Autumn and winter are the best times to photograph the birds in your garden, and Drew Buckley’s guide will help you do it right
There are many public and private hides around the country that offer close up views of wildlife, but one of the best ways to photograph wildlife close up is to let it come to you.
There’s no better way to do that than to make your own feeding station in your garden. You don’t need woodland or vast acres of land – a small, empty outdoor area will suffice.
Autumn to winter is the best time to capture the feathered visitors to your garden. With days getting shorter and their natural food sources slowly diminishing, they venture far and wide looking for food.
At this time of year I’m constantly out restocking the bird feeders in my garden. So if you’re interested in attracting wildlife, the best bet is simply to grab yourself some bird feeders. Photographing your feathered visitors isn’t as tricky as you might think; you just need to plan the site carefully.
Feeders and food
Try in-flight shots by pre-focusing on a log
Bird feeders come in all shapes and sizes and you could really go to town on them. They can be found at most homeware shops and garden centres. You don’t need to go super-extravagant on them, as it’s best to spend the money on better quality food instead. Birds can be just as choosy as us humans, and different types of food will attract different species, so make sure to include a variety of food types and you’ll see a variety of different birds.
Birds on feeders don’t make for particularly attractive images, so try to photograph them on nearby branches
Wild bird seed mix is the most common bird food you’ll find in stores, and this attracts a wide range of species. How you put the food out will change what type of birds feed on it – placing it in a hanging feeder will attract a range of birds such as finches, tits and perhaps a hovering robin, however putting it on a ground table instead will provide food for floor-feeding birds such as dunnocks, chaffinches, pigeons/doves, blackbirds and even the odd pheasant in my experience.
Next up is the classic bag of peanuts. Whether they’re in a mesh feeder or scattered on the ground or a log, most birds love them. Nyjer seed has come into the market recently as it’s a very popular food for finches, goldfinches in particular. The problem with Nyjer seed though is that it’s very small in size, so you’ll need a specific feeder to accommodate it compared to the general bird seed mix.
Due to birds being fussy, you’ll usually find a patch of discarded seed under your feeders over time as they toss it aside. As Nyjer seed is quite pricey compared to the others, it’s worth purchasing catching trays that attach to the base of the feeder to collect wastage.
Onto the chunkier foods there are fat balls and suet blocks, which the birds will love as the temperatures drop as these provide them with much-needed fat for their reserves, keeping them warm through the winter nights. Long-tailed, blue, great and coal tits will love these, as will jackdaws, magpies and starlings. Small birds have to eat more than 90% of their body weight per day in colder months so your garden treats will come as a much-welcome addition. You can also get dried or live mealworms as a treat; wrens and thrushes will be more attracted to these. Lastly there are good old fruits like apples, which jays, redwings and fieldfare will feast on. You’re best off lodging these into a nice mossy log, or just on the ground among some autumn leaves. So, as you can see, by having a diverse selection of ways to feed the birds, and plenty of different types of food, you’ll ultimately attract more species.
You can also use natural branches to hang feeders
Picking your spot
Next is choosing where to set up. You’ll want to keep the feeding station in roughly the same position throughout the next couple of months so birds get used to it over time, meaning you’ll start to see an increase in visitor numbers.
Also check out how the sun travels around the site. The worst thing you could do is get everything all in place only for it to be in constant shade. I’d say try to face the site roughly north so you have most of the direct light on the birds throughout the day.
The best thing you can do is install a portable hide such as the Wildlife Watching Dome Hideand put it a decent distance away from the feeders. It’ll keep you warm and dry, well protected from wind and weather, meaning you can be out all the time in it. Plus, the birds will start to think of it as part of the landscape.
As an alternative to a hide you can use your kitchen or house window instead, but watch out for glass imperfections and reflections, both of which can ruin shots.
An example of a pop-up hide
When setting up your feeders, plan with your backgrounds in mind – you want them as lovely and clean as possible. The shallow depth of field and wide lens apertures you’ll use will help to blur the background by keeping them out of focus but it’s best to avoid patterned walls or messy areas as these will only distract from your subjects.
Test out your camera and lens combination that you will use in the garden and find the perfect focusing distance at which to frame your subjects. Don’t pick a distance that’s too far out and will mean you’ll need to crop loads.
Remember, this is a custom-made environment for photography, so you have complete control over pretty much everything. If the birds are too small in the frame then move the feeders and perches closer.
Constructing your feeder
I use cheap washing line props for my feeder stands as they’re adjustable in height and have a hook on the end for the feeder to hang. Just jam them into the ground and you’re set. Adjustable height props are a great addition as the camera will be around three or four feet from the ground when you’re seated, so changing the height of the feeder in relation to the camera position will affect the angle at which you shoot and ultimately what background will be. Use this to your advantage by picking different backgrounds to change the colour wash that will be created in the final shot.
The next trick to getting the shots is getting the birds to sit a natural-looking perch. I’ll regularly collect nice-looking, lichen-covered branches or mossy logs on walks out for use as natural perches.
Bigger logs can be installed into the ground for heavier birds. For woodpeckers you can install a vertical log (hopefully with some greenery such as ivy or moss), drill holes into the sides that are perpendicular to the camera and place peanuts or fat inside. This way you’ll get a lovely natural image of the bird and the holes won’t show in the photo.
A prop to hold the feeder in place
Installing the perches
With the stands in place, hanging some peanut or wild bird seed feeders on them will attract the birds but the downside is that birds on a feeder tend not to look very photogenic. Strapping natural perches to your stands is the trick to getting prettier shots. Something as simple thing as using a few cable ties will give waiting birds a chance to rest nearby and you the opportunity to get your shots.
If you’ve got a photogenic tree nearby, this can also work, but as there will likely be a lot of branches for the birds to choose from you’ll probably end up flinging your lens around all over the place trying to get them in frame. If possible, the best way is to limit where birds can perch so they’ll always use the option you want them to.
Drill holes into a branch side-on for woodpeckers, and choose colourful, out-of-focus backgrounds
Equipment and settings
A long lens is best here, as some birds won’t tolerate close proximity human presence. While shooting through a window isn’t ideal, it can work nicely to give you a temporary hide and allow you to get good results. Try to use a telephoto lens with a maximum zoom of at least 20omm so as not to disturb the birds, and also choose one that has a wide aperture, f/4 for example. This means in good light, it will return some good fast shutter speeds to freeze the birds in action.
Shutter speed is important with birds as they can move quickly, and the slightest head nod can appear blurry if you’re not using a fast enough shutter speed. Switch over to Shutter Priority mode and use at least 1/1000sec shutter for best results. Camera shake is a factor when using long lenses due to the decreased field of view, so either use a tripod with a very smooth panning head, or turn the lens’ Image Stabilisation mode on to reduce any blurring in your images. This will help if reduced light forces you to slow your shutter speed.
For these two images, by moving the same branch around I’ve generated two differently coloured backgrounds
With bird portraits, you’re looking for a clean image with a nicely blurred and colourful background. Watch out for anything distracting in the background, or a branch bisecting a bird, as neither makes for a nice image. Also, getting to eye-level is just as important, so choosing the right branches and adjusting the prop to be the same level as your shooting position is critical. Don’t forget there may be a squirrel or two lurking around now that there’s a good supply of food, so feel free to create decent perches for them. After all, they’re hungry too!
About the Author
Drew Buckley is a multi-award winning landscape and wildlife photographer based in Pembrokeshire, Wales. He's authored many books and runs his own photography workshops in Pembrokeshire and on Skomer Island in the summer months. Check out the availability calendar on his website to book a workshop. Visit his website, find him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.