One of the easiest ways to hone your skills photographing birds is to practice in the comfort and convenience of your yard. While simply hanging up a couple of feeders and putting a birdbath or flat dish for water can and will attract birds to your yard, those options don’t always lend themselves to the most attractive photos.
By building a back yard “studio” you can control the setting, minimize distractions in your photos and also help out the feathered friends in the neighborhood.
To attract the birds you need three things; food, water, and shelter. To make a “bird studio” you will utilize these three things, with extra thought given to how the light falls, when it is at its best, what position you will be in when photographing the birds, and the best ways to minimize background distractions.
Your goal is to have a natural looking area, with minimum background distractions like multiple branches, the neighbor’s fence, the dog house, swingset etc. With just a little time and effort you can set small areas within your yard that will allow you take advantage of things such a patio doors, windows, a vine covered trellis, or shrubbery that you can use to “hide” yourself and your camera from the birds.
To get started with your own backyard bird studio, you should first start feeding the birds regularly to encourage the birds to develop a habit of visiting regularly. Although many stop feeding birds in the spring and summer I continue to keep my feeders full year around. By keeping food available all the time many birds will become regulars and will often become more and more tolerant of a bit of human presence and make capturing those images even easier. Carefully consider you feeder placement so that you can easily place perches close to the feeders yet still in a good location for photographs. Bear in mind you will likely be shooting within 15 feet or so and in general will want the sun at your back or a 45 degree angle to the perch.
I can’t stress enough the need for a distraction free background. Background elements should be as plain as possible and as far back as possible so they will be out of focus.
You will need to collect a variety of sticks, twigs, limbs etc. to use for perches. I like to change them frequently so all my images don’t look the same. Our house is surrounded by trees, and every summer storm knocks down a few limbs and small branches, the bigger pieces I salvage from the fence row or when trees are trimmed. I like having some older, larger, snaggly, looking logs handy to set out for the woodpeckers, nut hatches etc. to climb and root suet, peanut butter etc. By using existing cavities, loose bark, or even drilling a few holes, you can stuff these with treats that will encourage the birds to pose and hammer away.
After you’ve gathered up items for the perches, experiment with placing them at different angles and in different spots around the feeders and feeding station. One easy way is to use a large flower pot filled with old worn out potting soil or sand. Simply stick you perch in the pot and position it to suit you. The important part is to keep things looking natural and simple. Too many perches and you have clutter that will distract from the bird image. Be sure to allow the birds time to get accustomed to the perch and to begin using it with regularity.
Don’t give the birds too many options of where to land; You want to keep the number of perches to a minimum so that you can easily have your camera set up and aimed at that particular perch. This is infinitely easier when you are able to predict where they will land and how they will be positioned. If the perch has umpteen little branches, forks etc. you may find you are missing shots, as the birds hopscotch all over the place. Keep it simple. If the branch has leaves you can remove a few in just a small section and birds will naturally perch in that open space.
If you are trying for bigger birds (like blue jays, wood peckers, thrushes) you can use a thicker perch and drill some holes in it to fill with suet or seeds.
If you have small chair style blind that you will be using, place your blind about 15 to 20 feet from the perch (close to the minimum focus distance of your lens) and leave it there as much as you possibly can so that it becomes part of the landscape to the birds, and they become accustomed to it. A lattice covered with vines can also work to your advantage as a blind or hide. Simply open up an area in the lattice for your lens to fit and you are set.
One very quick way to start is to set up a platform style feeder, brush around it a little to conceal edges if need be, and using the flower pot method above plant some perches. Just an aside, it’s best to keep the perch proportional to the bird – the small finches and sparrows look better on thinner more delicate perches while larger birds will look better on perches suited to their size.
Add a birdbath, or small fountain nearby, and you will increase the number and variety of birds that visit.
When I set up my first bird studio, since I already had some fast growing evergreen winter creeper that was rapidly taking over the deck on the south side I set about trimming it back a little – opening holes to place small flat bowls of seed and water dishes on the deck rail, (allowing the dishes to remain hidden in the photo), adding some fallen branches at advantageous angles as extra perches, and in the summer I trim back more of the creeper and put in pots of blooming flowers to help attract the butterflies and hummingbirds as well. I also have a mulberry tree that grows up through my deck (oh the mess, but so worth it) and do a little creative pruning each year when it starts to make berries to have a relatively cleared area to photograph the birds that flock in to snatch up the mulberries.
This set up works especially well for me, as in the winter I can sit inside and shoot either through the patio doors (on the rare occasions all the dog nose prints are cleaned off the glass), or open the patio doors just enough to poke the lens out. Additionally, just for fun, I mount a trail camera on the side of the house facing the “bird studio”.
It certainly helps that the deck at my house faces east and south, giving me that great morning light when the birds are their most active feeding.
Over the years I’ve created several different “bird studios” in my yard – some near the open field edges, some along the winter evergreens, around a brush pile, near the fountain and son on. Each year I add another little spot or refine one I’ve been using awhile.
