When I started photographing birds, my primary goal was to get as close as possible. Later I realized that background and lighting are even more important. All this makes bird photography truly challenging. Nevertheless, the internet is already full of beautiful bird images, so it’s time to make something different. This is not an easy task, but by using feeders for bird photography, even the most difficult ideas can become reality.
Before enjoying bird photography, some preparations are needed. First of all, choose a location for a feeder: decide which species you want to photograph and find an area where they live. Don’t look for a distant location−your backyard can be the perfect place. Forest birds had long interested me, so I chose a local forest. When searching for the exact setting, I mainly consider the amount of light and the quality of back- ground blur. For a soft background, it’s best to find a location with distant bushes or trees and try a few test shots using manual focus at about 14 feet.
Once you have found the place, you need a blind. Although various temporary blinds can be used, I prefer a permanent blind since birds understand it as a part of their environment and I don’t need to wait while they get used to it every time I’m there.
Build your blind from whatever materials you prefer. I used branches that I found around and they also worked as protection from the northern sparrowhawk (a nimble bird of prey) providing a shelter for my feeder’s visitors. One time this allowed me to see the predator from very close−while chasing lesser birds, the sparrowhawk flew into my blind!
The Feeder & Food
A feeder is the place where the main action is. It’s best to set up a platform feeder because later you can easily put diverse perches and decorations on it. I generally use hulled sunflower seeds as food; there are a variety of other fine choices too. Whatever you pick, keep in mind that the food you choose must be healthy for birds, so that salted, smoked or tainted products must not be used.
Equipment & Camera Settings
Bird photography usually requires expensive cam- eras and massive telephoto lenses, but you will get fine results with any DSLR, a 200mm or longer lens and a tripod. To avoid blurry images, shutter speeds should be no slower than 1/50 even in the worst lighting conditions. With more light available, increase the shutter speed to 1/250 or 1/500. Choose the largest aperture possible to get the best background or when there is little light; close it a bit if it’s difficult to get the whole bird in focus. While the lower the ISO the better, increase it if needed. Always shoot in RAW because later you can easily adjust white balance, colors or exposure in the computer. If your feeder is set up in a low light situation, shoot a series of images to increase your chances of getting a sharp photo.
Envisioning the Image in Your Mind
Now, the creative process begins. Before photographing, it’s a good idea to pre-visualize the image. Conceive something simple or try to visualize a picture you have never seen before and determine what you need to do to achieve it. Photographing a bird sitting next to other little wonders of nature while showing the bird’s natural environment seemed like an interesting idea to me, so I began a hunt for mushrooms and lichens in the same forest where my feeder was situated.
After you find the things which are needed for your photo, set them up. This depends on your particular idea and might be as simple as planting a few flowers in the yard and strewing some seeds nearby. Still and all, it’s more convenient to use the previously built blind and the feeder and to put a piece of grass or a big moss-grown stump on the feeder. Then make a few holes and hide some sunflower seeds there. To take picture of a bird on the top of a smaller rotten stump, merely set some food where you cannot see it through the viewfinder; it can be the feeder’s platform or the other side of the stump. Lastly, if you want a bird to sit on a twig, place it above food.
I found a branch with a nice lichen and a piece of moss with two mushrooms. I needed birds to sit in the exact position to make it work. This was fairly easy: using adhesive tape, I fixed the branch above some sunflower seeds and later in my camera screen I saw what I had imagined−a willow tit and the lichen next to each other. In the second setup, I put a handful of seeds by the mushrooms. After a while a marsh tit landed on the moss and I pressed the shutter button. It looked like the bird was pretending to be the third mushroom!
My ideas are often very simple, such as a tit on a fall colored twig, a nuthatch on a mossy forest floor or a greenfinch near a few flowers. It’s up to you to decide what photos you want to create. Some of them will come quickly while others might take several days or weeks, but the process isn’t likely to be boring. Since it’s difficult to set up perches and other objects perfectly on the first try, don’t forget to review and analyze images on location. Make a few changes if the results don’t satisfy you. Simply experiment. Time flies, believe me.
Light & Composition
Before going outside and putting all this into practice, there are a few more things to remember about light and composition. Soft lighting makes morning the best time to photograph birds. Evening is no worse in terms of light but birds are less active then. It’s easier when the sun is behind or in front of you; however, I prefer side lighting when trees or clouds diffuse the light. In this way, it’s possible to photograph softly-lit birds even during the midday hours.
Together with light, good composition is the key to a captivating photo. Sometimes it’s best to trust your feelings, but keep in mind that birds are fast creatures so they need space. It’s usual to leave some more space in the direction the bird is looking. In addition, try to be at its eye level when making photos. If the background of your shots looks dull, you can frame your pictures by fixing some twigs around the perch. Finally, avoid distracting elements and use the effect of shapes and colors. Just a few red berries can add so much to the image.
Escape the Routine
Whether you set up a feeder in an ancient forest or in your own backyard, its visitors will likely give you not only wonderful photographic opportunities but also many unforgettable moments. In today’s world, where everyone is in a hurry, the days spent surrounded by marvelous nature bring peace of mind. That is why bird photography near feeders fascinates me. I hope you will like it too.
Resources: Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Lens: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens