Published: 25 January 2013
Photographing Garden Birds
Ahead of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch (26th - 27th January 2013), Andrew McCarthy give us some valuable tips at how to capture successful photographs of our garden birds.
Andrew McCarthy
This month we thought what better way to publicise the forthcoming RSPB’s Big Garden Bird Watch than by an article on how to photograph garden birds.  Birds can make ideal wildlife photography subjects, but without first some time spent to prepare they can be frustrating to photograph and the results can be disappointing.  By thinking ahead, your results can be dramatically improved.

This winter, I set myself the goal of building up a wider portfolio of garden bird images, as whilst I have dabbled in this area of photography before, I have been conscious my images could be significantly improved (both in terms of quality and quantity) if I treated it as a ‘project’ and shot over a period of some months. 

Getting Started

Greater Spotted Woodpecker
So, where to start?  Well, whilst I have taken this very seriously and gone to the trouble of putting a hide up in exactly the right place for the kind of results I need, you don’t necessarily have to go to quite the same lengths to get results you will be happy with.

 Assuming you have a camera with a decent telephoto lens (A digital SLR is best, but you can still achieve acceptable result with  some compacts  or bridge cameras with optical zooms) the first thing to do is figure out where you will be photographing the birds from – in other words you will need some kind of ‘hide’.

Whilst I have set up a purpose built camouflaged hide in my garden, you are likely to find that a window in your house or your shed is fine; I used our lounge window for a number of years and screened myself from the birds by using camouflage netting purchased from my local army surplus store.  

Wherever you shoot from, you will need to make sure the sun is more or less behind you, which means that the birds will be in the most favourable light for photography.




The next step is to set up your feeders in the right place.  This should be as close to your camera as possible, but at the same time making sure you can keep the birds in focus!  

My own feeding station comprises a home-made bird table using bits scavenged from the local dump to save money, plus several seed, peanut and fat-ball feeders, all of which are positioned so that the backgrounds behind them are ‘clean’ in order that my final images will look nice and simple.  I have also set out various natural features on which birds are encouraged to come and feed – for example logs into which I have drilled holes big enough to push a mix of crushed peanuts and other goodies into.  These perches look more natural than birds feeding from a feeder and can be rotated to give your images more variety.  

Constantly choosing and rotating perches is hard work though and you may find you are very happy simply taking pictures of birds feeding at your bird table or feeders.  That’s absolutely fine; there is no right or wrong way of doing this.


Once birds are coming regularly to your feeders (mine took a week or so to really build up large numbers) you are in a position to start taking pictures.  The most important thing here is to make sure the there is always food available – don’t stop feeding, as the longer the feeders are in place the more  birds and the greater the variety of species will come



As far as equipment and techniques is concerned, your approach will vary depending on what camera equipment you are using.  If you have a digital SLR you will need a separate telephoto lens and this really is one area whether I am afraid bigger is better!  

I use a 500mm Canon lens, which is expensive but fantastic quality, but there are cheaper telephotos on the market at around 400mm that will deliver acceptable results.  You will also need something to rest your camera on; I use a heavy tripod but if you are photographing from a window you could make a ‘bean bag’ up.  These are available from many camera suppliers; alternatively you could make one from a bag filled with beans or rice.  The point is to minimise vibration as far as possible and thus end up with nice sharp images.  In terms of technique, providing you have the sun behind you, you generally can’t go wrong by using one of your camera auto-metering modes. These are generally pretty reliable these days.  


The most important point though is to shoot when conditions are fairly bright; that being said you should generally try and avoid times when the full sun is close to overhead – for example between around 10.30 am to 3.30 pm during mid-summer) because conditions will your images will look washed out or have very heavy shadows in them.  Better to choose a bright overcast day or shoot in sunny conditions during the early the morning or evening.  If you have the option, chose a high shutter speed (above about 500th of a second ideally) which will help you freeze movement.  Above all, remember that birds (especially small birds) move around a lot and you may get many out of focus images before you get that really special one.

Remember also that photographing birds is not only an end in itself, but also a great way to familiarise yourself with the various species that visit your garden and become really familiar with their behaviour.  
Happy snapping!

All photographs courtesy of Andrew McCarthy, Ecological Consultant, Devon

Reported by Andrew McCarthy  

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