ARTICLES: BACKYARD PHOTO STUDIO
by Brian E. Small
There are so many different ways we enjoy birds and photographing them in your backyard is near the top of my list. Backyard birding includes so many ways to appreciate birds and their activities. Observing, studying and researching, sound recording, videotaping, drawing and painting, writing and listing are just some of the things you can enjoy by creating a backyard photo studio. Setting up a backyard photography studio is easy. Basically all you need are some strategically placed feeders and/or water features, some perches and your camera.
You do not have to be a seasoned professional bird photographer to take magazine cover quality photos in your own yard. You would be surprised by the number of photos you see in print that were taken in backyards all around the country. Creating a backyard photo studio is also the best way I know of learning how to photograph birds.
You can experiment in your yard with so many different photographic techniques and then apply what you've learned to photographing in the field. It is much better to make your mistakes in your backyard, than when your looking through your viewfinder at that once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity in the field. Through trial and error in your yard, you can learn a lot about how to photograph birds and you will gain the confidence you need to photograph in a variety of situations when you go to that famous park or refuge you dreamed about visiting. Why not set-up a feeding station the next time you camp in a wilderness area or state park campground? A feeder or water-drip can be set-up in a matter of minutes, so you could even photograph for a single day. Remember, almost any kind of photography you do in your yard can also be done while you are traveling to new destinations!
With a little preparation and planning, it is easy to create beautiful bird photographs in your yard without a great deal of money invested. In fact, you may already own some of the tools you need to begin photographing your backyard birds. The basics would include a 35mm SLR camera, an 80-200mm or 70-300mm lens, a sturdy tripod and some film. If you own a flash unit, a 1.4X teleconverter or a 400mm lens then even better.
Assuming you have the camera gear you will need, it is time to plan out what, where, when and how you want to photograph in your yard. There are many variables to consider for a backyard photo studio. Landscaping, feeders, water features, dust baths, nest boxes, nesting materials, snags and perches, lighting, blinds, backgrounds and season of the year are just some of what you will want to think about. I know that sounds like a long list to account for, but once you have a system you like, you will see it is very easy to photograph almost any bird that comes into your yard.
To get started, begin to set your feeders and other attractions around the yard. Give the birds some time to find them and get used to coming before you start your photography. Remember that a variety of food sources will attract a variety of bird species and you will notice that different birds will use different foods. Try seed feeders, suet feeders and peanut butter feeders. Many backyard bird species enjoy raisins, black-oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, acorns, cracked corn, millet, thistle, safflower seeds and a multitude of other foods. Always keep your food sources clean because this will help you avoid the spread of avian diseases, attract new birds and help keep your "regulars" coming back for more. Take note of what birds come to what feeders and which species are present as the seasons change. By doing this, you can anticipate where and when to expect the birds you want to photograph.
Landscaping your yard for birds is another great way to attract a diversity of species for photography. A variety of flowering plants, especially those that produce nectar, will surely bring birds into your yard. Hummingbirds will certainly find nectar-producing flowers, but don't be surprised to discover orioles, warblers, vireos and others at your flowers. Also give consideration to planting shrubs and hedges because they provide food, cover and even nesting sites. Live trees can also provide birds with fruits, seeds, cover, nesting sites and roosting sites. I even know a few photographers that have "planted" a snag or dead tree in their yard to attract woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds. If your yard borders on a forest, woodland, marsh, field, desert or other natural area, you may be able to take advantage of this adjacent property for photographing as well.
Another great way to enjoy your backyard birds is to photograph the progression of the nesting cycle. By setting up different size nest boxes around your yard in spring and summer, you may encourage a number of different species to nest on your property. Bluebirds, wrens, nuthatches, small owls, swallows and kestrels are just a few of the more reliable users of nest boxes. Photographing courtship displays, territorial battles, nest building activities, feeding of the young and other behaviors can provide you with wonderful opportunities for dramatic photographs. Along with nest boxes, try setting out a variety of materials for birds to gather and then use as nesting material. You can photograph birds collecting sticks, string, cotton, yarn, wool and even dryer lint. A word of caution however, be very mindful of too much disturbance of the birds during this sensitive period because no photograph is worth causing a nesting attempt to fail!
When you place your food sources, water features and perches for photography, make sure to be conscious of the background area behind the birds you will be photographing. You want to avoid any hard lines, shiny spots or other distracting elements in your photographs. A cluttered bush, chain link fence, window or other brightly colored object will detract attention from the subjects of your photos. You want the birds in your pictures to "pop" off the film. In other words, the most pleasing compositions will be those that isolate your subject from anything else. Therefore, try to find an area in your yard that creates a medium-toned background that has no distracting elements. Light greens, light browns and blue sky seem to work best. Remember the old photography adage that says "if it is not adding to the photograph then it is subtracting".
Along with the background, you need to be aware of different lighting conditions because this may be the most important consideration of all. Bear in mind that the basis of all photography is how you capture light. For dramatic crisp photos that show lots of detail, you want to photograph in an area of the yard that puts a near-equal amount of light on the subject and the background. If your subject is in direct sun and the background is more than two f-stops under that exposure, the background may be rendered black and the resulting image will appear to have been taken at night. Keep in mind that most backyard birds are diurnal and photos of them having black backgrounds tend to look unnatural. Also, your lighting conditions will change as the day passes and as the seasons change. It may require that you experiment some to get it just right. A good idea that a friend recommended is keeping a journal of your backyard lighting conditions, and what birds are coming over the course of a year. This will provide you with an excellent resource to help plan future work in your backyard photo studio.
