Planning your photos in advance increases you odds of getting great photos. This male Bluebird often hovered over his mate during the mating season
I’ve been a professional wildlife photographer for years and travel all across the country to take pictures. It’s a great job, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ve crisscrossed the United States from north to south and east to west. Winter, spring, summer or fall, I’ve been there. Still, my favorite place to take photographs is my own backyard. I know it like the back of my hand. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of birds visit my bird feeders every year. I’ve spent so much time out there that I recognize a good number of them individually. Most of my best-selling shots are of birds that I’ve known for years.
Tip 1: Pick your subject
I select the camera/lens combination based on the species, or at least size of bird I want to photograph that day. I don’t use the same set-up for tiny Hummingbirds that I use for larger birds such as Blue Jays. I find that NOT concentrating on something specific leads to missed shots. The best way to get the once-in-a-lifetime photo is to be ready for it when the opportunity presents itself.
Male Pine Warblers often visit my suet feeders in late March
Tip 2: Learn Behavior
If you know a bird’s behavior, you increase your chances of getting great shots. You don’t have to do a lot of studying – just observe the birds in your yard. How often do they come to the feeder? How long do they stay? What do they eat? How do they interact with other birds? I often find that individual Hummingbirds will come to a feeder on a set schedule that varies by less than a minute during the day. They often feed exactly the same each time they visit. Knowing this is all the advantage I need.
Tip 3: Anticipate Behavior
My reflexes are slow compared to those of birds. By the time I see the scene I want and communicate to my finger to press the shutter button, it’s usually too late. Often, though, there is something that will signal you that good things are about to happen. Baby Tree Swallows looking out of a birdhouse start squawking a few seconds before the parents show up with a meal which allows me to start shooting before they get to the nest.
The baby Tree Swallow would announce the anticipated arrival of the parent with food
Tip 4: Plan For Good Light
Study the light in your yard. Light is best in early morning and late afternoon, but often shadows from trees block the light. Look for places in your yard where the light is still present at these times. Pictures taken at high noon on sunny days will be harsh. If you can only shoot at mid-day because of trees, choose days that are overcast, but bright.
Birds often get into habits like this Bluebird that likes to bathe in the afternoon
Tip 5: Watch Your Background
There’s an old saying that if something doesn’t add to the picture then it takes away from it. You don’t want the subject of you picture to get lost in the clutter. It should be prominent enough to make a statement.
Tip 6: Control Depth Of Field
Using a wide aperture gives a shallow depth of field (DOF) and allows for faster shutter speed. A shallow DOF blurs the background and allows you subject to stand out. Most lenses are sharpest about one stop smaller than the widest aperture.
Out of focus flowers and a shallow depth of field make this Hummingbird stand out against the background
Tip 7: Compose Your Shot
Before you start shooting, consider what you want the shot to look like. Do you want a tight head shot, or a wide shot of birds playing in a birdbath? Knowing this will help you decide where to set up and what length lens to use.
Tip 8: Focus on the Head
Another old saying is that nobody gives a rat’s ass about the ass. You can cut off any part of the body in a shot except the head. Focus on the head (especially the eyes). Try to get the bird looking at you or almost perpendicular to you with the beak ever so slightly towards you. You don’t want to get the shot from behind or with the bird looking away.
The use of a blind can allow you get close – especially if you let the bird come to you
Tip 9: Use a Tripod
Nobody really LIKES to use a tripod. They are heavy and limit your ability to move. They offer tremendous advantages, however. First, shots taken from a tripod will be significantly sharper. Also, if your camera is on a tripod, it will be ready to shoot and there will be less movement from getting the camera in position. The less you move the camera, the more likely the bird will remain where you want it.
Tip 10: Use a Blind
A blind doesn’t have to be fancy. There are commercial pop-up blinds available for less than $50, but even a simple sheet draped over a ladder or a fence will do the trick. You will get your best shots when the bird comes to you rather than the other way around. They will be far more comfortable if they feel in control. Also, some sort of covering will help keep you out of the sun. I have a large home-made blind on wheels that I keep out in my yard. The birds are so used to it that they often perch on it while I’m in it. I even have birds land on the lens of my camera and peek in at me.
This shot combines everything. This male Cardinal has a favorite perch near a sunflower seed feeder. I used the blue sky as a background. He came close because I was in a blind. His head is at the right angle. I focused on the eye. I caught a shot showing some behavior.
A Final Word
The most important thing that I have found about wildlife photography is to enjoy the time that I spend doing it. Learn to appreciate the wonderful things you see whether you get photos or not. If you follow my advice, by design there will be certain shots that you will miss because you just aren’t set up for them (too much or not enough lens, for instance). Think of those instances not as missed opportunities, but as scouting missions for the next photo session. Perhaps you will come to find that the family of Bluebirds comes to the birdbath every afternoon to cool off or there is a Grosbeak you didn’t know lived in your neighborhood that likes the safflower seeds in the feeder.
You may never know exactly what you are going to get, but with a little planning and observation, you might just get that once-in-a-lifetime shot in your own backyard. I get them all the time.
Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com – many of which were taken in his own backyard.