This is a great project for the time-constrained weekend photographer. My garden bird setup is simple but effective. There are no specialised tools or fancy gadgets. You just need to spend a little time considering the location and that’s pretty much it. Below you’ll find some logical steps to setting up your ‘stage’, plus a slideshow of ‘setting up’ pics. Once you’ve gone through the initial setup, you can develop it over time: adapt it for specific garden bird species; change it for the seasons; refine it for sunrise and sunsets. Essentially, you reap the rewards with minimal effort and maximum gain.
Start your project in Autumn
The timing is perfect. Our British garden birds have finished their partial moult and are looking in tip-top condition once again. The bugs and seeds of summer are finishing and as autumn progresses the garden birds will grow more reliant on your garden bird feeders. Your setup can stay in position all year round. In fact, the longer you have it in position, the better.
The birds will come to visit your setup simply out of habit as part of their local food forays. You can adapt it for the changing seasons with appropriate perches, e.g. blossom for spring, berries and golden leaves for autumn, etc. Once established, you can also modify the angles to capture backlit shots with sunrise and sunset light. It’s a versatile project and it’s right on your doorstep.
THE GARDEN BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE
What’s the best camera for the garden bird setup?
In theory, this garden bird set-up should work with any camera. In practice, you really need something that will focus fast and (even more importantly) take the shot instantly and without the delay of shutter-lag.
Garden birds are twitchy flighty little subjects and won’t hang around for a point-and-shoot shutter delay. So, from this point, let’s assume that we are using a DSLR. As for the crop-sensor vs full-frame argument, don’t worry about it. It’s irrelevant here because you are controlling the distance between camera and subject. Whichever DSLR you have, will work.
What lens should I use?
Ultimately, this will depend on your chosen subject and setup. We’re concentrating on the common or garden favourites, not golden eagles in Finland. So, think sparrows, finches, tit-family, starlings, robins, etc. My favourite lens for photographing garden birds is my Nikkor 200-400mm VRII because it gives me an 8x magnification at a minimum working distance of just 2m meters – compared to a 600mm’s 12x magnification at over 5m.
“But that’s frickin expensive!” I hear you cry. Yes, but let’s have a look at a standard 75-300mm f/4.0-f/5.6 kit lens on a crop-factor DSLR. With this set-up, you can have an effective 9.6x magnification factor at 1.5m or less. With close-up bird photography, you really do want quality glass. The detail you can capture can be amazing.
Zooms are particularly good for hide work, because even though your shooting position is fixed, you can still reframe with a zoom. So, it’s spot on for when a larger bird, like a thrush, lands on your perch. The most important feature of your lens is a close working distance, i.e. minimum focus distance.
Do I need to support the camera?
Your camera and lens will be aimed at one specific point for extended periods. So, unless you have titanic biceps, use a tripod with suitable head. The position will be relatively fixed, so there is no real need for a pricey gimbal. A ball head or three-way would suffice. However, the advantage of a gimbal is that it will stay in position without having to lock it allowing for tiny movements with a fingertip.
A cheap alternative to the tripod is a small table or stool with a double beanbag placed on top. The benefit being, you can leave it in position and use your tripod elsewhere. A monopod is a poor choice here as it needs constant hand-holding and the lens will be waving about.
Won’t the birds see me?
Now for the crucial step. You do need to remain hidden and out of view the whole time. To hide myself and equipment from view, I use the stalwart Wildlife Watching Supplies Large Dome Hide. WWS also sell a Bag Hide, which is pretty useful if you don’t want a permanent hide in the garden discolouring your lawn. Just position a chair and throw the bag hide over you and your kit.
There are cheaper alternatives to WWS, but you do get what you pay for. As they say “Buy cheap? Buy twice!” If you’re serious about your wildlife photography, it’s worth the investment as WWS gear can be left in position for years. I’ve bought some cheap rip-offs from Amazon, but they just break, or the material wears through and bleaches quickly. Fine for quick projects, but just consider this carefully as a wise investment.
