Backyard songbird photography can be a very satisfying way to enjoy outdoor photography while getting close to your neighborhood feathery friends. In this guide to successful backyard songbird photography, I share the approach I use for photographing my feathered friends.
But first, please join me for a photo shoot from my backyard photo blind by watching the following video:
Songbirds specialize in perching. They have three toes pointing forward and one toe directed back. This so called “anisodactyl” toe configuration, along with a tendon arrangement in their legs that causes the toes to curl and maintain grip “by default” (i.e. without engaging muscles), make these passerines expert perchers.
This article will focus on photographing perching songbirds using a bird feeder to attract them, and a photo blind to get in close to these miniature flying marvels.
Ethical Backyard Songbird Photography
Songbirds can generally benefit from the photography experience when done in an ethical way.
First, we need to follow some basic rules about attracting birds to your backyard with feeders. I encourage you to read the National Audubon Society’s Guide to Bird Feeding (PDF).
Here are a few measures I take in consideration of these guidelines:
- I feed the birds in autumn, winter and early spring, leaving the birds to fully revert back to natural foods when it is plentiful in summer. I try not to let the feeder go empty for more than a couple days in a row during these times.
- When I’m not actively photographing the birds, I hang my feeder from a stand that is at least 15 feet from surrounding bushes and 30 feet from house windows. This makes it harder for cats and other predators to ambush the birds at the feeder or on the ground below the feeder. And it reduces collisions between birds and windows. This second feeder stand is equipped with a squirrel guard to keep them off the feeder.
- If my seeds get soaked by rain, I will throw them out and then wash and sterilize the feeder. This avoids the growth of mold, which can be deadly to birds.
Key Factors for Successful Backyard Songbird Photography
Here are the factors I consider key for successful songbird photography in the backyard, which we will cover more detail in this article.
- Attracting birds with feeders
- Arranging the feeder, perch and photo blind for best light, for best bird pose and for best background
- Getting close in to the songbird action
- Using the right equipment and equipment settings
- Timing the shoot
Attracting Songbirds to Your Backyard
Many songbirds, and other types of birds, are easy to attract with feeders. I suggest that you go to your local home and garden store and ask about the best types of bird feed and bird feeders for your region. They also may offer advice on how to deal with squirrels or other animals in your locale that may cause a problem at your feeder.
It can take minutes, hours, days or weeks for birds to find your feeders for the first time. The chickadees generally lead the flock in my area. But it seems that as soon as one bird finds the feeder, the rest very quickly follow. I’m pretty sure that they watch and learn from each other.
My typical backyard songbird photography setup comprises the bird feeder, a perch, a photo blind and something in the background.
The arrangement of these elements to each other and to the sunlight is critical.
First, let’s talk about the perch. There are two types of perches: natural or artificial.
A live bush or tree in autumn color in the fall, sprinkled with snow in the winder or budding with flowers in the spring can make an excellent perch. Check out this video where I photographed songbirds on a flowering red current in my backyard.
A showy bush is always a perch priority for me.
When I refer to “artificial” perches, I actually mean real branches that are no longer attached to their host tree or bush (not something man-made out of metal or plastic, though those can also work). I look for branches that have interesting character, such as lichen or moss growing on them.
But an old stump, an interesting rock or a weathered fence post are also options.
I like to attach a branch to a tripod or light stand. This gives me the flexibility to fine-tune its position and angle.
I have a golf cart umbrella holder that was designed to attach an umbrella to a golf cart (Amazon). I just clamp it to my light stand and then clamp the branch in where the umbrellas would normally go. Two knobs on the umbrella holder allow easy angle adjustment, and the light stand provides easy position and height adjustment.
Because it rains a lot here where I live in western Washington state, I mostly use suet cake feeders. The fatty nature of suet makes them naturally resistant to rain.
I also like to hang my feeder from a feeder pole, tripod or light stand. Again, this gives me flexibility to move it around and adjust height as I desire.
For a photoblind, I have been using the Tragopan Grouse V+ (Amazon) pop-up blind. I’m pretty impressed with the quality of its construction, and the fact that it easily stores away when not in use. But many of the hunting blinds will work just fine, and there are lots of ways to rig up a blind using natural and/or household materials.
Arranging Your Backyard Photo Studio
OK. It’s time to arrange all of these elements into your backyard songbird photo studio. Here are some key things to think about when setting up all of the elements above. I suggest working through things in the following order:
1. Consider direction of the light.
Early morning (!) and late evening are when the birds are most active and are the best times to photograph them. I prefer early morning so that I don’t have to worry about the darkness limiting how long I can spend photographing.
Know which direction your morning/evening light is coming from. Will the morning light even hit the area you want to put a perch?
2. Decide where you want to put the perch and what you want to use for a background.
If you’re using a bush as a perch, it’s location is pretty well fixed (unless it is in a movable pot).
