- Arts and Design
Bird Photography The Easy Way
Digital Bird Photography Without Getting Cold and Dirty
I have to admit, I am hooked on bird watching and bird photography.
But it has not always been as easy as it is now.
So, what changed?
Did I go to school to learn about bird photography? Nope
Did I get new bird photography equipment like my favorite wildlife photographer, Moose Peterson, or the National Geographics photographers use? Nope.
Did I travel the the remote parts of the Brazilian rain forests? Nope.
I got one of those Canon Rebel Digital SLR cameras. Then, I simply invited the birds to my house.
This mama Bluebird wanted her picture taken so badly, she came right up to my window LOL. Of course, I had my Rebel handy, and I obliged her immediately.
Using a good camera was an excellent starting point, but it wasn't until I started providing a source of food and water for my feathered friends that they became frequent visitors, and my backyard bird photography began to flourish.
Canon Rebel T4i Digital SLR System - My Favorite Canon Rebel Digital SLR camera
This is the mainstay of my birding photography equipment. With my setup, I do not come close to the 1200mm reach of the Canon SX50, but I am totally happy with how things are going in my quest for great animal pictures.
With the Canon Rebel system, I would also recommend you get an additional lens, and the most practical one for a beginning backyard bird photographer is a Canon EF-S 55-250mm lens. It is the second most popular lens at Amazon.
All of the bird photography in this lens is done with either the Canon Rebel T4i or the previous version, the Rebel T3i.
Both these cameras are pretty amazing for an aspiring amateur or beginning wildlife photographer.
The easiest and quickest way to get birds into your viewfinder.
"If you fill it, they will come."
There really is no secret here. Provide bird food for your desired visitors.
Now, while this is a no-brainer, I struggled with getting a consistent flow of feathered visitors to my feeders. Sometimes there was an abundance and sometimes there were only a few.
It did not occur to me that the source of my bird seed is important. And it was not until recently that the light bulb went off in my tiny brain.
Buy your bird seed at a place that sells it as a main part of their business. Wholesale and cut-rate grocery stores are not your best source. Trust me on this.
I now get my goods in fairly large quantities from Wild Birds Unlimited (use this link to find a store near you). If there is not a store near you, maybe there is another Wild Bird specialty store in your area.
Once your feeders are out, make sure you always have food in them. It may take a few days for the birds to find them, but once they have been discovered, birds will keep coming back for more. So make sure there is more when they come.
My first bird feeder is shown in the photo. I made it from some spare cedar, and it was a simple platform feeder. I had lots of problems with squirrels, though. Bird watchers tend to develop a loathing for the cute little creatures because they love the same kind of seeds as the birds. And they won't stop until they have devoured it all.
The bird photographer's #1 nemesis!
For this platform bird feeder, I cut a piece of metal lath and covered it so that the bird seed could filter through the holes in the lath, but the birds could still get the seed out through the holes. The squirrels try, but they have a hard time getting the seed. Their method is to try to chew through everything. The metal is strong enough that they took several years to break through.
Back in the early days, I had just one feeder. There were a few food fights because birds, like some people, like to eat without others crowding their space.
Adding a few more places for my birds to dine helped this problem.
"Squirrel-less" Birdfeeders For Wild Birds
Squirrels are clever little varmints!
One of the keys to successfully keep the squirrels from eating all your bird food is to make sure the feeder is far enough away from the hanging pole. Squirrels are very industrious. If they can reach the feeder from the pole, they will figure out how to get the food without putting too much weight on the feeder so that the ports close.
This feeder holds plenty of seed!
Bluejay With An Attitude
This is a fun photo. I was less than 5 feet away from this bluejay when I snapped this picture.
This is another instance where planning and patience pays off.
- I cut a section of tree limb so that it would fit between my deck railing and my windowsill.
- I drilled a few shallow holes in the limb and filled them with sunflower seeds.
- Then, I simply waited inside my house by the window with camera in hand.
- Because the holes are shallow, I had to keep refilling them with birdseed, but the results have been very rewarding.
I have lots of up-close and personal photos of my favorite birds using this technique.
It's kind of funny that they get used to me being there after awhile, as long as the glass is between me and them. I have tried opening the window, but they are not as trusting when there is no barrier.
As far as quality, I was thinking there would be some problems because of the insulated glass, but I can't tell the difference between images with and without the glass.
The Bird Feeder Setup
This setup has evolved over time. It started out with the Platform feeder.
Then I decided I wanted to get photos of my subjects in a natural setting, so I created what I call the "Bird Photo Studio." This is just an old branch that was cut off one of the trees in my yard. I drilled some holes in strategic places so I could fill it with a variety of different seed.
My "targets" would come looking for the food and perch on the branches. All I had to do was wait, and they would eventually place themselves in one of the sweet spots where they looked like they were in some tree or on a broken branch.
Next, I added the Squirrel-proof feeder. This has saved me a ton of money. The squirrels were eating way more than my feathered friends. They were even eating food that was supposed to be squirrel-non-friendly. They don't play by the rules.