Here are some extra resources to help you get on the road to capturing some great bird images right from the comfort of home!
Photo Migrations – Building a Backyard Bird Studio
Bird Photography Near Feeders
Organizing Your Backyard For Bird & Other Wildlife Photography
Baby animal pictures will melt your heart. No matter the species, we are all hard pressed to find cuter subjects out there than baby animals. Here are 5 tips for taking adorable baby animal pictures:
1. Show How Small They Are
Utilize things in the environment close to the babies to give and idea of size. This often achieved by including the mother in the photo. If the animals are tame, versus babies in the wild, you can use props such as boots, shoes, duck decoys, etc. to show how small they are. A favorite pose of mine for the duck dog puppies is to have the new proud owner don her waterfowl hunting coat and just have the puppies head poking out above the zipper.
Buddy is soooo big and was sooo tolerant of Willie when he was an annoying little guy, it made these images easy to grab
2. Catch Them With An Open Mouth
Whether it’s a nest full of baby birds or a pile of fox or coyote pups, those big open baby mouths have a 5+ cute factor. Sometimes those mouths are open and begging for food, sometimes it’s yawning Get a shot of the peak of the yawn when the mouth is wide open and the eyes are closed. The cute level goes up several notches with yawns.
3. Capture Them Playing
One of the reasons people love baby animals is because they’re goofy and so very playful. Sit quietly and be patient. Bang off as many frames as you can while they are in play mode. I repeat - take as many pictures possible of them in action. You can always easily delete the non-keeper images, and you don’t want to run the risk of missing that perfect play moment. Your goal is to capture all the facets of the babies and the behaviors that we humans find so touching, and photos like this are a guarantee.
This image is courtesy of my dear friend and outstanding wildlife photographer Stacey Huston, owner of A Focus in the Wild. You must visit her site and view her breathtaking images of the beautiful American west and all the creatures it holds.
4. Mother and Children
It’s a visual reminder of how young the baby is while also showing what it will grow into to. While theoretically, you could get this with any adult of its species, there is just something special about the bond between a mother and child that can’t be faked. Images of nuzzling, licking, feeding are all good ways to show not only the behavior but the bond as well.
Obviously I stayed a fair distance back and used the 400 for this. I had no desire to tangle with Mama Bison!
5. Be Mindful of Mama
Mothers are fiercely protective of their young regardless of the species. Use long focal length lenses; keep a fair amount of distance between yourself and your subjects, especially with wild babies. When working with dogs and puppies, always allow the mother dog to earn your trust before you start invading her space and handling her babies. Even the most docile of pets can become aggressive if they feel their young are threatened.
One of the scariest moments afield I have ever had was photographing elk. I had no idea when I topped a small hill that dropped off into a creek bottom that here was an elk calf resting on the other side in the tall grass. Mama Elk was over the rise and in my face FAST! While I’m sure it was only about 15 minutes, the standoff that we had seemed like it went one for about three weeks. That mama elk was within arm’s reach and she was huge! Should you find yourself in a similar situation with an animal mother; DO NOT turn and run, this could likely trigger the mother to attack. Just freeze, and slowly, slowly take one step at a time backwards until the mother feels comfortable that you are leaving her babies be. Be aware too, that mother birds will often swoop and dive at you. I had a sharp shinned hawk make off with my hat one day while shooting photos of her fledglings. Needless to say, I was thankful that her talons only connected with the hat, and not my head.
It’s Mother’s Day, so why not take the camera and Mom both out today to do a little wildlife watching and see what kind of mother and baby images you can find!
What the heck you say? Where was the Foto Friday post? Honestly it was floating around in my head. The sad truth is is - I got up too late on Friday morning, and we had to race off for early morning fasting labs, and several different clinic visits at the VA Medical Center in Marion. No problem I thought - I’ll get it up when I get home.
Suffice it to say, the VA does not move at the speed of light. Especially when one is required to change clinics, doctors, etc. due to changes within the VA system. Normally our trips to the VAMC run like a well oiled machine, and the care is excellent; however yesterday seemed to be one of those comedy of error days. Anyone who has ever served our country will completely understand the phrase, “hurry up and wait” . This was all compounded by the fact that last week that old hippie farmer fella that lives here had an unfortunate incident with a log, a big chunk of iron and his hand, that required the initial care be performed by those handy dandy hand surgeons at St. Louis University Hospital. Just try coordinating care between the VA and a large university hospital. I dare you!
Then on the trip home I beset with these kinds of distractions -
And the further distraction of the old hippie farmer fella who decided to take full advantage of a day out of a tractor seat to tour all the outdoor hotspots between Marion and our house on the way home!
By the time I drug my carcass in the door at dark last night, I was just too done in to to type.
So, my apologies, and stay tuned for the Foto Friday tips tomorrow - it will be just the ticket for Mother’s Day!