What a harsh winter this has been! As I write this in Thornhill, the temperature outside is still -19˚C but there are signs that the end of this frigid winter is near. The days are getting longer and the squirrels in the yard seem to be busier.
As a wildlife and nature photographer, I often shoot in winter and, even though I love the images I get, I can’t say I like it. So I’m really looking forward to working without gloves and not having my eyepiece fog up every time I inadvertently breath on it. So if you’re thinking the same thing but just starting out photographing birds, here are some tips that should help overcome some initial hurdles.
First of all, as the title states, start in your own backyard. You’ll be able to take your time without the logistics of having to haul around your gear. You can also get to know what species frequent your area and what their feeding patterns are. Which brings me to the first tip:
If you want to attract subjects, you have to give them a reason to come to you, and what they want most is food and water. If you haven’t done this before, it may take a week or two for them to “discover” your feeder and to establish a regular route to feed there, but feed they will. The only reason they won’t feed is if they feel threatened, for instance if there is a dog or cat running loose in the yard. In general, birds like to rest and look around to make sure the coast is clear before feeding so placing the feeder within easy range of a tree or fence will work best.
Plan your shoot!
By this I mean plan it as you would if you were doing a portrait. Where would you like the bird to be, where will you be positioned, what does the background look like and where is the light coming from. The ideal situation is to be positioned about 20-30 ft. from the feeder, facing north and with green foliage in the distance behind the feeder. But you don’t want pictures of birds on feeders so, give them a place to rest either above or beside the feeder such that the feeder won’t be in the shot. This can be a branch you’ve positioned near the feeder or an existing tree, just clear away leaves and other branches. You want a bird on a branch without other distracting foliage.
This is where it starts to get interesting. You’ll soon discover that photographing birds is one of the most technically challenging things you can do in photography. Birds are small, they’re skittish and generally wary of humans, they’re in constant motion and they’re fickle in their habits. You will never have too much lens for birds! I would suggest that, at a minimum, you’ll need 300mm on a crop sensor camera and 400mm on a full frame one. The good news is that there are a number of lens options in this range that won’t break the bank. On the Nikon side, I’m thinking of lenses like the 300mm f/4, the 80-400 f/5.6 and the 70-200mm f/4 with a teleconverter. If money is no object, the 600mm f/4 has long been the lens of choice and there is now an 800mm f/5.6 for the very well heeled. My personal favourite is the 200-400 f/4 with a 1.7x teleconverter because of the flexibility the zoom provides for framing. Next you’ll need a solid tripod with a smooth operating head. For birds you won’t be locking the head in position but leaving it somewhat loose so you can quickly reposition to find and frame your subject, so smooth operation is important. The best heads for this are gimbals from manufacturers like Wimberley, ProMedia Gear, Jobu and others. A couple of other options are the Acratech GP head (my ball head of choice) because it can be configured to work similar to a gimbal for lenses up to about 300mm. Another interesting option which I used when I first started is the Manfrotto Long Lens Support. It’s not as smooth as a true gimbal but it’s a fraction of the cost and does the job. Personally, I use an Induro tripod and the Jobu Pro2 gimbal head. As far as camera settings go, I get my best results at around f/8, 1/250 sec and adjust the ISO setting accordingly but experiment to get the best results with your lens and support combination. I usually shoot short bursts of 3 or 4 frames because birds are constantly making minute micro movements and will often cause blurring even at fairly high shutter speeds. Again, experiment and shoot plenty of frames – they’re free!
Patience my friend!
That’s right. We’ve built our “set”, set up our equipment, the light is perfect but where’s the talent? Well, as I mentioned earlier, birds are fickle. They keep us waiting. So get yourself something to sit on behind the camera and settle down. If you’ve done your research, you should know roughly what time of day various species feed in your area, so plan to be there ahead of them and wait for them to come to you. Initially, you’ll probably be frustrated because they may not feed when you expected or they may not land exactly where you’d like but have patience, observe their behaviour and keep at it. Adjust your position and time of day as you learn and enjoy some pleasant hours outdoors. The results will be worth it. Here are a few regular visitors to my backyard.
Red Breasted Nuthatch – Nikon D4, Nikon 200-400 f/4 with 1.7x Teleconverter @650mm, 1/500sec, f/6.7, ISO 1600
Common Grackle – Nikon D4, Nikon 200-400 f/4 with 1.7x Teleconverter @650mm, 1/60 sec, f/11, ISO 2000
Juvenile Red Winged Blackbird – Nikon D2Xs, Nikon 200-400 f/4 @330mm, 1/90 sec, f/8, ISO 400