During the lockdowns we all were forced to stay local, and for photographers that meant largely hanging the camera up for a few months. However, there was one place I could visit regularly and take lots of images – my own private nature reserve, which was my garden!
My name is Jack Perks and I’m a professional wildlife photographer. My work normally takes me underwater (I will admit that when I dug my garden pond, I made sure it was big enough for me to fit in), however, I take a real joy in landscaping the garden to help wildlife, and from time to time, I dust off the camera to document it.
Although I like my garden, I never really saw it as a place to take images as when I moved into my house. It was just lawn – a blank slate, if you will. But I began to see the potential to turn this green desert into a wildlife suburban oasis.
It’s not a big garden and I don’t live in an exciting national park or anything, just a small town in Nottinghamshire. However, there are lots of reasons why it’s good to “rewild” your garden. The obvious one is that it’s good for the wildlife! Adding a mosaic of habitats and features will increase the biodiversity of your little patch, and of course if you’re a photographer, this gives you a wider scope of subjects to photograph.
Having lots of subjects in your garden means you can photograph them whenever you like, from the dead of night to the early hours of the morning. You can also make great use of the seasons, incorporating snowy winter days and hot flower-filled summer mornings. There’s also the pleasure of watching this space grow and mature, and spending time outdoors to give yourself some physical exercise, not to mention a chance to recharge those mental batteries. Plus, you can really transform your garden into a work of art and make it look quite pretty!
Where to start with garden photography?
Assuming you haven’t done anything in your garden for wildlife already, or you’ve recently moved in, the first thing is to assess what can be done. Don’t rush. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your wildlife garden. Plan it out in stages and work within your means. For example, a pond is best dug in the autumn when the ground is soft, and the winter rains will fill it naturally. Digging a pond in the summer when the ground is rock solid, and the sun is beating down is not fun! Make use of the space you have, and don’t be worried about the space being too small. Even if you can only have a couple of pots with wild-flowers and a small pond, it all makes a difference.
I’d suggest working out what you want from your garden before starting to physically plan it out. Is it purely to benefit the wildlife, or is it a mixed-use space that will also accommodate your own needs? Research what species can be found local to you, and use that to help shape the garden according to what you want to attract.
Certain plant species have preferences like clay or sandy soil, so find out which type you have; a local garden centre can often help with this, and advise you on what to plant. If it helps you to visualise, draw up a plan (you don’t have to have an arts degree) and roughly work out where you want to put your wildlife attractors like a pond, bird feeders, wild flowers, etc.
Think about photography too. This is also the time to consider things like where the light is going to hit, shooting angles, and how close to the house things need to be. I dug my first pond (I have six – I’m slightly addicted!) right in front of my kitchen window, and this means I can watch the wildlife while having breakfast. If an interesting bird, dragonfly or frog turns up, I either shoot out the window, or creep around. It also has lots of low rocks that allow me to shoot from a low angle, lying down on the floor to get the animal’s perspective.
If you want birds in the garden, then portion the feeders somewhere where the light is going to look good. Bear in mind that this will change over the course of a year, so having bird feeders that are moveable is useful in the long term.
What to photograph in your garden
Now we’re in the month of February, here are some useful tasks to get onto that’ll help your garden look its best in photographs.
Look for emerging bulbs
The grip of winter is starting to loosen now. There’s a good chance that snowdrops (see below) will already be in flower, and certainly the host of daffodils, tulips and crocuses will be poking their heads up. Although these are often the more showy and pretty bulbs, there are others that are worth including in photographs, like the snake's-head fritillary, which has a beautiful and delicate purple flower. They prefer wet ground, so these are ideal for planting on pond borders. The water reflecting in the background also makes them a great subject to practice bokeh on. Winter aconite, as the name suggests, flowers early. It is normally associated with woodland, but can make a great border plant with its subtle yellow flowers.
Chop and move
Most plants are dormant at this time of year, so for a lot of perennials it’s the best time to cut back and shape without doing any lasting damage. In my own garden I have a large Buddleia bush, and although it’s not native, it’s great for attracting bees and butterflies – so much so that it’s often referred to as the “butterfly bush”. They can, however, get a bit triffid-like and try to take over, so this time of year is ideal to get the shears out and trim them back. I also tend to cut the flower stems of the lavender at this time, to help encourage new growth later in the year. If there are any plants that you want to move, or maybe spilt if they are multiplying, then this is a good time of year to do so, when the ground is wet and most of the nutrients are still in the roots.
Quick tidy up – but not too tidy!
One of the misconceptions of wildlife gardening is the idea everything has to be messy! It really comes down to what you want from it. The grass is getting pretty long on my lawn currently, and it is still too wet to mow - but I will go out with a strimmer to keep on top of it.
