Backyard bird photography can be undertaken on the spur of the moment, no travel time or travel expenses required, no clothing and gear need to be packed and, if Mother Nature rains on your parade, you can easily resume when the rain stops.
Backyard photography is a way to keep photography skills fresh and up to date. The backyard can serve as a test bed for a new lens, camera body, flash or other equipment. Not only new equipment, but the old can also be checked out in advance of a major photo tour.
Beyond the convenience of the backyard, great subjects may be found—even if the subject is a “common” backyard bird. Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, red-bellied woodpeckers, bluebirds, even common titmice and goldfinches can give the nature photographer a good day. When a bird shows up that is not usually found around a backyard feeder—that could be an indigo bunting in our neck of the woods—it can make your day.
The potential for getting satisfying images exists close to home, because there are frequent opportunities to photograph and more time to learn behaviors of your subjects. The images accompanying this article were taken in our backyard.
The way to ensure that you will have birds in the backyard consistently through all seasons is to supply food. Our experience over many years and in different climates and environments is that the simple act of hanging out a couple of tube feeders filled with black oil sunflower seed brings in the birds. We also use a platform feeder for ground feeding birds and a suet feeder to attract woodpeckers. Oranges and grape jelly are Baltimore orioles’ favorites, and mealworms lure in bluebirds. It seems that more food equates with more birds and therefore more photographic opportunities.
While hummingbirds are a separate category and worthy of their own separate discussion, one really important point, at least if you live in a four-season climate, is to put hummingbird feeders up early in the spring. If a ruby-throated hummingbird passes through your yard and you don’t have a feeder up in time, you may have missed an entire season of hummingbirds.
Feeders can be placed strategically near a treeline to get shots of birds in the trees as well as to provide security for the birds. We generally place feeders so that we can, by moving around, enjoy front-lit shooting during both the morning and afternoon shoulders of the day. These are the times when there are more birds and the light is right.
For casual shooting and for honing skills to be used in the wild, not much in the way of staging the environment is required. However, backyard habitat can be controlled to whatever extent the photographer chooses. Perches made from plants and tree branches can be strategically placed near food sources. Feeders placed near flowering trees such as dogwoods may bring an opportunity to shoot goldfinches or other birds in an environment they otherwise wouldn’t be found.
Generally a bird photographed in the middle of a bush will create a cluttered background: wait until a bird is out on a limb. Shooting up may give a clear background and a blue sky; down a grassy green background. On the other hand, shooting wide open or close to it in a flower bed may give an out-of-focus colored background, which makes the shot special.
We generally do our bird shooting (other than some flight shots) with lenses in the 500mm to 800mm range. But backyard birds are often somewhat tame, and shorter lenses may be used for some of the birds. An inexpensive popup blind can also bring you closer to the birds.
So use your backyard because it is convenient, inexpensive, and a great way to hone skills, test equipment and maybe get some great photos. Put out feeders placed strategically to maximize photo opportunities; food will bring in the birds. Always be mindful of the background; it can make or break a photo.
Finally get in place before the birds are present and be patient. This is a mini adventure. The potential for something unexpected and wonderful is always there.
Bob and Jorja Feldman are photographers with a passion for creating beautiful images reflective of the natural world. They are frequent contributors of articles and images to Nature Photographer magazine; their images have also been published by National Wildlife and Audubon. They are photographers for the Ann Arbor Observer and author its “Outside” department. Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org