Backyard Bird Photography




Assigning yourself a project is a tested method of improving your photography skills. Choose a technique and a process that will concentrate your efforts to improve a particular skill. I decided that photographing birds in flight would be great practice for stop action photography, shooting sports for instance.

I figured birds are quick and random and if I can master them, I won't be struggling with the settings on a soccer field or basketball court. The birds are right in my backyard and I needn't ask them to sign a release. This project eventually became an art in itself.

Please note that I will refer to technical jargon and not fully explain what they mean. There are many free resources on the web to learn these aspects of photography. Try my photography blog for a start at

This Instructable has been entered in the Digital Days Photo Contest . Woo Hoo, I won a prize! Thank you everyone!

Step 1: Bring the Birds to You

Do the birds flock to your backyard? If not, you want to start attracting these tiny flying dinosaurs and bird feeders are the key. We will talk about your camera in a minute but you want the birds to become comfortable and accustomed to your yard as a food supply. Understand which birds live in your area and which you would like to attract. This will determine the types of bird feeders and food you provide.

Searching the Instructables web site for "Bird Feeder" yielded 16 pages of 'ibles" and photos to get you started.

Google "Bird Watching" or "Bird Feeder" to find everything there is to know on the internet.

Visit your local hardware store. They will often sell feeders and food appropriate to the wild life in your area.

Ask your neighbors that have feeders what they use. You will discover an interest you did not know you shared with them.

I use a Thistle Sock Feeder filled with Nyger Thistle seed. This attracts several different types of fairly colorful finch. Rodents, such as rats and squirrels do not eat this seed and are not attracted.

Step 2: Feeder Placement

Some locations in your yard may be better then others for attracting birds.

A  bird feeder in the middle of open ground can put small birds at risk of hawk attacks. Too close to the ground or a fence provides easy access for cats to pounce.

Still, we want a suitable location for photographing our feathered friends. Think about where you will sit with your camera and then consider the following factors.

First, the more light, the better. Stopping motion requires fast shutter speeds. The faster the shutter speed, the less light enters the lens. More on that later, but, unless you have very expensive low light lenses, place your feeder in good light. You want as sunny a spot as possible. Relatively low sun in the morning and evening, (still bright and rich in color) allows you to have your back to the sun and the light on the birds.

The second consideration is the background. Conventional composition suggests a non-distracting background and one with contrasting colors that complement the subject. To present a natural setting, avoid absolutely straight lines. For the most part, absolute straight lines do not exist in nature and suggest man-made objects, even when blurred. A shallow depth of field will have the subject in focus while blurring a distracting background. A wide open aperture will provide that shallow depth of field.

Third, place the feeder near convenient natural perches that the birds will land upon and pose for you. Iron brackets, plastic poles and store bought lumber that support your feeders detract from that natural look. Attach cut branches for perch enhancement. Change these branches often for variety in your photos.

Step 3: Become One With the Environment

The closer the better is a good rule of thumb when taking action photos. But how close can you get to feeding birds? If the birds are feeding, as soon as I walk into the area, they spook and fly away. I find if I sit down even 10 feet from the feeders and remain very still, they slowly return and the feeding frenzy eventually resumes. Fast movement will scare them again, but I can get away with slow movements. They quickly become accustomed to the click of the camera.

Get comfortable. Bring food and drink. Sync your favorite podcasts, book and music and fire up your ipod. Dress appropriately. Have a comfortable chair. All of these things will help you patiently wait for your models to appear.

You can get very elaborate and build a duck blind. If you do, create an Instructable. I don't see one here.

Step 4: The Setup

I take these pictures both hand held and with a tripod.

The tripod is handy for the action shots that I anticipate near the feeder. I point the camera just to the side of the feeder attempting to time my shots as the birds approach and leave. I trigger the shutter release via remote control whenever birds are in the frame without staring throught the view finder.

As the birds gather and wait their turn at the feeder, they land on the nearby trees, bushes and perches I provided. I alternately hand hold the camera and attempt to catch these perched birds. The tripod is a bit awkward to manuver. Hand holding allows the most flexability.

Of course, just removing the camera from the tripod will scare the birds. Relax, sit back and wait again, they will return.