With an “artificial” perch, you have many more options of where to locate it relative to the light and background.
You will typically want the background to be far from the perch. Maybe 4 yards/meters or more. The further the background is from your perch, the more it can be de-focused into a smooth out-of-focus splash of color for the bird to pop out against (more on this topic below).
3. Decide where to put/build your photo blind.
Try locating the blind between the light source and the perch, but not so much in line that the blind casts a shadow on the perch. This gives a pleasing front light to the bird and reflects a highlight from its eye. But putting the blind off to the side for side lighting, or any other angle, is totally fine. The light angle is completely up to you, but it should be a conscious decision.
Wherever practical, and especially for more sensitive birds, it is best to locate you photo blind up against some existing bush or tree. The blind should visually become part of the “bulk” of that bush or tree (unlike my blind in the photo below which is wide out in the open).
4. Find a location for the feeder.
Obviously, the feeder needs to be close to but out of your camera’s line of sight to the feeder. Try to position it relatively close to the desired perch location, but not too close. Birds seem to perch near a feeder for four reasons: (1) They perch as they cautiously approach an empty feeder for the first time in awhile. (2) They perch because the feeder is already occupied by another bird that intimidates them. (3) They perch to defend the feeder from competing birds. (4) They are not there to feed, but are hanging out near their mate who is feeding (how romantic!).
So the feeder shouldn’t be so close to the perch that they wouldn’t want to use it for reasons (1) or (2).
I suggest placing the feeder about 2 feet (0.6 meter) from the perch and in a direction you want the bird to face when perched. Also, place the feeder at the same height or slightly higher than the perch, which birds seem to prefer.
Those are the basics of arranging the major elements of your backyard songbird photography studio. Here are a few other considerations:
- I put the feeder a little closer to the blind than the perch. The birds will often be facing the feeder when perched. This will have them facing towards you and your camera more often if the feeder is closer to the blind.
- If using a live bush for a perch, consider whether you want to shoot across the edge of the bush, or into the bush.
Shooting directly into the bush (with the bulk of the bush directly behind the perch) will cause the bush itself to fill the background. Your background will be other branches of the bush closely behind the bird, and thus only partially out of focus. This clutter of branches can create a busy and distracting background. But it can also be pleasing if the bush is all bloomed out in flowers or in autumn color. See sample image at below right.
Shooting across the edge of the bush may allow you to select a distant background that can be thrown much more out of focus. Thus, the bird is sharp against a clean out of focus background. See sample image at below left.
So decide your shooting angle and then locate your feeder close to where you would like to encourage (more like hope) the birds to perch.
Spotted towhee shooting across the side of the bush (left) with simple out of focus background in distance, and shooting into the bush (right) with busy but colorful background.
Getting Close to the Songbird Action
Getting those full-frame photos of tiny little birds doesn’t come without some effort, even though some birds, like chickadee, towhee, junco and hummingbirds are fairly accommodating to close approach.
First, know the minimum focusing distance of your lens. There’s no reason to position yourself any closer than this.
I shoot with the Sony FE 200–600 mm F5.6–6.3 G OSS lens, which has a minimum focus distance of 7.88 ft (2.4 m). I typically set my blind up about 9-12 feet (2.7-3.7 m) away from the perch. Shooting on a Sony a6600 crop sensor body, I get 300-900mm equivalent focal length, giving me full-frame coverage.
But more on equipment later. The main point is to use the longest telephoto lens you have available, preferably one with a short close focus distance specification. I have not tried it myself, but you can use an extension ring to allow your telephoto lens to focus much more closely than it does naturally.
In the blind, it is important to stay still and to stay quiet. Some birds are more sensitive to this than others. Chickadees are less so, for example. But for more sensitive birds, move your lens slowly to avoid startling them.
Photo Equipment and Equipment Settings for Backyard Songbird Photography
As mentioned earlier, telephoto lenses are usually the way to go. Something with a 300 to 600mm range is advised. Tele-extenders can help you stretch the range of shorter lenses. A 200mm or 300mm lens, for example, could be extended with a 1.4X or 2X tele-extender. Just be sure to pick a tele-extender matching the brand of your lens for best image quality.
I also recommend lenses with built in image stabilization (IS), vibration reduction (VR) or optical steady shot (OSS).
A crop-sensor camera body can provide 1.4X to 1.5X of additional magnification.
Speaking of camera bodies, I prefer a camera with fast frame rate. Something on the order of 7-10+ frames per second is ideal. Backyard songbird photography involves shooting hundreds of photos in hopes of getting a handful of good sharp shots. A fast frame rate improves the odds of getting the perfect pose from these fast moving aviators.
I also recommend a camera body with built-in sensor image stabilization. Such cameras make micro-adjustments to the position of the sensor in an attempt to compensate for movements of the camera body. Sony calls this In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS). This is less important if your lens already has image stabilization.
