Photographing little birds

Blue tit at feeder

Occasionally a feeder picture is particularly nice – like this blue tit

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species

I love taking photos of the little birds at our woods, and one way of ensuring that I get some reasonable shots is to take the photos near the feeder.

I don’t usually bother with shots at the feeder itself, since these don’t really show the birds in their natural environment.  The best feeder shots involve some kind of action, such as a fight, or a bird about to fly off with a seed in its beak, or occasionally just a very cute, very handsome bird.


Nuthatch on his way to the feeder

So how do I actually go about getting shots of birds in and around the feeder area?

First of all I feed the birds regardless of whether or not I am taking photos.  This is very important.  To photographers, taking pictures of birds is fun, but for the birds this is deadly serious stuff – food at this time of year is a matter of life and death to them.  If you get the birds used to feeding at your feeders, you must persist in feeding them, or many will struggle to get food from elsewhere.  Yes, you can get pictures by setting up feeders, and the birds will come in quickly, but don’t leave them in the lurch once you have finished your photographic project.  If you are going to withdraw feeding, then do it at a time of year when there is abundant natural food and they can adapt to having no available supplemental food – usually this is late summer or autumn.

Blue tit

Blue tit

Second, and this is aligned to the first point, have more than one feeder.  This gives the birds an alternative if they are too nervous to approach when you are getting close to get your pictures.  If they can’t approach and you are sitting there, then they are missing out on vital food.  I have three feeders operating, so the birds have plenty of choice.  We operate the feeders between November and late August – then take them down so the birds get used to natural forage – and put them back up again when the natural food diminishes and the birds need help for the winter.

Female Reed Bunting

Female Reed Bunting

The first thing I do is to check the light and background – which direction is going to get me the best pictures?  I also look at these in the light of how the birds are approaching the feeder – no point in having fantastic light and background if by using this angle the approach path of the birds is obscured by undergrowth.  Different species have different habits, so you may need different angles if you want to photograph, for example, a dunnock and a nuthatch.

I then get my little camouflage chair hide (which cost £65) and pop it up in the place where I want to sit and leave it for a while so the birds get used to it being there – they usually get comfortable with it fairly quickly.  I then set myself up in the hide with camera, lens, spare battery, tripod, flask and biscuits.  I use a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with either a Canon 100-400mm lens or the Canon f2.8 300mm lens with a 1.4x convertor.  Even with these, the little birds will not fill much of the frame, but a longer lens will lead to difficulties with minimum focal distance since you can put the hide about 2-3 metres from where the birds are coming in.

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

Male reed bunting almost obscured by the top of the feeder

I then sit and watch for a while with the camouflage netting still in place over the opening and only when I know I’m in the right place do I open it up to start taking photos.  I use a 3-Legged Thing tripod, which is very compact, with a ball and socket head (Air Head 2) kept quite loose, so I have the support, but also can move quickly.  I also have a larger Giottos tripod with a gimbal head which is more stable but less compact.

I usually take a few shots without birds to check the exposure compensation that is needed in different places – a bright bird against a dark background will need underexposure, whereas a dark bird against a bright sky will need overexposure.  I usually use a moderately-wide aperture (somewhere around f5.6 to f7.1) in order to isolate the bird from the background but keep the whole bird in focus.

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Blue tit with nice afternoon light

Then I get stuck in.  There is an element of luck, but I try and make my own luck by ensuring I am working at a time of day with good light.  In our woods this is always late afternoon – in other places early morning would also be good.  At these times the birds are feeding very enthusiastically.  The feeders are quieter at midday, but on the other hand you might see different birds on the feeders at that time.

Blue tit

Blue tit

I do try and sit pretty still.  I also wear camouflage or khahi clothing, and a dark hat to blend in with the inside of the hide, and sometimes a hood as well – anything that keeps the birds from seeing a human silhouette is good.  I also try, however excited I get, to move the camera slowly and not to make any sudden movements in the hide.  Other things help too – like putting mobile phone onto silent (birds don’t react well to Led Zeppelin blasting out at them), putting the camera onto silent mode and auto-focus onto non-beeping mode.  It is sometimes worth having a look out of the side openings of the hide – you may find the birds have changed their approach route and you can get better shots from the side of the hide.  If the birds really are being put off by your presence, then it is worth backing off a little bit and trying again.

Nuthatch at feeder

Nuthatch at feeder with seed in his beak

You don’t always know what you will get – most of the time you get blue tits and great tits – but it is a wonderful way to spend a little bit of time, enjoying the birds, enjoying being outdoors, and hopefully getting some special shots.

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