Experiments in Backyard Nature Photography
from Wildlife Promise
If you enjoy wildlife photography, please jump in and comment to share your tips and thoughts about these pictures or backyard birding photography in general.
I love photographing wildlife, and sometimes I find opportunities to take pics when I’m not expecting it. I find it frustrating, even agonizing, when I see a wildlife photo opportunity and don’t have my camera. Of course, my family feels just the opposite (Oh no, dad is grabbing his camera, grab a book…).
For once, it all came together nicely over the holidays as the family visited grandma and grandpa’s farm in Tennessee. We were all pleasantly surprised to have a white Christmas with fresh snow falling on Christmas day. The following day, with the kids working their way through their presents, I realized I had my camera, new snow, and nothing but time. With the backyard bird feeders doing a brisk business, I made my way outside.
I first shot some film of the birds on the feeders, particularly a red-bellied woodpecker that would periodically dart in, grab a seed, and dart back to the trees. After a while standing and shooting pictures from a position near the house, I decided to try a different vantage. I grabbed a step-stool to use as a chair and camp out by a holly tree that the birds were using as a staging ground between the woods and the feeders. I wanted to get the sun out of my face and to my back, and I hoped that the snow-tinged green holly tree would provide a more natural and colorful backdrop to the birds. But I also knew that it could be a long wait before I could get the right shot. With the sun at my back and a good deal of patience, the move was rewarded as the birds resumed their busy route to and from the tree. You can see at left a picture of a pair of tufted titmice that briefly shared a branch together.
A few things were challenging about this shoot. My perch was a good distance away to avoid spooking the birds, but I could compensate for that with my versatile 18-200 mm lens. The hardest thing about photographing the birds in the holly tree was rapid focusing. The birds would rarely land for more than a few seconds. Although I had my camera bag and gear, I didn’t have a tripod, and so I used a fast shutter speed (1/400, f9) to help minimize any blur from movement of the birds or my hand. Auto-focus was out of the question with the small birds darting between the leaves. My solution on that was to be patient and shoot a lot of film, knowing some wouldn’t be sharp because I’m not the world’s fastest focuser.
The hardest thing for me in selecting which picture to showcase from a day like this is to impartially observe the pictures as they appear on my computer screen, as opposed to what I imagined the picture would look like when I was shooting. The picture of the titmice surprised me, but what I liked first and foremost was that both birds have sunshine on them. Many pictures of birds that could have been great were only so-so because they were shaded from the sun by the holly leaves. But I also like the composition of the two birds with the snow-tinged holly leaves clustered between them.
Here’s what I don’t like about this picture: I had the wrong angle on this particular branch and caught the house in the background. Most of the pictures I took had a neutral sky for background and were toward the center of the tree. When I selected my seat, I didn’t anticipate shooting this particular branch. That is a mistake I should learn from. Wildlife don’t always fit the painting you have in mind. I shot this picture in RAW, which was a first for me, and I used some processing to try and dampen the brightness of the white background.
I avoided this mistake regarding background when I took the woodpecker picture (see right) at the feeder earlier in the day. After shooting into the washed-out sky for a number of pictures, I changed my position so the distant holly tree provided a blurred green background.
It took awhile to catch the woodpecker, who would wait 5 minutes or more between visits to the feeder. I used a rapid shooting mode when he appeared. What I love about this picture are the small bits of ice clinging to the woodpecker’s beak, which brings forth the winter setting that otherwise would been lost. But I lost most of the sunlight from this angle.
I later found out that my wife grabbed a camera and snapped a picture of me (below).
Any thoughts or tips you have are welcome.