The outcome was that I started getting more birds than before because the feeder has more capacity, and it truly is squirrel-proof.
Finally, I added the suet feeders. These were also a great addition because they attract some species that don't necessarily come to the other feeders. One suggestion I have for the suet is to get suet that is treated with hot sauce. Birds don't have any taste buds, but squirrels do, and they don't like spicy.
There is a second suet feeder that is not in this picture. It is hanging right off the kitchen window.
Sigma 18-250mm Telephoto Lens for Canon - If this lens fits your budget, GET IT!
This is not a professional lens, but it is pretty darn good for guys like me who want to be able to capture good quality photographs of birds with consistent performance.
Sigma and Tamron are two manufacturers that I have used with excellent success. And this lens, in particular, has given me so much quality time, I almost always have it on my camera, whether I am photographing birds or just about anything else.
If I could afford a Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM Lens, I would get it, but this Sigma does the job for me.
Most of the bird photos on this page are taken with this lens. It is very fast focusing, and, as you can see, it takes great pictures of birds.
Bird Blinds ~ Your Subjects Will Never Know They Have Been Shot
Shooting pictures of shy or skittish creatures requires a covert operation. Using a blind will help if you can't lure them to your window.
You could simply buy some camo material and drape it over yourself, or create a teepee with branches or other support.
But if you want to go a bit more "high tech" these manufactured blinds are just the ticket.
This bird blind has everything you need.. protection from bird detection, sight holes on all sides, and enough room for a single occupant to be comfortable.
This bird blind is much more sophisticated. You could spend an entire vacation in here (haha).
This simple little setup is just about perfect for a backyard. No muss, no fuss.
Best Compact Cameras For Bird Photography - These point and shoot cameras have plenty of "reach" for bird photography
There is always the debate about whether Canon or Nikon is the best. The winner will change with each person you talk to. Truth is, both are fine, and, unless you are in the same category with my virtual friend Moose Peterson (in which case you would not be looking for a camera here, haha) you should not fret over camera selection with respect to brand.
On the other hand, you should fret over focal length. This is because you will need to "reach out" to where your subjects are by using your camera's zoom feature. So, a good camera is great, but also know that a good lens is just as important.
So keep in mind that some of the Super-zoom point and shoot cameras may meet your needs as well or better than a digital SLR for wildlife photography.
This camera is billed as the "world's first 50x zoom". That means that the equivalent focal length is 1200mm. You can capture images of shy creatures all day with that kind of reach.
The Nikon contender has a respectable 35x zoom. This is also plenty of reach for an aspiring nature photographer.
This is a great camera too. Even though it has a measly 24x zoom, it will give you many fantastic images to be proud of.
One of the best bird photography tactics is patience, even if you are waiting inside your own house. This yellow-rumped warbler has been one of my favorite bird photos for a long time now.
Why? Because I did not see many over the years. Now, however, they are quite common at my feeder.
But I still love them!
This picture was taken in the tree right next to the bird feeder setup. During the cold months when there are no leaves on the tree, it offers another awesome setting for natural bird photography.
American Goldfinch - Excitement for this bird photographer
The American Goldfinch is not uncommon at all in my backyard. They come to my birdfeeders in herds.
But not all of them look like this male. He is all decked out for courtship. And, it was pretty cold when this picture was taken, so he is puffed up for warmth.
The males attain this bright yellow coloring with a black patch on the crown of their head during mating season. Then their color recedes, and they look like more like the females.
Most of the year, the Goldfinches are a dull yellow color like the one below.
In the digital image above, the Goldfinch is on a branch of my bird feeder, but I added the berries as a prop. Just another way to get the best bird photographs possible.
Using your own backyard makes it possible to manipulate the place where you will have your subject. It's kind of like a portrait photographer in the studio, except the birds are unaware that you are "using" them.
Which Backyard Bird Is Your Favorite?
Everyone has a favorite bird, whether they take pictures of them or not.. What's yours?
House Finches Make Themselves Comfortable
We have had several families of House Finches nesting under our roof.
They don't actually nest inside, but they do like shelter, so our covered side porch and the front covered entry to our house have been home to a few bird families.
These birds, while cute and fairly unintimidated by humans, are quite messy. We have had lots of other birds nest around our house that are quite tidy, but these little guys don't mind a little fecal clutter.
By the time the birds are fledged, there is not much room for them because there is so much bird manure piled around the nest.
This is a male House Finch. As is common in the bird world, the males are much prettier than the females. House Finches are very social. They stay together while the babies are nesting, and they take turns at the feeders while the other is incubating the eggs.
Busy Backyard Birdfeeders - The Best Bird Photography Setup For Easy Bird Images
In this video you will see how active my birdfeeders are every morning. There are Cardinals, Chickadees, American Goldfinches, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-brested Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpeckers - all sharing the bounty in a 3-minute time span.
Pileated Woodpecker - My newest achievement
This is the same bird at the suet feeder.
Attracting birds to my backyard feeders reached a new pinnacle recently with this Pileated Woodpecker.
