Late fall is a perfect time to photograph wild birds. Leaves are falling off the trees, opening the view and birds are eager to feed. And if you’re participating in one of the several organized bird counts taking place between now and mid-February, a photographic record can be invaluable in identifying the counted birds.
As common as birds are, and as photogenic as many of them are, they are maddeningly difficult to photograph. It’s challenging to get close enough for a decent shot, and birds never seem to sit still for the camera. Lighting, focus, and exposure can be tricky, fooling even the best automatic exposure and focus mechanisms. So what do you do?
As with any photography, knowing your subject will improve your photographs. Spend some time watching the behavior of birds around your feeder. You’ll notice certain patterns. Do they first land on a nearby branch before going to your feeder? Do they return once they have grabbed a morsel? Do some birds feed off the spilled seed on the ground? Do they favor a certain spot on your feeder? What time of day do various species feed? When will the best light fall on your birds?
Getting close to the subject is the key to successful bird photography, or any photography, for that matter. Cameras have a funny way of making things look larger through the viewfinder than they will on the print. If you’ve tried to photograph birds, you know that the bird often appears only as a small dark spot on the print. But with a little ingenuity, you can get close enough for decent photographs. Here are some ideas for getting close to your subject.
The most common solution is blind. You can buy blinds made for the purpose from professional camera stores, but an old tent or tarp can be just as effective. A visit to your big-box sporting goods section can be worthwhile as well. Even a car can be an effective blind. Whatever you use to put it in place two or three days before you plan to photograph so the birds will get used to it.
Patience is a virtue. When you go into your blind, the birds will leave, but only temporarily. But you should plan to be in your blind for some time, maybe a few hours. So have some water and snacks with you, and take care of necessities before you go to the blind. You will be sitting still, so in cold weather layers, gloves and a hat will be needed.
A great solution is to place your feeders near a clear window, and you can photograph from the comfort of your own home! Feeders are even available that fit on the window sill or stick to the window glass. You will need to darken the room as much as possible to avoid reflections and, of course, clean the glass.
It is only necessary that the camera is close – you don’t necessarily have to be close yourself. Remote releases, both wired and wireless, are available for most popular camera brands. To use this method, you will need to set your exposure and focus the camera on a spot where you know birds will land. Experiment with your aperture setting to provide some focusing leeway for birds that aren’t exactly at your focus point.
Before we leave the topic of blinds, keep in mind that the safety of the birds is more important than any photograph you may get. Do not position yourself or your blind where you will interfere with nesting birds.