Perfect your garden photography

Take your garden photography skills to the next level in part two of BASC’s photography series. If you’re just starting out, I recommend reading and practicing the steps outlines in my first blog, nature photography tips for the garden.

So, let’s get started! 

Controlling the subject

Controlling your subject may not be easy, but it is essential if you want to take good images. I mentioned previously about observing the behaviour of your subject; the feeding times, chosen position and type of species that visit your garden.

This time, take note of which seeds the birds prefer and understand what type of food attracts what. Knowing this will help attract your subject to where and when you want them.

Most birds will not fly straight to a feed station, they will perch a little way off and observe what is going on first. They will be checking for predators and competing birds, or anything unusual. Try to vary the spots where birds can land to get the best from your shot.

As we shift seasons, the plants around us begin to change adding different colours and background ideas to your photos. Whether it be branches with buds and fresh leaves that add life, or golden orange foliage that adds warmth to the picture.  

Selecting the perfect background

Probably easier said than done in most gardens, but there is always something you can easily tweak to create an improved scene.

Look for backgrounds with symmetry – a bush with reddish leaves would complement birds such as robin or chaffinch for example. Try to avoid wide, open spaces or garden structures that can complicate the background.

Knowing distances is essential if you want to take photographs quickly and ensure they are sharp and in focus. The greater the distance between bird and background, the more out of focus you will be able to edit the background.

In the confines of a garden you will probably have to set the aperture at around F5.6-F8 to get the bird in focus. This will provide enough distance between the bird and background to enable a nice blurred background and help the subject stand out.

Tip

Do not be afraid to experiment. Think about shooting into light for example. A shot through dew glistening off leaves or even a dusty kitchen window, can produce some creative shots. If you are looking for the crisp in focus shot through the window, keep it spotlessly clean or be prepared to shoot through an open window. 

Controlling the light

Observe the light movement in the garden. See what areas are in the shade and when.

In my garden I have a couple of hours after sunrise, then the whole garden, bar the far corner, is bathed in sunlight. This far corner is where I placed my feeding station.

On some days it can be a real struggle to get any usable light but, in the summer, when the days have lengthened, I can get a good shot with a nice dark background to my subject.

Tip

Do not be afraid to experiment. Think about shooting into light for example. A shot through dew glistening off leaves or even a dusty kitchen window, can produce some creative shots. If you are looking for the crisp in focus shot through the window, keep it spotlessly clean or be prepared to shoot through an open window. 

Some of the props in the garden

Lens selection

For most of us, images taken in the garden are going to be between 10ft and 30ft away. A focal length of 300mm will work just fine at those distances.

I use a 300mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter for most of my garden images with great success. If you don’t have a 300mm lens, don’t worry. There are some real bargains online for good quality third party teleconverters, which will help give you the extra reach. You can also try cropping in the images post-production too.

Most planned garden photography will be off a tripod or a bean bag to aid stability. So, consider using a camera remote or wired trigger to fire the camera and reduce any shake at that critical moment. Some more modern cameras can even be triggered from an app on your mobile phone.

Get ready for the shot

Pick your spot and once you have made your selection, plan the shot.

Set up your camera and make sure it is standing on an even surface. Then, compose in tight on the branch or perch.

Place food out of shot but in a way that it will still encourage the birds to land in your chosen spot. Now, you just have to sit back and wait for the opportunity to present itself. Patience is key here.

Tip

Not all photos have to be taken from a static position. Scatter gunning, shooting free hand, is a technique reliant on your skill and quick reactions. It’s really handy to capture action shots. However, there is no time to prepare composition or the background though; it is an intuitive way to shoot and allows you to be more reactive. A downside is that more images are destined for the bin. But, perseverance here will give one or two exceptional shots though.

Exposure

With a typical British spring, the light changes minute by minute. I tend to use aperture priority with auto ISO. This allows me to adjust on the hoof using the camera readings. I often make good use of the camera’s exposure compensation dial +/-.

Again, it is key to know your camera’s layout so you can make the adjustments while maintaining eyes on the subject through the viewfinder. 

Focusing

For predetermined set up, manual focus often works best. Pre-focusing on the spot and the use of live view enables you to zoom in and out and check the focus. This will help ensure your image is sharp.

Using the scatter gun technique with subject tracking in auto focus works well but has its limitations as it may not be 100 per cent accurate.

Auto focus with manual override helps stack the odds in your favour.

Shutter speed

For birds you will need to attain a fast shutter speed as this allows you to take sharp images of fast-moving subjects. I try to aim for 1/500sec or faster. 

Auto ISO can go some way to assist you with this tricky issue, especially in early mornings and late evenings.

Aperture

Setting your aperture manually will help you get the optimal balance with your depth of field and aid in achieving the all-important blurred background.

Try to aim between F5.6 and F8. The latter works better on full frame, F5.6 on APS-C and F4 on micro four-thirds shots.

Auto ISO

I have recently moved over to Auto ISO and it seems to work for me. I have one less thing to worry about at the critical moment.

I have set my Nikon D500 to maximum ISO of 6400 with ISO sensitivity of 100 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/500.

In cloudy conditions, I get approximately 1/500sec with ISO 500 at F8. In sunny weather 1/1000, F8 at ISO 160. Give it a try, it might work for you too.

Drive modes

To add to your success rate, set your camera to high speed continuous drive mode. If you have an option for silent shutter, use it – it will reduce the risk of scaring off the it to silent shutter to reduce risk of scaring off the bird. 

Postproduction

The removal of unwanted seeds and food can be achieved using software such as photoshop, lightroom or other software. Don’t over edit though as this can render the image unnatural looking.

Top 10 tips

  • Use a telephoto lens. If you don’t have a large lens consider a teleconverter.
  • Use a tripod to ensure your camera is steady.
  • Use flashes and remotes if you have them.
  • Use clamps to hold branches secure or plant matter in the background out the way during the shoot.
  • Know your camera settings and buttons.
  • Keep a notebook and pencil at hand.
  • Check your kit batteries are charged and ensure media card have plenty of free space.
  • Keep the lens clean.
  • Read up on species you plan on photographing. There is plenty of information out on the internet.
  • Be patient and prepared to wait for that perfect shot.
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