The basic idea of all this is just to conceal yourself and the camera. So, pop-up tents, scrim-nets, bamboo/wicker garden screens, or simply photographing from an open house window or shed door. They’re all viable options. A specialised hide just give you flexibility. Another thing to bear in mind when choosing between a hide, scrim, or screen… Something that covers you completely, like the dome hide, means you are free to move and stretch your legs and have a measure of comfort – pouring yourself a nice hot cuppa, for instance. If you use a basic screen, you will have to stay completely still the whole time as you’ll be visible from above and behind.
A little knowledge goes a long way…
Carefully consider the subjects you want to photograph and do a little research about their feeding habits. I’m not talking about crafting a thesis, just a quick gander on RSPB A-Z guide. It’s great to know what particular birds prefer to eat and whether the birds favour perches or ground-feeding.
For example, blackbirds and thrushes generally prefer the garden lawn, feeding on grubs, worms, and wind-fall fruit on the ground. Sparrows, tits, warblers, wrens, and finches prefer the shrubbery, trees and hedgerows, picking off seeds, berries and small insects hiding amongst the twigs and buds. Starlings and robins could be anywhere as they’re highly versatile opportunists. Putting a little effort into this will really pay dividends in the future.
For ground-feeding birds, I work with old table positioned in front of my hide. On top of this, I place large plastic tray with drainage holes drilled in the bottom. Then, I throw in some soil and layer over some real turf. Laying turf in the tray means that I can water it and keep it alive. Throw some seeds, nuts, or apples on it and Voila! A ground-level stage at the same height as my lens. Alternatively, I place a gnarly old log on the table, surrounded by lots fallen leaves and hazelnuts for jays and woodpecker.
How do I make this look natural and not fake?
The images you are looking to capture should reflect the nature of the subject. The best example being goldfinches and woodpeckers: Goldfinches are perfectly adapted to perch on the finest seed-heads and peck out tiny seeds, so give them teasels or thistles, positioned close to a nijer-seed feeder. Just check out that shot below. Looks relatively natural? It’s all staged. The teasels are held in place by a tripod and clamp. The background is a laurel hedge at the end of the garden.
Woodpeckers spend their lives clinging to the side of tree trunks and heavy-branches, digging out beetle grubs. So, find a hefty branch or log and set it upright to resemble a tree trunk. I usually dig a hole in the ground and set the branch vertically in the hole, just for stability. Drill a few holes in the side (out of view of the camera) and stuff them with peanuts or mashed up fat-balls. Woodpeckers are wary, clever, inquisitive birds and they should find this new food source fairly quickly. They’ll clamber over the stage, pecking at the new food source. So, its important to group your ‘food holes’ at the right height, for the best background.
What feeders should I use?
If you can hang a range of feeders with a variety of foods you will attract a wider diversity of birds. For example:
- Wire mesh style nut feeders for tits and woodpeckers;
- Clear plastic tube seed feeders for tits, sparrows, and finches;
- Raw peanuts, hazelnuts, and bacon rinds for jays and magpies (on ground or branch, as above);
- Fruit, mealworms, whole oats for blackbirds, robins, and thrushes (on ground).
Suspend the feeders on a pole-feeder or from a bracket on a fence post. You could also hang them from a bird table or even hung from an overhanging tree branch on a chain or braided/twisted wire cable. Note: Squirrels will quickly chew through string and rope, dropping the feeder to the ground. If you’re starting from scratch, it may take a few days for the local birds to discover the new source of food. Be patient. If you feed them, they will come. Blue tits are often the first on the scene but other species will soon take notice. During cold spells, birds may feed all day long, but generally the feeders will see most traffic in the morning and late afternoon.
Where should I site my feeders and hide?
The simplest approach is to stand in your garden with the sun behind you. Study your garden. Observe where the sunlight strikes and in which direction the light falls. Ideally, you want a patch that is evenly lit, with a plain background that is over five metres away from the feeder – preferably one that does not have too many deep shadows or highlights. This could be a fence, garage wall, hedgerow, etc. Even though I had a very long garden, the light was very patchy because of overhanging trees and the patchy ‘hedge background’ was just horrible. I solved the issue by studying the light and hanging a scrim-net over a greenhouse – the one point in the garden that received unbroken sunlight.
