Urban Bird Photography
Ever since I was a child, birds have fascinated me. From the exotically coloured hummingbirds to the majestic power of golden eagles. Their ability to take to the skies and travel wherever they want certainly embodies a sense of freedom and awe. In recent decades, bird numbers have been in sharp decline. Habitats are continually destroyed and people favour low-maintenance gardens, increasing the scarcity of food sources and nesting materials, making it harder for our feathered friends to survive and of course, less opportunities to photograph them.
Like many people in the UK, I live in a large town. A bustling, noisy, dirty, urban environment that isn't really all that inviting to wildlife. I used to be able to look out my window as a boy and see a multitude of different bird species, ranging from sparrows, tits and thrushes, to the odd kestrel preying upon them. Over the years it got to the point where I only ever saw seagulls. I decided to remedy this and planted up the garden with flowers. This attracted insects, which in turn lured birds back into the garden and it was wonderful to see. Nature had returned!
I'd become increasingly discontented with traipsing around local country parks and nature reserves with a heavy camera, tripod and lens. Invariably, after hours of walking I would see next to nothing for my trouble. Since there were more of them, I decided to try my hand at photographing the birds which came into the back garden.
I took a few snaps like the picture opposite but, even before shooting I knew the resulting images would be ruined by the background. There was always a fence, wall, house or some other distracting element that took away from the image significantly. There was only one solution - get a better background. So I upped and moved to the countryside.
Just kidding, unfortunately! No, the answer was to put a new backgroud behind the birds. Rather than spend hours attempting to mask them out in Photoshop, I opted to use some green tie-dyed fabric that I found on eBay instead. Always aim to get your images right in camera. It saves you so much time in the long run. Of course a new backdrop is fine but, you need to make the birds position themselves in front of it. To encourage them to do this, I walked to the local woods and found some fallen branches. I chose ones that had interesting shapes and bark, as well as ensuring they had a few smaller twigs coming off them.
I then placed the branches into some pots that were lying around the garden, filling them to the brim with soil and gravel to weigh them down. This made solid perches for the birds to land upon. It also gave me a choice of perch, so I wouldn't end up with identical-looking images. The beauty of doing this is that the perches are completely portable and can be situated anywhere in the garden to get the best light, depending upon the time of day/year.
Next I erected the backdrop behind the perch. I used some cheap light stands and a crossbar that I sometimes use in the studio. I forgot to sandbag the stands initially and the whole thing fell over in a breeze, scaring all the birds off. Lesson learned!! The fabric was then draped over the crossbar and clamped to the sides to keep it taut.
Of course, anything could be used to hang a backdrop on, provided it doesn't flap about and cause a problem. A more robust option is to construct a backdrop from a sheet of marine plywood and screw this to a wooden stand. The plywood can be painted in earthy tones to keep the image looking natural.
I sited the fabric approximately two meters behind the perches. This would ensure that it would be nicely out of focus, blurring the texture of the material, yet retaining the colours. How far away you place your backdrop will depend upon the depth of field. This is determined by the focal length of your lens, the distance to the perch and aperture size. If you use a sheet of painted plywood as a backdrop, you can probably get this closer to the perch if need be, as the surface should be smooth. Just ensure that the perch/bird doesn't cast a shadow upon it and ruin the illusion.
A half a coconut shell was then tied to the perch, which is filled with suet and seeds. The birds absolutely love the stuff and it's readily available in most stores. I located the shell further down the branch, keeping it out of frame. Often birds will land at the top of the perch and survey the area for threats before proceeding to feed. This gives you a short but viable time frame to shoot. If your perch is thick enough, you can also drill a hole or trench in the branch (do this on the reverse side, out of sight of the camera) where you want the bird to stay. This can be filled with suet and seeds for the bird to feed upon. If birds are infrequent visitors to your garden, this may be a better option as they will stay in the desired position for longer. The downside is that you'll need to refill the cavity with suet and seeds fairly often (depending upon the size of it), which may spook birds off.
Additionally, a small bird bath filled with water was located near to the perches. The birds make great use of this, using it to both drink and bathe in. Along with a 3-in-1 bird feeder that I hung on the fence nearby, this is another effective way to attract birds into the area of the garden you ideally want them. The feeder cost £11.50. You don't have to spend lots of money on a bird bath either. They can be had quite cheaply, although even a shallow tray or bowl can be used for a bird bath. Just don't over fill it and make it too deep for the birds to access the water.
The bird bath can also be a great location for some action shots. Water gets flicked everywhere as the birds wash themselves. However the same issue arises with the backdrop and keeping things looking natural. For best results, I recommend using a black coloured bowl and dressing it around the edges with grass, moss or ivy to create an attractive scene. With a nicely blurred background you will achieve some fantastic results. This is something I will be doing in the near future myself, as the starlings that come into the garden always enjoy a morning bath.
Another excellent way to lure birds into the garden is with sound. Birds are very social creatures and communicate with each other frequently. I downloaded an iPhone app which has bird calls and songs on it. If memory serves it comes with about 500 free ones but, for £4.99 you can unlock 4500 bird calls from all over the world.
Using a wireless bluetooth speaker (Jam Classic which costs about £20) I could place the speaker either on my windowsill or out in the garden and play the calls from my phone over it. Within minutes of doing this I attracted a litte European robin, which hung around in the garden for a good hour or more. I actually witnessed it serenading itself in front of a mirror that is in the garden, which was extremely cute to witness. The bird calls also seemed to make the starlings more at ease, as they assume that as other birds are in the vicinity that they recognise, that all is well.
