We may need to stay home throughout April, but there’s still plenty of wildlife photography to be done! Tom Mason offers some tips
There are fantastic wildlife images to be had in your back garden. All images by Tom Mason
We find ourselves in unprecedented times – locked down at home, away from our regular photographic subjects. While at home over the next few weeks – possibly months – it’s a better time than ever to start on a garden wildlife photography project!
Whether you have a large garden with masses of space, or a relatively small urban balcony with a view of the neighbourhood, you can attract and encourage wildlife into your home. In doing so, not only do you provide safe space for nature, you can also engineer and create some perfect conditions for wildlife photography that can often lead to some really top-class images. So, in this month’s calendar, I’m going to talk through some of the ways you can increase the number and types of animals visiting your outdoor space, and explain how to work with one of the most common subjects: garden birds.
Gardening for wildlife
Overly manicured gardens with big lawns and tight borders might be to human tastes, however this kind of highly engineered environment lacks much of what wildlife needs to thrive. In order to have more wildlife visiting your outdoor space, you need to increase diversity, with a focus on native plants and areas of rough to provide safe havens for insects, birds and mammals. Now, of course, it’s all relative and depends on the size of your garden, but setting aside a corner, edge or even a large flowerpot for native, wildlife-loving plants can do wonders.
Making your garden wildlife-friendly has the added benefit of making it look gorgeous!
When it comes to vegetation, cultivating an area of rough meadow-type habitat can allow you to welcome and sustain a great diversity of insects and other animals. Planting native flowers not only provides food for these creatures, but also creates great macro photography opportunities! Springtime species such as snake’s head fritillaries, cowslips and primroses are all gorgeous flowers for any garden, with such great character, and are also being great for wildlife.
With such great flowers, you'll have photographic opportunities even when the wildlife isn't around
In these areas, refrain from cutting the grass, and if possible, spread some wild grass seed to bulk out the biodiversity. The longer wild varieties are great for insect life and small mammals, which in turn provides food for larger species and predators too. Who knows, you could get lucky and see owls visiting for an evening snack!
Natural weeds are also brilliant. Stinging nettles, for example, are one of my favourites – that classic itch is a sure sign of spring! But these plants offer food and shelter for all kinds of butterflies and insects, making them great places for insect photography later in the summer when the other activity has died down!
If you don’t have space for a wildlife patch, a large pot or old butler sink will do, and even the smallest areas of natural vegetation will encourage and draw native species close to home, providing you with photographic subjects, and providing nature with just that little bit of extra room to thrive!
Don't be afraid to get down for low-angle shots.
Homes for wildlife
To take things a step further, providing purpose-built homes is another great way to welcome wildlife into the back yard, be it for birds, mammals or insects. Bird boxes are a great place to start, and if you get them up soon, they might even be used this spring! There are various types to choose from, and which one you go for will often determine which species ends up using them. The standard nestbox with a small 50p-sized hole is ideal for blue tits and great tits, while an open-fronted “post box” style of nestbox is more suitable for robins. If you lack garden space and live in an urban area, it might be better to go for a longer “multi” box – these are ideal for sparrows or starlings. Or you could look at getting swift boxes or house martin ledges installed in the soffits. The joy of watching swifts and house martins on a summer’s evening makes it well worth putting in the effort now!
If you can’t house them directly, providing material for birds to make their own nests also encourages them in. Specialist holders can be purchased for wool or horsehair, but human hair pulled from a hairbrush is also great material for birds lining their nests!
You can also make homes for mammals and insects. Hedgehog houses positioned under a bush at the back of the garden may provide welcome respite for a spiny critter, and simple pipes filled with bamboo make excellent homes for solitary bees to nest. Each one makes a home for some wildlife in your garden, as well as a new photographic subject!
So, a great project to kick off your garden wildlife photography is garden birds. Often I’d focus on these a little later in the year for the winter photography season, but the early spring is also a good time to tempt subjects in for photography. From common species like blue tits and great tits, to some of the more exciting birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches, the garden is a great place to develop your portfolio. The key here is to spend time engineering shots, with pre-designed perches and nice clean backgrounds, for more polished images than would be possible out in the wild.
Experiment with different compositions and angles
Attract the subjects
When it comes to attracting the birds into the garden, food and water are simple ways to get your subjects playing ball. Feeder stations provide an easy way to bring a variety of birds in, while water offers opportunities to catch bathing and drinking behaviours. One of the simplest setup designs is the movable feeder post, which allows for the hanging of a variety of feeders (often a mix of peanuts and fat balls provide for good subject diversity) as well as a location for attaching and positioning perches for those natural images.
You can't go wrong with a good old-fashioned bird feeder!
We are looking for clean simple compositions with simple backgrounds. Having the feeder post in position, we can attach a range of sticks and twigs in order to emulate natural perches. Reusable cable ties are a good way to attach new perches securely, allowing you to try out different ideas for a range of different shots. One golden rule is to find perches that match the size of the bird’s feet. Small birds on big branches don’t look as natural as on the smaller perches they can wrap their toes around, whilst larger subjects on small branches look equally odd!
Pre-focusing on the perch means you'll be ready when the subject arrives
For backgrounds, you’ll want to have a decent amount of clean space behind your chosen perch location: around 5 metres or so when shooting at f/5.6. Move things around to find the best colours and the cleanest look. If you want to mix things up, a hessian sheet sprayed with subtle colours can make for a simple makeshift background that you can switch in and out as needed. Failing that, bed linen also works – just peg it off behind the perch at a distance and you’ve got a brand new set! You can use the existing surroundings as well; capturing birdlife in the urban environment can be really interesting, framing them between buildings and human structures for a different style of image than the cleaner portrait.
One of my favourite garden visitors is the great spotted woodpecker. Images in the field can be hard to come by, with the birds difficult to approach, but when they visit a feeder regularly it provides you with a great chance to make some images. One simple idea for a natural-looking image is to drill holes into an old log and stuff them with nuts. The woodpecker will often spend a while digging them out, offering some great moments to make images. Old staghorn oak makes for some natural-looking images when paired with a lush, dark green background, or you can use some silver birch for a totally different, yet still natural look.
A little patience resulted in this image of the great spotted woodpecker
In most cases, setting your camera up in a comfortable location is desirable, especially if you’ll be shooting for many hours. Working from a window overlooking the outdoor space means you can stay indoors while shooting, and of course have access to your laptop, kettle and other entertainments when the activity is a little slow!
With regard to camera choice, you really can work with anything from a point-and-shoot compact to a pro-spec system camera. A longer lens will certainly be advantageous, but with the birds getting comfortable over many days, a 200mm lens can easily be enough, especially if you pre-focus on branches and trigger with a remote release. This of course also opens up opportunities for wide-angle images, another world of possibilities for the back-garden wildlife photographer! If you want to take things a little further, and your outdoor space lacks the perfect morning or evening light, working with artificial flash can open doors for shooting possibilities. A touch of fill-flash at -2EV if you’re working with TTL, or a low power setting in manual, can add a kick to images and is handy when balancing out harsher daylight.
With the garden planted for wildlife and opportunities set up for images, being stuck at home doesn’t have to be the end of the world for us wildlife photographers! With so many potential images on the doorstep, being focused in terms of subjects and locations can really help to funnel creativity and develop your photographic eye for the future. So, get out there, get planting, and set up some amazing images right on your doorstep!
About the Author