One of the best places to work on your photographic skills, capture lots of action, and build a nice portfolio of passerine subjects is right in your own backyard. There are many excellent books and online resources dedicated to bird feeding, so rather than replicate that here, I will focus on things you’ll want to pay attention to for photography.
Before setting up your bird feeders, spend a few days paying attention to the light in your yard. What does it look like in the morning versus the afternoon? How about when it is cloudy versus sunny? Decide the locations of your feeders based on the type of light you envision shooting in, and note the direction you’ll face and time of day it occurs. Where I live in Oregon, I position myself for overcast light in the morning, and my shooting direction and location is dictated primarily by an opening in my tree canopy, which gives the brightest directional light. If you live in the desert of Arizona, you’ll probably expect sunshine and decide to shoot toward the west in the morning with the rising sun behind you. Everyone’s yard will be different.
Once you have an idea of what direction you’ll be shooting and what parts of your yard get the best light, you’ll see what your options are for backgrounds. Try to place your feeders at least several yards from the background, or more depending on the look you are going for. Generally, the further away the background is from your feeders, the better. However, some species require a bit of cover to be comfortable and won’t venture out to feeders that are too exposed.
More Photography Advice
It is usually best to work from a blind. Some birds like chickadees and nuthatches are fairly tolerant and will continue to come to your feeders even if you sit in the open, but many other species won’t. If you are concealed, you may be lucky enough to have something special like a Sharp-shinned Hawk perch close by. A pop-up blind that you can move around for different lighting, perches, and backgrounds, like the Tragopan V PLUS, is a great option for this type of shooting. (Note: Tragopan is a French company just moving into other markets. I am so impressed by them that I am currently their North American representative. I’ll be recommending some of their products, in addition to other brands, in these pages because, in my opinion, they’re some of the best available.)
Food Placement and Perches
Strategize about how you can manipulate the movement of birds by limiting food sources and available perches so that action is concentrated where you want it. Birds tend to stage or wait on a convenient perch until a feeder becomes free of other birds or until they’re done surveying the area. Use this to your advantage. Consider placing food so that it is not visible in your photographs but gets birds to perch where you want them to. Some photographers make the perch itself an ornate addition to a photograph. These types of images can look contrived, especially when your portfolio is full of them. I try to provide perches that are natural and attractive but not overdone.
Bear in mind that bird species each have their own food preferences, and most bird species won’t come to feeders at all because they eat insects or something other than seeds and grains. Consult a book on bird feeding for more information on different bird foods and what species they attract. Finally, don’t forget water. In some environments, bird baths will attract more birds than food. Birds are especially attracted to water sources that are dripping. A quick internet search will give you some ideas for do-it-yourself birdbath drippers.
About the Author
Gerrit Vyn is a cinematographer and producer in the Cornell Lab’s Center for Conservation Media and is a Senior Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers. Follow Gerrit on Instagram @gerritvyn and on his photography website.
This post is excerpted from Photography Birds: Field Techniques and the Art of the Image, published by Mountaineers Books in April 2020. Vyn’s previous book, The Living Bird, won the National Outdoor Book Award.
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