Step 5: Equipment

I use the following photographic equipment:

Camera - Nikon D80 Digital SLR
Lens - AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm 1:4.5-5.6 VR
Remote shutter release

Step 6: Exposure Settings

I use one of 3 exposure modes for all my pictures: Manual, Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. I never use any of the automatic settings. I prefer total control in order to "push" the limits of the camera.

First I consider setting the camera for "spot" exposure which narrows down the area the camera considers for the exposure settings and I apply that to the area I expect the birds to occupy.

Aperture Priority should be good when shooting birds sitting still on a perch. Opening the aperture up as wide as possible (low f-stop number) will give you a shallow depth of field  (blurring the background) and the fastest shutter speed (stopping small movements). The camera will be deciding on a properly programmed exposure.

I prefer Shutter Priority mode when capturing flight. The wing beat frequency of these finches I photograph must be over 20 beats per second. I find that I need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second to get a minimally exceptable shot. That is a problem.

With this camera and lens, I often find that the camera is telling me there is not enough light. This is where I push the envelope by settting the shutter speed 1 or 2 speeds faster then the meter in the camera recommends.

ISO can help. Ideally, the ISO should be set at the lowest possible number (100 on the D80). This gives you the best quality picture. Raising that number makes the light collecting sensor more sensitive and able to collect more light faster. This also raises the temperature of the sensor and introduces digital noise to the picture.

Every shoot requires me to experiment to find the exceptable balance between the available light, the shutter speed, the aperture and ISO.

Better (read more expensive) equipment can help. Newer cameras are increasingly better at low noise in low light conditions. Faster lenses let in more light.

Step 7: Focus

Focus is just as important as exposure.

Points for consideration here include:

Auto-focus settings
depth of field

And the D80 has several configurable settings. I prefer to set the Auto-Focus Area mode to a single point. This is setting is found deep in the menus and narrows the area that the auto-focus mechanizm will consider.

Then there are 2 focus modes available via the buttons on the camera body, Single Servo and Continuous.

The Continuous mode is usually great for moving objects. If the object is moving towards or away from you, the camera will continue to refocus giving you a better chance of a sharp picture.

I find that the Continuous auto-focus capability of the D80 and this particular lens do not focus fast enough to capture the finch where I want him/her.

So, I use the Single Servo setting, focusing either on the feeder itself or an object temporarily placed next to the feeder. I then turn the Auto-focus off and reposition the camera to the area I expect the birds to fly into and try to capture them as they come in for a landing.

Keep in mind that the faster the shutter speed you are using, the wider the aperture must be  limiting the depth of field which is the area that an object will be in focus. With a very small depth of field, that bird must be in the pocket to get a sharp in-focus picture. So set your focus carefully and, if needed, aim for a smaller aperture allowing for that wider window of area that will be in focus. I know I stated that "closer is better" in step 3, but if you need a wider depth of field to get these guys in focus, then move back and zoom in. Depth of field area that is in focus is shorter the closer you are no matter what the f stop.

One last thing, Nikon recommends that you turn off Vibration Reduction (makes for sharper pictures? I am not sure the reason.) when using a tripod. Remember to turn it back on when you shift to hand holding.

Step 8: Burst Mode

Most helpful is the burst mode ability of your camera, enabling you to take multiple shots while holding the shutter release down. The D80 can take 3 shots per second until the buffer is full. More expensive cameras are faster. When the birds are in a feeding frenzy, burst mode increases the chances of you getting the picture. Check your manual.

Step 9: Sit Back and Wait

After setting up the camera, I:

get a comfortable chair
load up some photography podcasts on the iPod
dress for the weather
bring food and drink
Keep my thumb on the remote shutter release
and wait for the birds

In time, they get used to you and the click of the shutter. Fast movement will scare them, but slow movement is ignored.

Step 10: Process the Pictures

Download and review your pictures. Adjust colors, contrast and sharpness with your favorite photo editing software. Crop the feeder and other objects out of the picture. Upload them on Flickr and list the link here for all to see. Here is my gallery.

Step 11: Expand Your Backyard

Eventually, take your camera and walk down the street. Look in the trees. Head to the marsh lands. Go to the beach.

Orioles made a nest in the palm tree across the street from my house. The Eucylyptus grove a block away is home to a family of Great Horned owls. Hawks fly over my house and pelicans are a 5 minute walk to the beach. The Academy of Science in San Francisco has an Amazon rainforest exhibit, filled with easily photographed exotic birds and butterflies. And the Blue Angels migrate here every year during Fleet Week.

