5 Tips for Better Backyard Bird Photography

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Spring migrants are returning daily and are busily preparing for nesting season. This wave of new species combined with the budding leaves and colourful flowers of springtime, make for some pretty picturesque scenes that we would often like to capture and share with the world. We all know that the camera does not make the photograph, so let's talk about how you - the photographer - can create beautiful and dynamic images of your backyard birds. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male) on Modern Rustic Tail Prop Suet Feeder

1. Create bird-friendly habitat
Picture this: You're a bird looking for a safe place to rest and feed. You have two options; one is a yard free of leaves or debris with a tree or two, but otherwise no vegetation or habitat, and a feeder hanging from a hook in the middle of the yard; option two is a yard with a variety of native plants including trees, shrubs, long grasses, and flowering plants, a small brush pile, some leaves scattered across the grass, a clean water source, and a feeding station with multiple food options. Which do you choose? Option #2 is the clear winner in this situation. Creating bird-friendly habitat by incorporating all (or at least a few) of the elements listed above is a sure-fire way to not only attract the widest variety of species to your yard, but also the best way to create interesting and dynamic photos. To learn more about how to turn your yard into a bird-friendly habitat, click here

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole feeding from Oriole Flower Feeder

2. Choose your feeding station placement wisely
If you intend to photograph birds at bird feeders, it's important to keep some distance between your feeding stations and anything that might create a distracting background (ex. fence, outdoor furniture, play structure, etc). This will help create a nice depth of field when focusing in on a bird or group of birds, and leave you with a clean background free of distractions that draw attention away from your subjects. You also want to be mindful that you aren't placing the feeders too far from shelter or a "look-out point" that the birds visit before deciding to go to your feeders. These pitstops are important to give the birds a chance to scan the area for predators, and can also give you the chance to photograph them in a more natural setting before they fly over to your feeders.

American Goldfinches feeding from a QuickClean Finch Feeder

3. Keep your feeders clean
No matter how beautiful the birds may be, no one wants to see photos of them sitting on grimy, poop covered feeders. And let's face it, birds poop a lot. Keeping a strict cleaning schedule should be common practice whether you photograph the birds at your feeders or not, but having clean feeders for photos is certainly some incentive to get the job done. Click here for information on how to properly clean and disinfect your feeders and birdbaths.

* Bonus tip: High-end camera gear can certainly help you capture the images you want, but isn't always necessary. A point-and-shoot with long range zoom that allows you to keep a respectful distance from the birds is capable of helping to create beautiful images without the bulk of a DSLR.

Left: Northern Flicker photographed from above    Right: Northern Flicker photographed at eye level

4. Shoot at eye level when possible

Shooting at eye level always makes for an impactful image, creating the feeling that the viewer is right there with the subject, whether it be in a tree, on the ground, or in the water. Have a look at the Northern Flicker images above. The first was taken from an upstairs window, it gives a nice view of the bird, but doesn't offer much in the way of depth-of-field or overall feeling of the image, and the grass surrounding the bird is a bit of a distraction. The second was taken while I was lying on my stomach, at eye level with the bird while she was foraging for insects in the ground. As you can see, this angle allowed for me to focus on the bird, leaving a clean background without any distractions. Because it's at eye level, you can imagine yourself on the ground with her, and get a feeling of what life must look like from her eyes. Eye level shooting, especially when on the ground, can also help birds feel comfortable with your presence. When on the ground you appear much smaller than if you were standing, kneeling, or sitting in a chair, and while lying on the ground you can often make small shifts in your positioning without upsetting the bird. 

Indigo Bunting (male)

5. Get to know the birds in your yard and be patient
Because of the current global pandemic situation, many of us are working from home and watching our bird feeders from inside. While this does provide some insight to your backyard birds' behaviour, to gain a true sense of their world it is best to observe from outdoors. Allowing yourself to become immersed in the sights and sounds of your backyard can help immensely when creating interesting images of backyard birds. Learning the sounds of the birds who visit your yard, and what they mean, can result in some unexpected photos. For example; many birds (and squirrels) have "alarm" calls that they sound when a predator, such as a hawk or owl, is near. These alarms - though they may be different for each species - are generally understood by most other species, causing the birds in the area to disappear, and a chorus of alarms to ring through your backyard. Learning calls like this can help in locating birds that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. Observing the birds in your backyard can also help you to predict behaviours and capture them with your camera. The Indigo Bunting in the photo above dodged every attempt I made at photographing him. I noticed that he always flew to the same tree, down to almost the same branch every time he left the feeders. I decided to focus only on that section of the tree, rather than attempt to photograph him at my feeders, and lucky for me he repeated the habit and I was able to capture a few images of him. Lastly, be patient. Ultimately, birds are wild and unpredictable. Patience is key to making sure we aren't creating a stressful environment for the birds, and to creating impactful images of them. 

Do you have backyard bird photos you'd like to share with us? We know you do, and we want to see them! Join our Facebook group and post your favourite photos for us and other group members to admire. 

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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