cardinal bird at a bird feeder

I need a break from hiking through marshes in the winter to photograph birds. For now, I’m trying to make the birds come to my house.

Location

You can try sneaking up on birds in your yard, but you’ll have a tough time getting close. Even if you do, the bird is likely to have branches in the way or have a distracting background. I chose to get a feeder and a blind to control the shot.

I’m using a portable hunter’s blind. It’s essentially a small tent with enough space for a chair and a tripod. I add birdseed to the feeder and then hang out in the blind. Right now I have to wait a few hours for a shot, but that should improve as more birds discover this source of food. Luckily I’m within range of my home’s wifi. At least I can get some work down while I’m out there.

The blind is easy to setup and move, so I can experiment with viewpoints. The current location gives shady morning light coming from over my shoulder. Birds are most active in the morning and the light is less harsh.

The blind is about 3 meters from my feeder, but I’m going to try it closer if the birds will let me. In bird photography, I always wish I were closer and had a longer lens. It was hard enough with herons, but yard birds are tiny!

camouflage bird blind with person looking out

Background

I’m still working on a location that has a good background. Something uniform and natural is best. It should be as far away as possible so it will be heavily blurred. The quality of that blur is called bokeh.

Bokeh is also affected by your choice of lens. A telephoto with a long focal length and wide aperture is best for birds. I like the bird in the shot below, but the background is a little distracting. The problem is that I was using my macro lens for a different project when this bird appeared. For flowers two inches away it has great bokeh, but not at this distance. My Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 does a better job and I used it for the other shots in this article. If you know of a better Micro Four Thirds lens for bird shots then please let me know. I’m ready to shop!

Our Bokeh software let’s you manipulate the background in post processing, but that use of it requires a very careful selection in Photoshop. It’s best to get the background right in the camera and just use our Bokeh tool for creative effects, similar to a Lens Baby. I’ll get into post processing in another article.

bird on a bush

Feeders

I use simple tray feeders with no covering because they attract a wide variety of birds. I started with them hanging from poles adjusted to put the birds at about eye level. I also have a bird bath hanging from one of the poles. The more resources you provide, the more the birds will hang out near you.

birds on a bird feeder

That works, but I got tired of the wires in the scene. I moved one of my tray feeders to a pile of logs and I think it’s an improvement.

female cardinal bird sitting on a bird feeder

Now I’m working on a more natural scene by getting rid of the artificial feeder altogether. I sprinkle seed directly on a pile of logs. I still need to tinker with this to get birds to stand in a photogenic spot.

bird on a log

Squirrels

Tray feeders end up feeding a lot of squirrels too. That drives some people crazy, but I think squirrels are almost as cute as birds. If a squirrel shows up while I’m waiting for birds, it’s easy to throw a pinecone to scare it off. I don’t care whether squirrels eat some seed while I’m gone. I add new seed as I start each session.

squirrel at a bird feeder

I’ll post an update after I refine my setup. I’m excited to see new birds as they migrate through.

If you like birds then I recommend the recent HBO documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect. It’s available on HBO GO and I think the next airing is March 21, 2013.