I am posting two pictures to show how patience can be so rewarding. The photo on the right is typical of many pictures I get. While it is an excellent image with regard to detail, it does not portray the woodpecker in a natural looking environment.
As I was snapping away, taking many digital images of the bird on the suet feeder, it flew to the nearby tree and stopped for a few seconds. That's when I was able to grab the picture above. It is not as sharp, but I like it for the natural look.
It is difficult to explain the excitement I felt when I actually captured these images on my camera. But I have recorded the story in detail on my blog at www.waynerasku.com.
Note about the suet feeder..
I "enhanced" this suet feeder by building a wood frame around it. The guts of the feeder is a simple suet cage I purchased for about $2. The frame does two things. First, it provides protection from the rain - in warmer weather, the suet gets washed away. Second, it provides a stabilizer for the bird's tail. This is the piece that extends below to give the bird a way to remain stable.
The stabilizer is the key to getting more variety and just plain more birds. After I built this suet feeder, I started getting blue birds (which I had never seen at my feeders), yellow-rumped warblers became more frequent visitors, and, of course, I got a visit from the amazing Pileated Woodpecker (you can clearly see that this bird needs the stabilizer).
Birdhouse For Bluebirds - By accident
It was a good accident!
One of my hobbies, in addition to photography, is working with wood. I don't do it as much as I did in the past, but I did build a decorative birdhouse a couple years ago.
I saw some birdhouses at a local craft show, and this inspired me to build one myself. I tried to make it look like a little country home. The result is in the feature photo.
I honestly had no intention of any bird ever taking up residence in this house. It was done only for decoration. I placed it on the end of a fence that protects people from wandering into the drainage creek that runs through our yard.
It was only a few weeks after setting that birdhouse out that I noticed some activity.. bluebirds were checking it out as a nesting place.
This was exciting for two reasons. First, I had only seen bluebirds in pictures before this, so I was literally jumping up and down inside (and outside as well). Second, I was able to get some really good photos.
The feature photo above shows the bluebird couple in the nest building process. Mom is on top and Dad is poking his head out from inside.
The picture on the left is Mom taking food to her babies.
After a week or so, I checked, and sure enough, there were three little eggs inside.
I had purchased some camo material to build a bird blind for just such a purpose. I covered myself with the material and sat right in front of the birdhouse, ready for one of the little ones to peak out. My patience paid off as you can see in the photo to the right.
It has been 3 years since the first bluebirds took up residence. The good news is that they have returned each year. They must like the accommodations. In fact, as this is being written, there are bluebirds building a nest.
I took the photo below just this morning (it is mid-March 2013).
And since I have not shown the beauty of the male bluebird, here he is. Another surprise - just this month, bluebirds have started visiting my suet feeder! The only thing I did differently was to move it further from the side of the house. I'm liking the results.
Brown Thrasher - Georgia State Bird
Another bird picture in the cold. The Brown Thrasher is the Georgia State bird, and, since I live just north of Atlanta, you would think I see tons of these guys. But I don't. They are only occasional visitors to my wild bird diner.
See how the birds compensate for the cold? The puffy feathers insulate them from the freezing temps.
This is another bird photo taken from the comfort of my kitchen. As you can see, there is ice in the picture, but it was a cozy 72 degrees where me and my camera were.
I always use aperture priority for these shots. In this case, I had my Sigma 18-250mm lens attached to the Canon Rebel, and the aperture was set at its widest - f/6.3. The result is a nicely blurred background, which makes the Wren stand out as it should.
Male Cardinal - Snow bird
Male cardinals are so beautiful. I love the females too, but the males are definitely the attention-getters. This shot, taken with my Canon Rebel, was fairly easy. The birds come to the feeder during cold weather much more than in the summer. I just wait for the opportune moment and snap the shutter button.
Of course, where I live just north of Atlanta, the patience comes in waiting for the snow LOL. We don't get snow every year, so when it does come, it's best to have your camera charged and ready. This particular bird was only feet away from the feeder, and about 12 feet away from the window where I was perched. The temp outside was obviously freezing, but I was warm and cozy in my kitchen.
Hummingbirds - More Photo Ops - And fun to watch, too!
Hummingbirds are a bit more of a challenge, at least at first. They move quickly.
In this picture of a Ruby Throated Hummingbird male, he was perched on the feeder, and I cropped the photo to eliminate the plastic feeder.
I might also set up a faux background to add interest.
The good news here is that the more these birds see people around, the more they are comfortable with it. Adding more feeders and being present more often will help them get used to coming and posing for photos.
Some photographers have set up a whole hummingbird studio in their yard, and they invite fellow photographers to come there on a photographic field trip. The pictures that result are pretty amazing.. and natural looking.
One of the keys to getting good hummingbird photographs is using a fast enough shutter speed. This requires a lot of light. However, I prefer light that is filtered through the trees or shaded by the house. Direct sunlight results in too many bright spots and harsh shadows. For this reason, I will place my feeders where the pictures I take will be in good light, but not in direct sunlight.
NOT Backyard Birds In My Yard - I would LOVE to be able to photograph these beauties!
God has an amazing imagination, doesn't He?