Despite the challenges and frustrations, bird photography is one of the most rewarding types of photography. In the wild, a photographer has little control over which tree a bird will land on or the direction of the light. And birds rarely allow a close approach by humans. Given these challenges, most people just give up.
You can increase your odds of snapping great avian shots by using your own backyard. When you invite wildlife into your "wilderness," you suddenly have some control. You gain influence over light, perch and background — the three keys to great bird photography. And unlike in the wild, birds actually tolerate the presence of clumsy bipeds with cameras in this "urban" environment.
One of the most basic tools at your disposal is an understanding of light. Surprisingly, cloudy days offer terrific light in every direction. On sunny days, try pointing your shadow directly at your subject. Prepare in advance by taking notes of the location of sunlight in your yard at different times of day. This information will help you decide where to place your feeding stations.
Bird feeders are an excellent way to attract a variety of songbirds. Different types of feeders use different types of seed, thus attracting different species. The downside of feeders is that they don't offer the most artistic backdrop for your images. Rusty, old tray feeders or torn Niger thistle seed sacks may look great to finches, but they will detract from your photography.
There is another way. Pay close attention to how birds approach feeders and where they land immediately before and after grabbing seeds. Most songbirds never begin feeding until they know the coast is clear. For example, if you have an attractive birch, hang a small tube feeder right on it or next to it. Then your target will not be the bird on the feeder, but the bird cautiously surveying the land from the birch next to the feeder.
If you're really determined, collect some attractive twigs from the local woods and attach the twigs to the feeder itself. Creative use of tape and nails makes it easy to attach perches to feeders. Planting trees, shrubs and flowers that are inviting to birds can be a great alternative to bird feeders. Your local nursery can suggest a variety of bird-friendly options. In other words — think native species.
Background is another consideration when setting up your bird photography "studio." There's no better way to ruin a beautiful bird portrait than to have the neighbor's garbage cans occupying half the frame. The best backgrounds are usually far in the distance. Lush green grasses, fall foliage or spring flowers provide pleasing backdrops for bird images — and the farther away they are from the main subject, the better. The resulting photographs will direct all of the viewers' attention to the bird.
In addition to following these guidelines, you can learn a great deal by reviewing your own photographs. Study the whole image, not just the bird. Maybe you'll notice a green blob in the background that's actually a garden hose, or that light came from the side, resulting in deep shadows around the bird's eyes. Keep evaluating your results and think of creative ways to improve.
Finally, the welfare of your wildlife subjects should always come first. If the neighborhood cat can sneak up on an unsuspecting goldfinch, move the feeder to a more open location. If there are frequent window collisions, it may also be time to find a better location. Remember to keep the seed fresh and feeders clean. With diligence and some good luck, you'll be framing those photographs!