How to Photograph Garden Birds

By Geoff Harris


Hello my name is David Tipling.  In this, my first article for MyPhotoSchool, I want to talk about how to photograph garden birds.

I cover equipment for bird photography more extensively on my online 4 week  photography course How to photograph Wild Birds. so feel free to sign up if you are interested in leaning more.

But I am going to start by going through what I consider to be the ideal camera for bird photography.  There is a bewildering choice and what you end up with will be dictated by how much you are willing to spend. Until fairly recently I would have suggested you needed a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera or DSLR for short.

But there are an increasing number of more compact cameras coming on to the market some with interchangeable lenses that give reasonable telephoto reach. Offerings from Sony, Panasonic, Olympus and both Canon and Nikon all offer potential for bird photography. So although a DSLR would still be my camera of choice one of these alternatives if it has a decent length lens will do the job.

 Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis on teasel on a frosty winters' morning Kent UK

Before we move on I want to cover briefly technique for achieving the correct exposure, choice of shutter speed and how controlling depth of field will affect how your image looks.

Correct exposure is affected by which shutter speed, aperture and sensor speed you choose. But what is a correct exposure? Simply it is recording the bird in the way that you want ensuring detail is retained in the brightest and darkest areas.

Photographers talk in stops when discussing exposure, a stop describes an increment whether increasing or decreasing the amount of light coming through a lens and hitting your cameras sensor.

The apertures such as f4, f5.6 and so on, marked on a lens are f stops. A typical telephoto lens may range from f4 to f22. When the lens aperture is wide open allowing the maximum amount of light in at f4 we refer to the lens being wide open.

If we want to decrease the amount of light coming through the lens we use the term stopping down. So I might say I am going to stop the lens down from f4 to f8. Every time you move one increment up the scale you halve the amount of light through the lens aperture.

Great Tit Parus major Norfolk autumn

By stopping the lens down I am not only decreasing the amount of light coming through to the sensor but I am also having the effect of increasing the depth of field in the picture.

Depth of field is the area in sharp focus in a picture from front to back. So at f4 the depth of field is very shallow conversely at f22 we would have a large depth of field with the background to the subject likely to be in reasonable focus.

7a    7b

The shutter in your camera normally opens for a fraction of a second and as with f-stops it either halves or doubles the amount of light hitting your cameras sensor.

However most modern cameras allow you to move in 1/3 increments to whole stops for even finer control. Sensor speed or ISO as it is normally referred as, is the final piece in the exposure jigsaw. Typical ISO values range from 100 to 6400 or higher.

The higher the rating the more sensitive the sensor is to light so at 6400 you can achieve an exposure in poor light conditions or with higher shutter speeds and smaller apertures. The ISO you choose acts as a basis for your exposure.

But the higher ISO rating you choose the more likely you are to see more muted colours and signal noise,a graininess. So it is better to use as low an ISO as you can dependent of course on the light and the shutter speed and aperture you wish to use.

To capture this Great Tit leaving a nest box (below) I had to use a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec with a depth of field of f 7.1 which meant with limited light to achieve these values I needed a high ISO of 3200.

Great Tit Parus major leaving nest box Ferry Wood Norfolk

9 So once your ISO is set the shutter speed and aperture you use are linked. Alter the value of one and the other has to be changed to provide a correct exposure. So lets take an example.

We decide the correct exposure for the bird you want to photograph is 1/500 sec shutter speed at an aperture of f 4. But you decide you need a bit more depth of field so you decrease (remember you are making the aperture smaller) by 1 stop to f 5.6.

By doing this you have decreased the amount of light hitting the sensor by a stop in effect halving the amount of light, so if you don’t now lower your shutter speed by one stop to 1/250 sec your resulting image will be under exposed, it will be too dark.

Hence the correct exposure would now be 1/250 sec at f 5.6.

Coal Tit Parus ater in frost Scotland winter

Finally don’t just rely on looking at the image presented on the screen of your camera for deciding whether the exposure is good. You should always check your histogram.

