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

Introduction

This article was intended to be the first in a series of photography How to… articles that will be built up over time. However it ended up so long that it was split into 2 parts. This, the first part provides an overview of ‘background’ areas, whilst the second part covers considerations for taking the actual photographs and technique.

Andrew Crystal : Spotted Fly Catcher

Andrew Crystal : Spotted Fly Catcher

We are always very encouraging of contributions and suggestions and that is definitely the case with this series of articles. If you would like to add, amend or contribute in any way to this or future articles then these will be welcomed. You may make these suggestions by emailing us via the Contact Us page. All published suggestions will always be fully credited and you are welcome to include a link to examples of your work. Let’s pool our combined knowledge and help make these guides as useful and comprehensive as possible!

So why start with garden birds? Is it because they are easy to photograph? Well the answer to that is both yes and no……. They are perhaps relatively easier than certain other subjects and some such as robins can become very ‘tame’ and used to people which makes them easier to photograph. However, when it comes to taking an objective and honest critical look at your own photos versus ones taken by the pros, it is all too often a real ‘wake up call’ – maybe it isn’t really all that easy after all! Some of you may have photos that compare favourably, if you have then well done and you are strongly encouraged to share any techniques, tips and tricks as mentioned above.

The main reason for running this article as the first one is because garden birds are widely accessible to a large number of people. Whether you have a small backyard or a very large garden, by supplying birds with what they need – food and water – you should be able to attract them, at which point you might just want to reach for your camera! The other reason is that it is possible to have a quick go at taking photographs casually – the half hour you have spare on a Sunday afternoon, or because its more fun that washing up Laughing – you do not need to plan a full blown expedition, check the forecast and spend time travelling to a chosen site. Don’t forget, everything covered here can be expanded to other requirements and challenges, however, you may find it both useful and encouraging to practise right on your doorstep.

If, however, for whatever reason, you do not have access to photographic opportunities in your garden then many of the points made below can also be used in a local park or ‘green’ area.

OK, so lets get into the nitty gritty of techniques and considerations for improving your images.

We will break this up into several areas – subject knowledge, camera equipment, ancillary equipment, props, technique and miscellaneous.

Subject Knowledge

Andrew Crystal : Coal Tit

Andrew Crystal : Coal Tit

This has been placed first on the list as it is a very important and perhaps underestimated area. The better your knowledge of your subject, the more likely you are to be able to get a good photograph of it.

What species of birds do you regularly get in your garden? For each of the species, do they have a favourite feeder, food type or perch when they are in your garden? How tolerant are they of your presence, when you are out in your garden do they take flight as soon as the door opens or casually watch as you step over them?

Think about it. Consider that you decide that you want a really good picture of one of your garden robins. You have watched their activities and know that you often see a robin perching on a fence post in your garden before hopping onto a nearby feeder several times a day. You also know that it is fairly tame and seems happy for you to come within about 6 feet of it. Armed with this knowledge you are in a great position to get the shot you are after. Without this information you can simply take your camera and take position in your garden and wait – you may get lucky or you may sit there for a very long time!

This area is, again, relatively easy to cover for garden birds as you may well be able to do your research from the comfort of an armchair in your house, overlooking the garden etc. Further afield it is often more difficult to gain this knowledge and talking to local people and birders will be very useful.

To repeat once more, the greater your knowledge of a subject, the better position you are in for getting a good photograph of one.

Camera Equipment

The pros have all the top of the range equipment, the new all singing all dancing cameras and the lenses that resemble the Hubble telescope, its easy for them to get the images they do isn’t it? Absolutely not!! This is an ill conceived and very common misconception, I could buy exact replicas of David Beckham’s football boots – does that mean I can immediately earn £100,000 a week and make my free kicks defy the laws of physics? No! And neither does owning all the best equipment ensure that you will become a good photographer overnight!

blue tit

Looks natural but is actually taken using the prop below.

Of course, this isn’t to say that having good equipment doesn’t provide some degree of advantage – if it didn’t then people wouldn’t spend thousands on big lenses; however it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Providing you have a camera and a desire to improve then there is no reason that you cannot improve the quality of the shots you are getting so keep reading.

That said we will have a quick look at equipment, though will not go into too much detail as the entire article, indeed entire books have been dedicated to this subject.

Cameras can be split into compact cameras and SLR cameras, whether digital or film. Digital cameras are also similar to computers, very shortly after you buy them, that model either becomes obsolete or becomes much cheaper but crucially will still do the job just fine!