The 12-point set-up for your garden birds
OK, so you’ve read-up on the garden birds, bought a couple of feeders and found a good spot for your garden bird shoot. Now it’s time to pull it all together for some photography.
- Measure a minimum of 5 metres out from the background (your fence, a screen or scrim net, or your hedge) and set a marker in the ground for your perch. Ideally, the further the background is the better. We’ll call this point “Marker A”;
- For the camera position, check the minimum focus distance of your lens and measure this same distance, plus a little extra, from Marker A (heading further away from the background;
- Set another marker in the ground and call this one “Marker B”;
- Set your camera on its tripod over the top of Marker B;
- Now you have a point of reference for both your camera and the perch. Together, these two markers (A & B) represent your minimum distance set-up;
- Take a moment to consider how close you will be to the birds. They have a great vision and hearing, so you can’t be right on top of them if you’re going to blaze away with the shutter. As a guide, my camera is about 3m from my ‘small bird’ perches, which seems fine, if I’m careful with the shutter;
- As Marker B will be your shooting position, first make sure your autofocus can lock on to the Marker A. If it struggles to lock on, you are too close, so move Marker B further away;
- Next, focus-lock on Marker A, recompose the viewfinder with background in view, and take a couple of test shots wide-open to f/8;
- Review the images and check the effect on the background. Is it still diffused? Does it distract? You want it diffused – a soft wash of colour. If there is still too much ‘detail’ in the background, either move bother markers further away from the background until your are satisfied, or move sideways to see if there is a better background;
- Once you’re happy with the background (it is worth taking time on that) and the distances between markers, set-up your bird feeder over Marker A;
- Add a ‘perch’ close to the feeder. This could be a small branch or even just a garden cane clamped to a post or an old tripod.
- Let the whole setup bed-in for a few days. I know you will be chomping at the bit to get firing, but let the birds settle in with the feeder and observe as they start using the new perch.
What do you I with my camera?
I’m going to try to do this with the minimum of technical jargon. There are four main areas you need to consider. Aperture, Depth-of-field (DOF), Shutter speed, and Focus.
We’re going to use the Aperture to control how much of the image is in focus. We want to isolate the birds from the background by keeping the bird in focus and the background blurred. To do this you need to open the aperture wider, e.g. f/4, f/5.6… You will be photographing at close range to your subject, compressing the DOF. Think of DOF as a sandwich. The DOF is the filling. The out of focus areas are the bread. The closer the subject is to your camera, the thinner the filling. If you want more ‘filling’ you need to close down the aperture (bigger f/number). Conversely, the further away the subject is from the camera, the thicker the filling. Hope that makes sense. (I’m hungry)
DOF is a problematic issue when shooting at close range and here’s why. The maximum aperture on my 200-400mm is f/4, but if I am shooting at its minimum focus distance of 2m, I would have less than 5mm DOF which forces me to be ultra-selective with my focus point accuracy and the bird’s position – ideally parallel to my camera.
I prefer to shoot a little deeper at such close range – f/6.3 to f/8 – as this will give me up to 12mm DOF, meaning that if the focus falls on the shoulder or wing, there is a good chance the eye will still be in focus. The main issues encountered, when closing the aperture down too much, is the trade-off in shutter speed (easily corrected with a change of ISO) and a more defined background that can become too distracting. Ideally you want a background that is soft, smooth, and diffused, as this will make the crisp sharp subject really pop-out. It’s a personal choice, but given the UK’s rubbish weather, you’ll probably find your aperture is wide-open more often than not.
Moving a single focus point around in time to capture the fleeting pose of a small bird on a twig is a real challenge. This is what I do, but I’ve been doing it this way for years. An alternative is to use all the focus points and pre-focus on the perch. When you’ve watched your stage for a while you’ll see that the birds have a favoured landing spot. Focus on this. When the bird arrives, wait until it turns to the side, along the line of the perch, so its head and body are parallel to the camera, maximising your shallow DOF.
If it doesn’t turn to the side, wait for the next one. To keep the bird in one spot for just a few seconds longer, you can add a small amount of fat (ground-up fat ball or lard) to the back of the perch/twig. Just make sure it is out of view from the camera. If the birds are comfortable and hang around, switch to a single focus-point and focus more accurately for head-on portraits.