With all of these tempting offerings in your yard, all you are left to do then, is wait for the birds to arrive and photograph them. I do this from the comfort of my opened bedroom window, which keeps me hidden, warm and dry. The proximity to the perch is close enough that the birds are framed nicely, without the need for heavy cropping and loss of detail. I shoot with a 300mm f/4 fitted with a 1.4x teleconverter. This gives me 420mm f/5.6, which is ideal for birding in terms of focal length, although the maximum aperture leaves a little to be desired on grey days.
As the lens is not image stabilized, it's imperitive to use a tripod or a solid base to minimize blur. I use a beanbag on my windowsill to rest the camera upon. Shooting with super-telephoto lenses means any movement is hugely magnified. I also recommend using a shutter release cable. The less you touch the camera, the better. It is also a good idea to pre-focus the lens on the perch. My old Nikkor is AF-D screw driven and isn't the fastest to focus. When the teleconverter is fitted, the AF speed decreases dramatically.
A high shutter speed is also often required to capture the birds anyway. Even when roosting, they will frequently tilt their heads looking for predators. Static shots can also be somewhat boring, so trying to photograph the birds as they land and take off gives much more visual impact. Of course, for nice crisp images that high shutter speed isn't always possible without raising the camera ISO to very high levels that introduce noise and reduce image quality. If it's an overcast but dry day, there is nothing stopping you using some off-camera flash on another light stand, activated by radio triggers. This will help with action freezing. Obviously this is a more costly option but certainly not unaffordable. The sudden burst of light doesn't seem to alarm the birds either. Sound seems to be what startles the birds more, so remember to turn off any recycle beeps.
For your convienence, I compiled a short list of problems you may encounter with using a replacement backdrop and perch.
(1) Backdrop Thickness - If using fabric, ensure it is thick enough to obscure anything in the background. Objects that reflect enough light behind the material may become visible through it. If you are going to use a 2m wide backdrop, purchase at least 4m of fabric so it can be doubled over. Alternatively add some backing material. There is also the risk of the fabric becoming backlit by sunlight and overexposing against a dark coloured bird.
(2) Fabric Wrinkles - Iron your backdrop and ensure that when it's clamped to your support system there aren't noticeable straight lines in any direction.
(3) Background Distance - Place you backdrop far enough away that the texture of the fabric isn't visible and a shadow isn't cast onto it by your perch. Also, my tie-dyed fabric works nicely with the 420mm focal length but, minus the teleconverter (at 300mm) the background isn't sufficiently blurry. If you have very limited space, I recommend either a plain backdrop in earth tones, or a fabric that has very subtle mottled colour transitions.
(4) Stand Support - Whether you use fabric or marine plywood, both will act like a sail in the wind. Remember to securely anchor your framework, so nothing blows over to frighten or injure the birds.
(5) Perch Placement - Two things to watch out for when placing your perches. Firstly is the distance of the perch to the background for the reasons mentioned in item (3). Secondly is the angle of the perch relative to sunlight. If a bird lands further down a perch, there is a risk a shadow will be cast upon it. Position the perch so that it won't cast a shadow on the bird relative to your shooting position.
(6) Set Your Alarm - As birds start being active at sunrise, it's important to get up early to photograph them. This will vary throughout the year and also according to your longitude on the planet. In the summer months, sunrise can be as early as 3:40am in the Shetland Isles of Scotland. The sunrise in London is one hour later at 4.40am. It's currently October 10th and the birds start appearing at 8am in my location.
(7) Maintenence - Ensure food is topped up regularly and likewise with water in the bird bath. I like to replace the water daily, so the birds have clean water to drink. It's important to provide a good selection of food sources to cater to the birds' diet. I use suet balls, peanuts and seed mixes. Not all birds eat the same things. Hummingbirds for example feed upon nectar, so in that instance your food source and "perch" would be a selection of flowers like bee balm or budlea.
(8) Variety - Try and use different perches and backdrops. This will keep your images looking unique from each other.
(9) Feathered Friends - A lot of birds are migratory and so the amount and type of birds available to shoot will vary throughout the year. You may also find that birds favour other gardens to yours. For example, a neighbour always has sparrows and robins in their yard due to the trees and tall shrubs (something absent in my garden) which are located next to feeders. I tend to get larger birds like starlings, magpie and pigeons along with the occassional robin and winter wren that will come poking around. By making your garden as bird-friendly and attractive as possible, you will increase the amount of visitors and likewise the number of potential photographs. It is also important to observe their behaviour. For example, I've noticed the robins tend to be somewhat wary of the starlings and will avoid the feeder if already in use. Instead, it prefers to potter about on the ground eating and suet crumbs that fall to the floor. I also find it useful to identify bird songs. Robins and winter wrens have very distinctive and loud calls, so I know when they are in the area and can anticipate their arrival.
(10) Ninja Skills - Birds are easily alarmed and so you need to be as invisible and silent as possible. If you can shoot through an open door or window, then do so. If you have to be sited in the garden, I highly recommend purchasing a pop-up hide and small stool to sit on. They keep you hidden as well as protecting the camera from the wind and rain. You can buy these hides for around £40.
I recommend camera settings that will provide you around 1/2000th sec shutter speed, to freeze action. You can of course shoot a slower speeds provided the bird isn't moving. Continuous focus mode is also essential as birds will move their heads about on the perch frequently and if shooting at a shallow depth of field, it is easy to miss focus. For action shots, I suggest pre-focusing the lens on the perch and begin shooting just as the bird comes in to land. You will have all but a few moments to capture the bird in flight, so a little spray-and-pray mentality needs to be deployed.
With patience, practice and good technique, you can achieve some very nice wild bird photos from the comfort of your own home. The setup doesn't have to be expensive and can be as basic or as sophisticated as you want it to be. Even very small spaces can still yield some great results. The key is to get the background as non-distracting and organic as possible, whilst having enough light to capture any action. You also help birds survive the cold winter months by providing them with much-needed food sources, so it's a win-win.