Compact cameras are usually much cheaper and, as the name suggests, smaller and more portable. In this context, perhaps the single most important thing to look out for here is optical zoom; this is an indication of magnification, and in this context, the higher that number the better. Do not confuse this with digital zoom which only has the same effect of cropping on your computer after the image has been taken – in fact common advice seems to be that as soon as you buy a compact camera – turn it off! A very wide range of cameras are available and some allow much more control than others with regard to ISO, aperture, shutter speed, bracketing etc. (see Technique section for more details).

SLR cameras are much more expensive but have the advantage of allowing different lenses (many of which give very high magnification factors) to be used and usually many more of the settings to be changed. They are undisputed superior and are the choice of the pros, though whilst prices have dropped they are still generally more expensive and extra lens(es) are often needed.

The point of this How to… article though is more about getting better photos with your existing equipment via better knowledge and techniques though so we will not dwell on equipment much longer.

A good starting point would be to use whatever you have already. As your skills and knowledge develop then you may wish to invest in other equipment as you see fit, or you may remain happy with your existing kit. You may also find yourself heading in a direction that needs specialist equipment like telephotos lenses, macro lenses…. Etc.

Whether you already own a camera or are about to buy one, it is worth noting that whether it is a compact camera or an SLR, you will benefit greatly from understanding what the all settings mean. It is worth spending time getting to know them before you miss opportunities trying to figure them out at a crucial moment.

Ancillary Equipment

Another subject worth touching on briefly are ancillary products, and there are plenty to choose from. There are a multitude of camera support system – bean bags, tripods and car window attachments to name but a few. There are hides, remote triggers, lens filters, digital sensor cleaning kits….. the list is almost endless.

Of the items mentioned above, perhaps the two most useful and effective items are tripods and hides.

Tripods come in all shapes and sizes, and even one legged varieties called monopods but the point is that a variety of sizes and materials are available depending on budgets. A tripod is used to stabilise your camera and is especially useful in lower light conditions like in the late evening or even just very overcast days and for more careful framing of shots. They are also useful for attempting motion shots.

Wildlife Watching Hide

Wildlife Watching Hide

Hides are slightly different. A hide is any structure of object that conceals your presence in some way. Whilst they also come in all shapes and sizes, they can also be made or adopted. A hide I used when we lived in Berwick was constructed of 5 pallets strapped into a cube with a hole in the front for the camera lens and a door in the back (incidentally I had to abandon its use for several weeks during the summer as a pair of thrushes decide to build a nest in it! As it backed onto the kitchen window though it was a great joy to watch the family grow up and finally fledge). Your garden shed may be able to be used as hide, vehicles are frequently used, on many reserves it is simply a wall of some description with holes cut out for viewing. The problem with some of these hides is mobility. Your shed may be ideal but the birds might not go anywhere near that area. The alternative is to use portable hides. These are available as dome hides which are very similar to a small dome tent and bag hides which are simply large ‘sacks’ that cover yourself and your equipment. I have used a dome hide extensively and found it to be excellent.

The key here is basically to hide your presence and essentially the human profile one way or another. Of course this approach may not be needed, your garden birds may not be perturbed by your presence and you may just be able to sit quietly to take your photos. Should budget allow though, or if you can create one in some way, a hide is well worth having as you will be amazed at how close it can bring nature to you. I have had birds within inches of the front of a hide (indeed too close to photograph) and perched on the roof whilst in it. Such intimate views are difficult to come by without one.

Props

Homemade prop used to get the birds where I wanted them.

Props are a way of helping to manipulate your subjects. More often than not they will involve food. A prop may be as simple as a feeder, or you may opt for creating a more natural look. If you are using feeders then, providing they are fairly well positioned, you are likely to find that birds perch on a branch nearby before hopping onto the feeder – this is you opportunity for natural looking shots. You may also get creative and build some of your own props. The image above is of a simple prop I made and an example of it in use, it is simply a small log with a feeder hidden at the back, and a few holes drilled into it for peanuts. Whilst the photo does look natural and is to a degree, it does involve some slight manipulation as well. Whilst some people either object to this or are slightly disappointed when they realise the ‘true’ picture, props are very useful and undoubtedly increase your chances of getting great shots of garden birds – even down to ensuring that they in a well lit area.

Continues in Part 2 – Techniques