like an 80-200mm, 70-300mm, or 100-400mm. Purchasing a matched 1.4x teleconverter with your prime lens is a good investment, too. This additional small lens lets you multiply the focal length of your prime lens by 40%, so, for example, a 300mm lens becomes a 420mm lens with the addition of a 1.4x teleconverter. 

The other must-have item I’d suggest is a sturdy tripod. You will achieve much sharper results by using your camera on a tripod rather than trying to hand-hold it. Again, because you can often control how close you are to your subjects at home, mid-length telephoto lenses typically give you enough magnification to create beautiful images.

Bringing in your subjects

This male Ladder-backed Woodpecker was photographed in Culberson County, Texas, with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N and a Canon 600mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter. Photo by Brian E. Small

Once you have all your camera equipment, now it’s time to plan out what, where, when, and how you intend to photograph at home. A few things you may want to consider are the landscaping, feeders, water features, dust baths, nest boxes, snags and perches, lighting, backgrounds, use of a blind, and the season of the year. This sounds like a lot to deal with, but once you have a system you are happy with, the photography will just fall into place. The birds will come where you want them, will land on the attractive perches you’d like them on and pose in the beautiful light you’ve set up for, and the images will have the lovely background you’ve created for your photographs.

To get going, set your feeders and other attractions around your yard. You may want to experiment with different types of feeders and move them around to different locations. Be sure to try a variety of food sources and feeder types. Different species prefer different foods, and by providing a variety, you will increase the chances that you will attract a greater diversity of birds into your yard.

Depending on where you live, you can attract an amazing variety of bird species to a backyard setup. Over the years, I’ve worked with chickadees, woodpeckers, titmice, warblers, orioles, buntings, thrushes, sparrows, hummingbirds, thrashers, raptors, wrens, finches, grosbeaks, doves, quail, and even kingfishers in different yards around the country. Just some of the foods to try are black-oil sunflower seeds, thistle, suet, peanuts, peanut butter, jelly, sugar-water, cracked corn, millet, and raisins.

Be sure to provide a water feature in your yard as well. Birds love to bathe, and a recirculating water feature will prove to be a strong attraction for many species. Always keep your food and water sources clean because this will help avoid the spread of avian diseases, and it will attract new birds and keep your “regulars” coming back again and again. Spend time observing which birds use which food sources, and you can then set up your camera gear to try and photograph specific species at specific locations. Also, note how you see different birds at your feeders during different times of day or as the seasons change.

Consider the landscaping in your yard as well as the food sources. Many birds are attracted to specific plants, and you can provide both a food source and cover for birds by selecting things they like. Hummingbirds, of course, are attracted to flowering plants that produce nectar, but others will visit the flowers in your garden as well. Planting shrubs, hedges, and other thick vegetation will keep birds in your yard, too. These plants can provide food, shelter from predators, and even nesting sites for your avian visitors. Also, fruiting trees like mulberry or pyracantha are also great for attracting birds to your yard.

A feeding station in Starr County, Texas, attracted this White-crowned Sparrow. Brian E. Small used a Canon EOS-1D Mark II N and a Canon 600mm f/4 lens.

Open space is key for backgrounds

When you place the feeders, water features, and perches for your subjects, be conscious of the areas behind the birds you will be photographing. Be sure to avoid fences, bright buildings, shiny spots, windows, or other reflective things that can be a distraction in the background. Look for areas that give you open space behind your subjects, and place your perches accordingly. This open space will be out of focus in your images and will help the birds in your photos come to life because they aren’t competing for attention with the background.

In many cases, you’ll find that the most pleasing compositions are the ones that isolate the subject from the background. Finally, look for areas in your yard that will give you a medium-toned, neutral background without distracting elements. Light brown, light green, blue sky, or even your lawn can work best.

One thing that new bird photographers sometimes forget about is lighting. In fact, the light in an image may be the most important element of all to consider. The basis of all good photography is how you capture the light in each moment. To create dramatic, sharp images of birds that have detail and contrast, you want to work in a part of your yard that puts a near equal amount of light on both the subject and background. Try to avoid places that put the subject in the sun and the background in deep shade. This will usually create unnatural-looking black backgrounds in your images. The birds in your yard are diurnal, so you want the photos to look like they were taken in the daytime. A black background gives the feeling of night in a photograph. Also, you’ll find that working in morning or afternoon low light will create the most pleasing images. Trying to photograph in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky creates harsh shadows and unappealing photographs.

At this point, you should have all your camera gear; your feeders and perches will be set up to create beautifully lit, well-composed photographs with soft out-of-focus backgrounds; and the birds will be accustomed to your yard. Now all you need to do is sit back and wait for the birds to come to you. That’s the beauty of photographing with the home field advantage. If it starts to rain or you get hungry or you need a bathroom break, everything you need is just steps away because you are at home. I know you’ll find your yard to be a great way to get started with bird photography, and I hope that someday we’ll see your backyard bird images on the pages of books and magazines, too!

This article was first publishing in the May/June 2022 issue of BirdWatching Magazine.

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Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

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