Garden birds are usually so twitchy that predicting where they will land is a bit of a minefield. With a perch in place, adjacent to regular food supply, you can anticipate, with greater accuracy, where they will land. Therefore you can set up your camera and focus in advance and speed up your reaction times to photograph them. The beauty of having a semi-permanent setup like this is the feeder, perch, and camera position is fixed, so you can come back to it time and again without having to build the set-up over and over.
Birds are generally small and fast-moving. They don’t sit still for long. So, you need a fast shutter speed to freeze them in sharp focus. For such fast-moving subjects, we need to keep a close eye on the shutter speed. Avoid shooting with anything slower than 1/500th sec. Ideally, 1/1000th sec or faster will make sure the flightiest birds stay nice and crisp. You can set your ISO to automatically maintain that 1/500th sec minimum, or manually increase your ISO. Don’t fear the ISO and digital noise. It’s all but lost when compressing an image for the web or in printing. It’s better to have a sharp shot with some ISO noise, than a clean blurred shot that is of no use to anybody.
How close should I be?
Once you’re all setup and ready to photograph, you’ll need to expect a period of refinement. When you’re photographing, you may notice there are better backgrounds, so you need to slightly realign your shooting position. Or, you might just need to do a little gardening and clear away some distracting elements.
If you find that the birds fail to acclimatise to the shutter noise, you are simply too close. Don’t panic. Simply move your hide and shooting position a little further away and try again the next morning. This will take some trial and error, but it is really worth it. Your project will be so much more rewarding if the birds are nice and relaxed and oblivious to your presence.
The noise of your camera could also be an issue if you’re ‘machine-gunning’ rather than photographing in single frames. I pulse my shutter in 2s and 3s, rather than firing a constant clatter of shutter clicks. Some cameras are noise than others. And price is no guarantee of a soft shutter. The flagship Nikon D5 and Canon 1Dx sound like clapper boards. If your camera does have a noisy shutter, try wrapping the camera body and lens mount in a towel. This will muffle the shutter clap.
Your garden bird photography sessions
Obviously, you will need to make sure that your feeders are well stocked. However, during your sessions, it’s good practice to tape over some of the feeding holes, so only one or two birds can feed at any one time. You’ll then have more birds using your perch, while they wait for space on the feeder. Remember, only tape the holes when you’re photographing. The birds should feed freely otherwise.
When you get inside the hide, set your aperture, your ISO setting and focus your lens on the perch. When the camera is fixed on the tripod, you can also switch off the whirring stabiliser. Keep your movement to an absolute minimum and stay put. Don’t keep getting in and out of the hide to adjust the stage. Once you’re inside, you should remain inside.
When birds begin to land, you’ll be tempted to fire away and capture your reward. Just be patient and hold off the shutter for a little while. Let the birds settle into their feeding pattern. Observe where they land most and frame-up that area in advance. When a bird lands there, wait until it turns or perches side-on and take a few shots. You really want that catch light in the eye. It brings the photograph to life.
Going forward, always keep disturbance to a minimum. Your sessions will only require a little preparation… If it’s cold, make sure you will be comfortable and warm. Wear the proper gear and gloves (dark colours). Take a sleeping bag into the hide if necessary – kick off your boots, climb in the sleeping back and sit down. Although you may disturb some birds when you enter and leave the hide, do not worry about it, they will return.
Is there anything else I need to know?
- Please clean your bird feeders regularly. Trichomoniasis is deadly!
- Use thin or fine twigs for the smaller species like sparrows, robin and tit-family. A chunky branch will unbalance and dominate the photograph.
- The converse is true for larger birds where you should really have a chunky branch for a woodpecker or jay.
- When constructing a feeding station, always leave a plain twig or piece of cane to act as a ‘regular’ perch so the birds habitually perch upon it.
- When it comes to photography, swap this regular perch for something more attractive and seasonal.
- Avoid nails in favour of a clamp or twine so that the perch is easy to change to suit the season, giving you complete control over the image.
- Add a daylight-balanced constant lighting source for backlighting and side lighting. Constant source lighting is far less disturbing than a flashgun.
- ALWAYS CONSIDER THE BIRD’S WELFARE