How to : Get better photos of garden birds – part two

Hopefully you will have read Part 1 of this article, which gives an overview of considerations and techniques. If not you can read it here. Also, don’t forget that suggestions, additions and amendments are always encouraged, and you can make them via the Contact Us page.


Phew…… after reading about all the background areas in Part 1, we can begin to put it all together into the actual ‘How to…’ of getting better photographs!

Greater Spotted Woodpecker who frequently landed on the tree trunk on the way to the food above - Andrew Crystal

Greater Spotted Woodpecker who frequently landed on the tree trunk on the way to the food above – Andrew Crystal

Well, first of all we will comment on the above points in terms of practical implementation, and then we can consider some more general points.

Subject knowledge is important if you have a definite subject in mind, however, if you just want photos of any of the birds in your garden then take a general note of where you are likely to be able to get good photos and take that as your starting point. If you do want a specific subject then take note of their habits and use those as your starting point.

Next, consider the equipment you have available and, crucially how close you need to be to get the shot you have in mind. If you are using an SLR, or a configurable compact camera, then you also need to consider ISO, aperture/depth of field and shutter speed in relation to the subject – are you trying to take motion shots or a very active subject like a goldcrest? You will of course need to adapt accordingly.

The terms used above may be somewhat alien to you. To briefly cover what these terms are for beginners lets use the analogy of filling a bucket with water. If we fill the bucket through a straw it will take a long time to fill, if we fill it through a large pipe it will be much quicker – but, the amount of water is the same. We can incorporate ISO into the analogy using water pressure – the higher the ISO the higher the water pressure and the quicker the bucket will fill.

When you are taking a photo you need a certain amount of light to make sure that the shot is well lit and the colours are clear. You can get this amount of light by combining two factors – the aperture (the size of the ‘hole’ the light goes through to get to the sensor/film) and the shutter speed (the amount of time that the ‘hole’ is open for). So, a short shutter speed with a wide hole is equal to the same amount of light as a longer shutter speed and a narrower hole. The third factor – ISO – can be controlled independently but has a direct bearing on the other two – higher ISO speeds allow light to be absorbed more quickly so reduce the time to achieve the amount required. If practise this means that using high ISO speeds can allow either high speed motion to be recorded or simply make images possible in lower light. I hope this helps somewhat with the mechanics of photography but I will look to simplify it as much as possible (suggestions very welcome.)

But who cares? As long as there is enough light what does it matter? Well, unfortunately it does. The other term mentioned is depth of field and is a measure of how much of the image is in focus. If the depth of field is large then everything in the photo may be in focus, from the nearest thing to the camera to that which is furthest away. Smaller depth of fields mean that perhaps only a bird head and body may be in focus but the tail feathers may be a little blurry. This, of course, has to be compromised with shutter speed too slow and everything is blurry, too fast and everything is static – you may have been aiming for some motion blur. ISO also plays its part, the higher the ISO the grainier or more ‘bitty’ the picture. Low ISO speeds produce very smooth images.

If you have point and shoot camera you may well be wondering what all this is all about as you can just point and shoot. Generally these cameras do a very good job and you may never need to worry about these factors. Even if you have an SLR it will have an ‘auto mode’. But, as your skills develop you may wish to begin to control these aspects to produce more predictable results. As a starting point try using aperture priority and ideally a setting of F8 for small and medium birds. Keep an eye on your shutter speed and with a little practise you will soon get a feel for it and begin to be able to make an educated guess at to what your settings need to be.

Nuthatch - note the shallow depth of field has left the tail out of focus. - Andrew Crystal

Nuthatch – note the shallow depth of field has left the tail out of focus – Andrew Crystal

So, having a little information about where you are positioning yourself, how your camera works and an appreciation of how close you need to be to get the shot, is it going to work? If you think it is then give it a go and see how you get on. If you cannot get sufficiently close then you need to consider the other aspects – can you use props to manipulate where the birds come to feed/drink or even perch? Do you need to get closer and consider some kind of hide? Will a tripod be beneficial to getting the shot you have in mind, or is it just more comfortable to use one? You may not know the answers to all of these questions and the only way to find out is by experience, get out and give it a go, if it doesn’t work consider the above and try something else. After a bit of trial and error you will overcome these first problems and be able to get good close shots or your subjects.

Next are the other considerations. You will need to pay very close attention to light and shadows. These may be if you are facing into the sun, from overhanging branches, the birds going to the shade side of the feeder etc.

You should also pay very close attention to backgrounds. A very wide range of background are suitable but depend on what you are trying to achieve, whether it be a Dunnock skulking through the undergrowth with an inevitable cluttered (noisy) background or a singing robin with a perfect blue sky as it’s background. These both have their place and form the atmosphere of the shot. However, unnoticed backgrounds are one the most frequent reasons for a shot being spoiled. Branches appearing to go through a bird’s head perhaps being the most common.

The other major consideration is composition. This is a huge topic in itself like many of the others above. The ‘rules’ of composition such as the rule of thirds, colour factors, perspective all play their role. However, in this introductory article suffice it to say that once you are regularly getting good shots of your subjects you should begin to think about where the subject is in the frame and how much of other things are included. As a starting point, just try and bear this in mind and experiment either whilst taking the photo or by using crop tools in image editing software. You will be very surprised how the look and feel of an image can be changed by these factors.


Other factors worth a brief mention (though many will be elaborated on in later articles) are:

Image processing, there are many varieties of software that can be used with digital images to alter and enhance them in almost every way. Again, this is a huge area, not least due to the number of different programs available.

Whilst many alterations are available one thing that is not currently possible is to ‘fix’ an out of focus image (unless very very slightly and even then not ideal). Most commonly these programs are used for cropping, sharpening and minor colour alterations, but with sufficient skill its amazing just how much is possible!


Yellowhammer - nice shot, in focus, pity about the background! Andrew Crystal

Yellowhammer – nice shot, in focus, pity about the background! Andrew Crystal

Whilst this article resulted in something much longer than intended we have still only skirted the edges on many of the topics covered. It was also clear that the subject already needed dividing into smaller more manageable chunks and the original article was split into two parts. We will continue to alter and add to these as feedback and suggestions are made.

Wildlife photography is both a hugely enjoyable but often frustrating activity that is widely practised. I sincerely hope that some of the experienced photographers are willing to share their experiences and knowledge with others as we begin to build up the series (including splitting this article up). If you are willing to share your knowledge, contribute tips, suggestions, amendments or even full articles then please get in touch with us via the forum or the contact us page.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading what has become a rather long article, in the very least, I hope that it will stimulate you to have a go at photographing your garden birds; and that some of the points mentioned might just make you consider new areas and new aspects that had previously been overlooked. Please sign up to the forum and post some of your photos in the Film and photography section.

If I can perhaps leave you with one final thought – no matter how many books, articles and tutorials you read, the most important thing beyond all others is to get out and have a go. Theoretical knowledge may be a useful starting point but nothing beats experience!