This shows the distribution of pixels the tiny components of your picture from dark on the left to light on the right, this is the tonal range.

To make sure you retain detail in any white parts of a birds plumage make sure there are no pixels or at least very few going off the right hand end and conversely with blacks to retain detail make sure there are not lots of pixels going off the left hand end of your histogram, if pixels are being lost off either end this means tonal information is being lost which might mean feather detail in the white or back parts of the birds plumage..

Now lets get on to photographing the birds.


Photographing birds in your garden or indeed local park offers a great grounding in bird photography. It allows you to experiment with compositions and for experienced photographers offers possibilities to get really creative.

The first job is to lure them to you and to do this you need to put food and or water out. In summer when there is a lot of natural food around then water works best as a lure as your local birds need to drink and bathe daily. In winter putting bird food out should attract plenty of activity.

Robin Erithacus rubecula at puddle to drink Norfolk April

12 You may have birds coming in to your garden that are tame but chances are there will be plenty coming that are not and so you need to decide how you are going to conceal yourself. You might have a garden shed with a window that opens or a door from which you can shoot.

By draping some material ideally camouflage netting which you can buy from ex army surplus stores or easily over the internet across the window or door.

Of course you could use an old blanket as concealment but the advantage with camo nets is that you have some vision through them so it is easier to see what is going on.

You might be able to shoot from your kitchen window or even sit in your car on the drive. There is however no substitute for using a purpose built hide as shown here. This allows you to decide exactly where you will sit.


There are two key aspects to be aware of when placing your hide, what will be the background to your picture and how will the birds be lit so where does the sun rise and set, and at what time of day will you be photographing.

These are key to planning the perfect set up. Ideally you want a position where the sun will be behind you for the part of the day you will be photographing in and mornings are normally best for most bird activity.

After roosting overnight particularly when the weather is cold, birds are very hungry first thing and there will be a lot of activity for the first two to three hours after sunrise. I try and photograph during this period as during afternoons bird visits can slow down giving fewer opportunities.


14 A good clean background to your image is preferred over something that might be both messy and distracting. The art of a good background is to keep it looking natural and to ensure there are no out of focus objects that might lead your eye away from the image of the bird.

The further your subject is from any background whether it be the garden fence or a bush the easier it will be to control how it looks. Of course the other variables of controlling backgrounds are the length of lens you are using, the longer the lens the easier it is to blur everything behind your subject and of course the depth of field you use.

Too shallow depth of field and your bird and perch might not be in full focus, too much depth of field and a messy background can ruin the image so this is a balancing act.

Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis New Mexico USA January

Below my original  background was quite a dapper winter brown and I wanted to shoot with a green background to bring a bit of colour to the picture.

So I have cut some ivy and used branches from our discarded Christmas tree to create a green background. You can paint a board green or whatever colour you wish or indeed a sheet or other material and place it as your backdrop.

Whatever you do make sure you keep it looking as natural as possible.


Lets deal first with garden birds coming to food. It is a good idea to use bird feeders rather than just putting food on the ground.

Bird feeders get the birds used to perching in a particular place, the birds are less susceptible to being taken by a cat and many tree loving species will be more comfortable perched off the ground, of course there are exceptions such as attracting thrushes to apples on the ground.

Which foods you put out will dictate which species you attract. For example Niger seed is loved by Goldfinches but other species are not so keen, conversely tits such as Great and Blue tits love suet and peanuts while Chaffinches and Bramblings might prefer mixed seed or sunflower seeds.

Goldfinches Carduelis carduelis on niger seed feeder Kent winter

So the the bigger variety of food you put out the more likely you are of attracting a good range of species to photograph. In my experience the more feeders you have out the more birds you will have coming at any one time. This is good because when you come to photograph, by removing all the feeders except for one you create a queuing system and your subjects are then more likely to use the perches on offer.

Again if you are interested in Bird Photography join me for my 4 week online course with MyPhotoSchool. See for further information

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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