Experiments in Backyard Nature Photography

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.

Two Tufted Titmice (Photo credit: Jeremy Symons)

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.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Photo credit: Jeremy Symons)

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).

The photographer gets photographed.

Any thoughts or tips you have are welcome.

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Published: February 7, 2011