Here’s what I shoot with:
- Camera: Sony a6600
- Lens: Sony 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G
These cameras are going to be too heavy to hand hold for long periods of time sitting in your blind. You need a camera support, but you also need flexibility to rapidly re-frame for birds jumping around.
I mount my camera to a tripod on a gimbal tripod head. With the lens properly balanced on the gimbal head, the camera easily turns on its own center of gravity. This makes vertical and horizontal framing adjustments very fast.
A monopod may also work to provide rapid adjustment with acceptable stability, though I have not tried this.
Also consider how you might shoot birds feeding on the ground below the feeder. Ground feeding birds such as towhee and junco will often feed off bird food that spills from the feeder. I just take my camera off the tripod and put it directly on the ground or on a small sandbag for a low angle shot. It helps to have a camera with a rear screen that tilts up so that you don’t have to get your head down to ground level.
Finally, be sure to have extra camera batteries and memory cards with you in the blind. I often shoot several hundred photos in one shooting session. You will likely be draining your batteries and filling your cards. You won’t want to leave the blind to retrieve replacements.
Camera Settings for Backyard Songbird Photography
Here is how I configure my camera to photograph backyard songbirds. I record all of these settings in a custom mode on my camera. This allows me to quickly re-configure my camera to all of these settings by simply turning the mode dial to this custom mode.
- RAW + JPG file capture. I’ll process the RAW files but it’s nice to have the JPGs for quick review.
- Manual exposure.
- “Multi” or “matrix” metering mode.
- Aperture wide open (f/6.3 at 600mm) to start with. I adjust as needed from here.
- Shutter speed at 1/250 sec. I adjust from here as needed, dropping to as low as 1/100 sec in low light and to as high as 1/1000 sec in bright conditions.
- ISO configured to adjust automatically, limited between 100 and 3200. ISO 3200 is about as high as I feel comfortable with on the Sony a6600. I feel that Topaz DeNoise AI software removes noise pretty effectively up to ISO 3200 on the Sony a6600 camera.
- Continuous high-speed shooting drive mode.
- Silent shooting mode.
- Continuous auto-focus, configured with “expanded flexible spot” tracking. I press the AF button and the auto-focus target then tracks whatever subject it was on at that time. Try to get the AF target on the birds eye when you activate AF.
- I assign a custom button on the back of the camera to initiate auto-focus tracking. And, I deactivate the auto-focus from the shutter release button. Check your camera’s manual on how to set up “rear button focus”. Having the AF function separated from the shutter release button takes some getting used to. But it allows me to hold the AF button down and track focus on the subject while I’m continuously re-framing and independently pressing the shutter button in bursts. This works well with AF tracking once you get used to it.
- Lens image stabilization on.
- Camera in-body image stabilization on.
- Exposure zebra indication turned on, so I can easily tell if I’m overexposing some white part of a bird’s plumage.
Timing Your Songbird Photo Shoot
There are several timing scales to consider here. Let’s start with seasonal.
You are going to see different birds in different seasons. If you are targeting a specific bird species, I highly recommend you set up a free account on the Birds of the World website. Not only will you find tons of excellent information on each bird species here, but it provides animated migration maps that show you when a particular species will be in your neck of the woods.
On the topic of field guides, I like to keep my local folded quick-reference bird guide handy in the blind for quick reference. These guides only have enough space to show the most popular birds, so a more comprehensive field guide is also good to have. I also like the Merlin smartphone app for real-time bird identification in the United States.
After you have selected the rough time-frame for your shoot, keep tabs on the weather. I prefer a clear or light overcast day for bright light.
On the day of the shoot, I get into the hide first thing in the morning before sunrise. The birds will probably be out there even while it is still pretty dark. So you’ll want to get into the hide with time for them to settle back down to feeding when the light becomes bright enough for photography.
I’ll usually shoot for about 2-3 hours at a time. Bring a thermos of coffee, hot chocolate or your favorite hot drink to keep yourself warm. I’m not sure whether birds can smell very well, but they don’t seem to react to the smell of any food or beverage in my blind.
As you observe the birds, you will likely see that they often land on their favorite precise perch locations. This habit is a good thing to notice, especially with birds like chickadees or bushtit that are constantly jumping around. It lets you pre-aim and pre-focus in anticipation of the bird landing there again.
Then, when the bird does finally sets on its perch, get your AF target on the bird’s eye, activate AF with tracking, and squeeze that shutter release button. Fire off a burst of at least 3 continuous frames. Hopefully your AF system will lock onto that eye and track it as the bird moves around.
If you have read this far, you must be a really enthusiast. I wish you the best in your backyard songbird photography!
Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question in the comments area below.
I will update this page with additional information as I learn it. I’ll probably add some info on using flash for songbird photography.
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