Step 12: In Conclusion

There is so much more to discuss here. I am probably wrong about a few facts too. Feel free to ask questions, correct my mistakes and add your own tips.

Patience is a huge factor here too. Keep at it until you know everything about both the birds and your camera. The skills you develop here will certainly affect all of your photography in a postive way.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end!

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    26 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Thank you for sharing your photography tips. I visited your site on Flickr and loved your photos. The owl is amazing too. Did it visit your backyard?


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Too bad you didn't get a photo of the rare "Thunderbirds". They tend to fly in perfect formation and hang around air bases with air shows. You can recognize them by their glisteny red, white, and blue feathers. Their call is similar to a loud roar to scare off predators. On occasion you hear them squawk at each other to coordinate their flight.

    Joking aside, those are very nice photos. Your patience is admirable.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    If you only want photos of Black Capped Chickadees, try the food in one hand, camera in the other technique...

    ((Fujifilm S4500, point and shoot)


    7 years ago on Step 12

    This patience, how much does it cost and where can I find it?


    I'll be sure to try this out when spring finally hits, still got tempertatures of -30C something depending on which week :(


    7 years ago on Introduction

    thanks. very helpful. Wish I had read this a few years ago !


    7 years ago on Step 2

    hahaha i love the pic with the cat staring at the bird feeder waiting for an unsuspecting bird to just fly by....


    8 years ago on Step 12

    I tried this with Humming birds on my old Olympus E-410 a while back. I figured it would be good practice and cool to catch them in action. I soon learned that i had to use auto focus and freehand the camera to even have a chance at catching them. I was shooting from indoors, we had a feeder on a large window, so I could get pretty close before they got spooked by my movement but the lighting wasn't so great.
    Some of my favorite bird shots with my E-410


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Just got my Nikon D3000, and I found this to be very helpful! One thing that I did to help practice was to head to a fish store. Fish are constantly moving, each tank has its own light environment, and the subjects are pretty! Oh, and they're in a tank, so they won't go too far. =D


    9 years ago on Step 12

    Thanks for taking the time to go through it step by step ,being new to wildlife photography you have answered alot of my questions .thanks keep up the good work


    2 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Step 12

    Thanks for commenting and good luck with the photography. I scored another decent owl picture the other day.

    Great Horned Owl-2.jpg

    9 years ago on Introduction

    Great Instructable! I have to try this someday.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    very nice images.  I can make one recommendation.  Make a simple blind to hide behind.  We set up a tent in our front yard, but you can make something very simple out of PVC and some old sheets.  This will encourage some of the more shy birds to approach.

    Rob K

    9 years ago on Introduction

    I still need to learn how to fully use my camera. This took about 30 tries to find the right setting.

    Canon Powershot SX1 IS

    1 reply
    unklstuartRob K

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Good start and congratulations, you now know a lot more about your camera then you did yesterday!

    It looks like you have a lot of subjects to practice with. Using flash is another art/science that needs to be addressed and is a good technique for capturing hummingbirds in flight.

    A tip about humming birds - when they finish feeding, they fly backwards a few inches and then hover for a second before flying away. Time some shots for that "hover" moment.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I like the nyjer feeder - I'll be making something similar. I made the more traditional type last year and found that a coupleof goldfinches or siskins would monopolise the holes and not give theothers a look-in.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    If you have a Canon PowerShot, you can use CHDK and a motion detection script to catch the birds.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Absolutely. And there is an 'ible to construct a motion detector too.

    In my case, many birds are flying in the area all around the feeder but I am only photographing a small area next to it. As I become accustomed to their flight and landing patterns, I get good results by anticipating when they will be in the zone.

    Good technique for nature photography can combine technology, intuition and experience.


    9 years ago on Step 7

    In general, the VR algorithm is always applied to your photos.  On a tripod, your focus is probably just where you want it.  Applying any algorithm is more likely to 'muddy up' the focus than to improve it.  But, Nikon's VR technology claims to be able to detect that you're using a tripod, so it may be OK to leave VR on when using a tripod.

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks. That makes sense.

    The manual for the Nikon 70-300 lens recommends to switch the VR off when using a tripod. I am told Canon says you may leave it on.