This winter, I set myself the goal of building up a wider portfolio of garden bird images, as whilst I have dabbled in this area of photography before, I have been conscious my images could be significantly improved (both in terms of quality and quantity) if I treated it as a ‘project’ and shot over a period of some months.
Assuming you have a camera with a decent telephoto lens (A digital SLR is best, but you can still achieve acceptable result with some compacts or bridge cameras with optical zooms) the first thing to do is figure out where you will be photographing the birds from – in other words you will need some kind of ‘hide’.
Whilst I have set up a purpose built camouflaged hide in my garden, you are likely to find that a window in your house or your shed is fine; I used our lounge window for a number of years and screened myself from the birds by using camouflage netting purchased from my local army surplus store.
Wherever you shoot from, you will need to make sure the sun is more or less behind you, which means that the birds will be in the most favourable light for photography.
My own feeding station comprises a home-made bird table using bits scavenged from the local dump to save money, plus several seed, peanut and fat-ball feeders, all of which are positioned so that the backgrounds behind them are ‘clean’ in order that my final images will look nice and simple. I have also set out various natural features on which birds are encouraged to come and feed – for example logs into which I have drilled holes big enough to push a mix of crushed peanuts and other goodies into. These perches look more natural than birds feeding from a feeder and can be rotated to give your images more variety.
Constantly choosing and rotating perches is hard work though and you may find you are very happy simply taking pictures of birds feeding at your bird table or feeders. That’s absolutely fine; there is no right or wrong way of doing this.
As far as equipment and techniques is concerned, your approach will vary depending on what camera equipment you are using. If you have a digital SLR you will need a separate telephoto lens and this really is one area whether I am afraid bigger is better!
I use a 500mm Canon lens, which is expensive but fantastic quality, but there are cheaper telephotos on the market at around 400mm that will deliver acceptable results. You will also need something to rest your camera on; I use a heavy tripod but if you are photographing from a window you could make a ‘bean bag’ up. These are available from many camera suppliers; alternatively you could make one from a bag filled with beans or rice. The point is to minimise vibration as far as possible and thus end up with nice sharp images. In terms of technique, providing you have the sun behind you, you generally can’t go wrong by using one of your camera auto-metering modes. These are generally pretty reliable these days.
The most important point though is to shoot when conditions are fairly bright; that being said you should generally try and avoid times when the full sun is close to overhead – for example between around 10.30 am to 3.30 pm during mid-summer) because conditions will your images will look washed out or have very heavy shadows in them. Better to choose a bright overcast day or shoot in sunny conditions during the early the morning or evening. If you have the option, chose a high shutter speed (above about 500th of a second ideally) which will help you freeze movement. Above all, remember that birds (especially small birds) move around a lot and you may get many out of focus images before you get that really special one.
Remember also that photographing birds is not only an end in itself, but also a great way to familiarise yourself with the various species that visit your garden and become really familiar with their behaviour.
All photographs courtesy of Andrew McCarthy, Ecological Consultant, Devon