How to photograph birds in their natural habitat
I have been shooting a ton of birds lately, partly because I have recently acquired a 300/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter; and partly because with all of the winter weather we have had has made it a little easier.
A few people have asked me how I get the images, so, here goes. All of the bird images that I have taken recently are of birds feeding in my backyard. There are a few things that you will need to get started.
- A long telephoto lens
I use a Tokina AT-X Pro 300/2.8 and a 2xTC that effectively means I am shooting a 600/5.6 on a full frame canon camera. 300mm – 600mm is where you are going to want to be for small birds. I’ll tell you the truth, if I had an 800mm lens I would use that; and if I could get my hands on a 1200mm lens – I would be using that. I just don’t think you can ever “get close enough” in real life. The longer the lens you have, the farther away you can hide, allowing you to have more opportunities to photograph birds.
2. You are going to need a good tripod.
Photographing birds requires tremendous patience and you must wait in ready position to photograph, if you wait for a bird to land close to you and then pick up a camera, it will startle and fly away. Have the camera mounted to a tripod, pointed in the general area where you are photographing and then when a bird lands, grab the shot.
3. You will need some birds.
This seems obvious, but how do you get the birds to come to you? Running like an idiot carrying a ton of heavy gear chasing birds flying around will not result in any acceptable images. You will need to attract birds to where ever you might be.
Attracting birds is really not that hard, it just takes a little pre-planning. If you provide all the things that a bird wants, they will find you. They are looking for food, water, shelter and safety from predators. It is easy enough, to determine what birds live in your area (google is a great resource or just look and see what is flying around). Different birds will eat different things; putting out a variety of seed options will attract a variety of birds. In my area the black oil sunflower seeds are a good bet.
Birds need to drink water and adding a water feature to your yard is always awesome. We have a small pond with a waterfall where the birds can drink in the summer. In the winter I put out a dish with water for them to drink from near where I plan to photograph.
Putting out a variety of birdhouses is also an excellent way to attract birds if you have space. Different species of birds use varying types of nests/shelters, so use Google to find an appropriate shelter for the kinds of birds that you would like to attract.
One more important thing to note, there are many natural predators to small birds, from dogs/cats to hawks and other larger birds that may be around. Most small birds will be more comfortable and will tolerate a photographer around better, if they have cover to escape from predators. I shoot right on the edge of a small forest that borders our property, I am not luring the birds out of the forest where they will be easy target for a hawk flying overhead. I find that I am able to get a little closer when on the edge of the forest than out in the open, it also gives the birds natural places to “perch” before or after visiting the feeder. This is when I grab a shot of them, they are in their natural environment and that looks a lot better than a bird sitting on a bird feeder.
There are other optional items that you can add. I will be adding a small blind to my set up. I have a ton of woodpeckers that have been visiting lately, but they are so skittish. They will not come to the feeder while I am within 20 feet (and I have to be about 10-15 feet from the feeder with a 600mm lens to get a nice successful shot. I have found that for my area on the edge of the forest the light is best in the mornings and in the evenings when the sun is low in the sky. ymmv 🙂