Article and photos by OASIS member, Larry Hollar
If you’ve ever wished to have your own private bird photo studio (or simply a private bird sanctuary) in your own backyard, this dream is easier to achieve than you may have realized. My adopted state, Minnesota, has many birding hotspots, but to be there at the good birding hours is tough. I do love to go out to them but I also save time and have better photos from the yard. Birds are easy to attract with water, food and shelter. Once they are frequent visitors, plan your subject, background, camera and light.
There are seven factors, or seven variables in the equation. You have control of all seven factors. Control wild birds? Well, no, but you can anticipate where they will be. You will train your birds onto your scene.
Consistent water for drinking and bathing brings birds in close. There is a pond near our home, but birds prefer our fresh water. I have read online, “Be sure to have it falling to make noise” and, “Be sure it is still water or they will be afraid”. Both of these statements are true depending on the species.
Elaborate water features are expensive and they require maintenance. If you want one for your own pleasure, then it is easier to rationalize spending the money. For way less expense, lay down 30 square feet of pond liner. Make the water an inch or two deep. Surround it with decorative plants and bingo: you have a bird magnet AND scenes for your photos.
Our heated birdbath has survived two Minnesota winters so far. It formed icicles and birds were still in it. Only at -20F did it freeze up. A hose dripping into a pan and running down a slope will also work.
Get close to your subject with a blind. Do an internet search for ‘two man hunting blind’, they only cost $130 or so. Or wear camo and sit quietly in the bushes or even on the patio. Or hang camo material to hide behind.
Feeders work if they are squirrel and deer proof, and if you don’t have terrible problem birds. If you do, try a different food. Try a variety of foods, including “bird suet” for woodpeckers, jays and many others. A home-made peanut butter suet treat can be hidden in your scene to bring birds to your exact spot.
Native plants offer birds nectar, berries, insects and nuts. And they make natural scenes in which to photograph your targeted species. One tree I recommend is the Mountain Ash, the orange berries attract Cedar Waxwings. For a list of native plants in your region, visit the Audubon website. You will select flowers and shrubs that are pleasing to yourself as well as birds. Turtlehead and coneflowers of different colors are my suggestions. Also honeysuckles for hummingbirds.
See the above paragraph and plan to add a new shrub or tree every spring. Birds want ornamental grass or shrubs or trees within 15 feet or so of feeders. They need trees for resting and nesting. Plants that are native to your region require less input and birds are familiar with them. Once birds are familiar with your yard and feeders, they will cross an open area to a newly located feeder, giving you a chance at a bird-in-flight photo.
For much more on this topic, visit www.allaboutbirds.org and sign up for the course Growing Wild: Gardening for Birds and Nature.
A pro photographer’s indoor studio is flexible. Lights, backgrounds and props are quickly moved. Graduation and baby photos are taken in the same small place. Think of your yard in the same way. Flowers can be added, replaced or moved. Shrubs can be pruned and transplanted. I fill a large pot with flowers every spring. It is kept lightweight with peat moss instead of soil. It is mobile, so I can put it into the background of a scene. It is about 2’ wide and will hold 5 different colors of flower or foliage.
You can face to the east in the evening and to the west in the morning to keep the sun “over your shoulder”. That is the formula that works most often. Try having the sun shine on the side of the bird for drama. Use back light to give the bird a mysterious glow around the edges. Cloudy days are often great for photography. Plan for the kind of light that you want and need.
Your scene can have a background of clouds, blue sky, flowers, green foliage or lawn. It should be fairly plain and out of focus. This is more often achieved if you use a long lens and have the background “a good distance” away from the bird. That “good distance” is relative to your lens and f/stop.
Looking upwards at a bird works more often than looking down at one. So when handling the four factors mentioned in paragraph one, you need to plan background first, then the light, then the subject and finally the camera.
Yard photography is (usually) not taking a snapshot. You need to check the light. Adjust the camera. Train the bird. But first and foremost, have a background that does not distract from the subject.
There is no formula for distances because our cameras are all different. But here is one example that works. Have the sun shining on your back from about 93 million miles away. (I was the sun in our 2nd grade play!) Sit 15 feet from a hummingbird feeder. From the feeder to the background allow 50 feet.
Once the hummingbirds are used to your presence, replace the feeder with a flower. Soup up the flower with sugar water. A red tubular flower works best, but anything works as long as the feeder is gone.
Zoom way in, close is better than far. When you are done outside, have your camera close to a window or sliding glass door. Plan the settings or put it on automatic. Be prepared for the unexpected snapshot of the rare bird that your food, water and shelter have attracted.
Look at bird photos in magazines and on social media. How many of them are “bird on a stick”? This is far and away the most common form of bird photo, followed by “bird in water” and “bird on the ground”. No offense intended, I have ten thousand of them myself, many of which are keepers.
Make your shot more interesting by capturing the bird doing something. Capture unusual birds. Have the stick be a perch small enough for his feet to wrap around. Have the perch be interestingly covered with moss or lichen or vines. Dress up the scene with native flowers, foliage or grass. Set aside a lot of time to collect these adornments from your yard and wherever. Use large rocks, stumps and tree trunks. Pepper the props with hidden food. Study bird behavior. It is easier to let the bird train you than to train the bird.
One morning I saw a hummingbird at an attractive honeysuckle flower. The leaves and the light and the bird were a great match. So I considered the time of day that I’d seen more hummers, early morning. The sun comes from the east then, so I pointed my camera west. Seventy feet across the yard is a tree, its color would be a good background. I taped water-filled plastic vials to the post that normally holds the nectar feeder. While I was putting honeysuckle cuttings into the water, a hummingbird arrived. I sat down so that my camera’s angle of view was upward towards the tree, corrected settings in the camera, and was done with the shoot in thirty minutes.
Bring wild birds into your yard by planting native plants, especially those that provide food. Offer water and food every day of the year. Wait for or plan for appropriate light. Position your camera close to the subject in distance and in camera lens length. Check that the background is not too busy, that it does not distract from the star of the show.