Next, you want to put perches near the various food and water sources. Usually, I will place a perch for photography within two to three feet of the feeder. For small perching birds, I try to use a fairly small diameter perch. A small bird on a big perch does not look that great! These perches will provide your birds with a photographic staging area to land on as they approach. The perch will also give you the option of photographing the bird on something natural looking or on a nice clean feeder or water feature. Putting your feeders close to bushes, shrubs or trees is a good idea because you will be providing the birds with cover before and after they visit your yard.
Once you and the birds are comfortable with the backyard set-up, consider where your camera will go. With a 200mm or 300mm lens, you need to be fairly close to your smaller subjects like chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, siskins, wrens, sparrows, warblers and finches to produce a good sized image. For larger birds like jays, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, thrushes, grosbeaks, doves, cardinals, orioles and bluebirds, you can be somewhat farther back. However, regardless of the species you are photographing, you want to conceal you and your equipment so the birds will approach without fear. The best way of doing that is by using a blind.
A blind is simply something, anything that hides you and your camera equipment. Blinds come in many shapes, sizes and designs and I think the best bet is to make one yourself. For a backyard photo studio, you can make a simple blind from a variety of materials. One of the easiest and cheapest ways of making a blind is by visiting your nearest camping supply or army surplus store and buying some lightweight mesh camouflage netting. Just cut a hole for your lens to peek out, throw the netting over you and your equipment, and you have an instant portable blind.
Another idea is to build a more permanent blind out of plywood. It should be small and lightweight so you can move it around the yard to different feeding stations or water features. You want a blind to be mobile so you can photograph at different times of day in various parts of your backyard. As the daylight moves around your yard, you can move with it. If you want to buy a professionally made mobile blind, there are a number of manufactures I can recommend. Nature's Reflections of Rescue, CA (916-989-4765), L.L.Rue Enterprises of Blairstown, N.J. (800-734-2568) and DB Designs of Lakewood, CA (800-496-3129) all sell high quality ready-made blinds. Another great source for a myriad of outdoor camouflage-type products is Cabela's mail order of Sidney, NE (800-237-4444).
Once your blind is in place in the backyard, the birds will quickly become accustomed to it. One important point to remember is that birds are sensitive to sound and movement more than anything else. Whichever type of blind you use, make sure it does not have any moving parts flapping in the wind. Another possibility is to photograph from inside your home or garage. I even have a friend, and fellow WildBird contributor, who likes to photograph out his bathroom window! The point is that as long as the birds cannot see or hear you, anyplace will work.
Now that you are ready to photograph, I recommend setting your camera at eye-level to the subject. By doing this, your creating a feeling of intimacy in your photos and of having a relationship with the birds. By looking your photo subjects right in the eye, you are drawing yourself into their world. If called for, you may even try setting your blind on scaffolding to get up high and photograph birds in the trees. At times, I like to photograph small groups of birds as well as single portraits. This way you can capture how the birds are relating to each other. Also, there is no rule that says you have to fill the frame with the subject alone. An unusual perch, an interesting background, a group of birds at a feeder, a fruiting tree full of birds, a pool of reflecting water or even an unusual feeder can create interesting composition in your photographs as well. Remember that your backyard can be your own private nature reserve and outdoor studio, and you can experiment with all kinds of new ways to photograph there.
To produce the kind of sharp photographs that isolate your subject and create a soft, out of focus background, keep in mind the important relationship between shutter speeds, f-stops and depth of field. The larger the f-stop (smaller number), the less depth of field you will have, thereby creating an out-of-focus background. If you want to include more background detail, use a smaller f-stop (larger number). Remember that as you add or subtract light by changing f-stops, you will be adjusting your shutter speed accordingly. Try experimenting with slower shutter speeds to create blurred motion photographs as well. Do not be afraid to experiment with numerous combinations because you will learn more about photography by trial and error than any other way, and what your learn in your backyard can then apply to photographing in the field.
Electronic flash can also be a useful tool in your backyard photography. By experimenting on the birds in my yard, I have perfected a portable dual-flash system that goes with me every time I travel the country looking for new birds to photograph. To get started, you may want to try using a single flash unit in your outdoor studio. By placing an off-camera flash directly opposite the direction of the sun, and aimed at your subject, you can add light to parts of the bird that may be in shadow. Try using the flash as a "fill" by setting it one or two stops under the ambient light exposure and you will give your photographs a more natural appearance. This is a great way to illuminate every feather detail of a bird and to add some sparkle to your photos. It is especially useful for dark-plumaged birds because your film alone cannot register detail in very light and very dark areas of the same photograph. If you decide to add a 1.4X teleconverter to your lens, the addition of a flash can really come in handy. By using a teleconverter you can multiply the size of your image by 40%, but you will pay a price by losing one f-stop from your exposure. To compensate for this lost light, you can add more light by using an electronic flash.
Creating your own backyard photo studio will provide you with a wonderful way to hone and refine your photography skills. The backyard is also the best place to test out new photo equipment and techniques. Your outdoor studio will give you total control over your photographs and best of all; the birds come right up close to you. Also, photographing the birds in your backyard is a great way to document what birds are in your community, and I have found no better way to learn what birds really look like than by studying photographs taken in my backyard.