Many of the annuals are long dead now, and seeds have either been eaten by birds or dropped into the ground to start again, so I’ll clear up anything that’s dead, as well as the leaves that have fallen off my cherry tree. I tend to wait until the tree is bare, otherwise I’m doing the same job several times. All the dead plants and leaves then go into a compost pile, which will not only provide compost for my plants but a great home for insects and hibernating creatures like frogs and hedgehogs.
How to photograph garden birds
In the UK, we as a nation love to feed and watch our birds, from the vibrant red of a robin to a cheeky house sparrow. Six out of ten adults in the UK say they feed wild birds in their gardens. Once the birds know there’s a continuous source of food, especially during the colder and harsher periods, your bird tables can become a hub of feathery action. For wildlife photographers, this is too good an opportunity to miss.
Place the feeders near a tree or bush, as most small birds will feel safer near cover. Once they get used to a feeder, you can always move it somewhere that’s better for light, or even plant a bush next to it. I’d suggest using a mix of seeds, as different birds will have different preferences. Nyjer seed, for example, is a favorite of finches like goldfinches, redpolls and siskins. Peanuts with a high fat content are great for greater spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches while millet will attract sparrows, starlings and greenfinches.
It’s tempting to photograph the bird on the feeder, but I prefer to get more natural images, so often wait for the birds to go in the nearby trees and bushes. Or, better yet, I’ll place a branch nearby. That way I can have a selection of natural perches near the feeder and get lots of images. I suggest swapping them out regularly or you’ll end up with a portfolio of birds on the same stick!
I normally tape the stick to a pole, which then goes in the ground, though you could also use an old tripod, as this is the part that won’t be in shot (you’ll be using a long lens). The trick is to photograph the bird that is waiting for the feeder; birds are quite British in nature, in the sense that they queue. You can pre-focus on the branch and have the camera set to continuous shutter to avoid missing the action. Depending how close you are to the feeders and how tame your birds are, it can be a good idea to use a hide, although often garden birds are fairly used to people.
What should you photograph in your garden
In the early months of the year, these are some of the subjects you can capture.
How to photograph Fieldfare/redwing
These birds are relatives of blackbirds but tend to stay more rural, so seeing these may depend where you live. However, in very cold weather they can venture into more urban areas. The fieldfare has a chestnut-brown back and yellowy breast, streaked with black. It has a black tail, dark wings and pale grey rump and head. Its cousin the redwing, meanwhile, is dark brown above and white below, with a black-streaked breast and distinctive orangey-red flanks and underwing. It has a very smart face pattern, with a white eyebrow stripe and dark brown cheeks.
Fieldfares and redwings descend on Britain and Ireland from northern and eastern Europe to scour the countryside for berries. This is why I would always suggest having a berry bush in your garden – something like rowan, cotoneaster or pyracantha would be ideal – especially red-berried, as red is the most attractive colour to birds.
As well as enjoying berries, they are also partial to apples, so it can be a good idea to buy some cheap apples and pears, chop them up and leave them around the garden for the birds to forage. Birds are territorial, so if they know there’s food in the garden, they may hang around for a few days, giving you ample time to photograph them. They tend to be quite shy, so shooting through an open window, out of a shed, or concealed within a hide will help you to get the best results.
How to photograph Snowdrops
These are often the first bulbs to appear, and quite often you can capture them in the snow for a more dramatic image. Snowdrops display a nodding white flower each carried on a single stem. The narrow, grey-green leaves appear around the base of the stem. It’s always quite exciting to see the first snowdrop as spring is on its way.
As the flowers are quite small, it’s definitely best to get down among them. Use a yoga mat, and if your camera has a flip screen, make use of it for lower angles. Snowdrops have the habit of bunching up, so I try to do an all or one approach. I’ll use a macro lens to focus on one flower, ideally one that doesn’t have any imperfections, and give it a nice backdrop. The other option is to use a wider lens to try and fit them all in. This could be a kit lens, or even a fisheye. Be mindful of exposure as the whites on the petals can often get blown out – as always, I suggest shooting in Raw format and keeping an eye on the histogram.
How to photograph a Wood mouse
While few people welcome rodents to their gardens, the fact is, you’re going to get them. Whether they sneak in at night or occasionally flit about in the day, mice, rats and even voles in rural areas will be about. The most common of these will be wood mice, which are golden-brown with a pale underside, large ears and eyes, and a long tail. In my previous house we had loads in the garden, though never found any indoors. They did, however, take a liking to my shed, and delighted in chewing holes in my photography hides and fishing rods.
I set up a camera trap to try and get a photo of the mice in action using a Camtraptions setup. I did get a few images, and have to say I grew to quite like them. I’m a big champion of the wild’s underdogs; these commonly overlooked species are vastly under-represented in photography, and worth a go.
Although February is a relatively quiet month there’s still plenty to get on with, and wildlife will still be visiting. This is a time to reflect on the spring, which isn’t far away and to get ready to enjoy the longer days filled with birdsong and flowers.