How to photograph wildlife in your own backyard
I am a lover of wildlife. The beauty that surrounds us on a daily basis and watching it change from season to season inspires me.
I feel a deep connection to the birds and animals that share my land with me. I strive to learn as much as I can about them. This connection helps me better understand their habits so I can be a better wildlife photographer.
Here are some tips that I use to help me capture the world that lives in my backyard.
Patience, observation and learning
Patience is essential when observing and photographing wildlife. You can spend hours watching the movement and colors around you. This allows you to get to know the kinds of animals who live in your yard and better understand their behavior so that you can anticipate photographable moments. Be sure to observe with your ears, too! Knowing the songs and sounds of the wildlife that visits your yard will help you find animals and birds that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The next step is research. Comb the internet, field guides, and phone apps. These tools are incredibly helpful in learning all about the birds who live with you year round and those who migrate and who only spend a season with you so that you know precisely when to look for them. The Audubon Bird Guide App is a favorite as it allows you to identify, research, document, and share the birds that you have observed.
Putting out bird feeders to attract songbirds to your yard and giving them a place to rest is a great way to ensure that you have plenty of wildlife subjects. All of this helps me be a better photographer because I have a greater understanding of their habits on a daily basis and where I need to be to capture them.
Get to know your gear
Of course the wildlife isn’t going to stand and pose for you. Most of the time they are scared of humans as a defense mechanism.
Therefore, being able to capture them from afar as undetected as possible is definitely a must. A fast camera that can shoot at a high frames per second (I shoot with a Canon 7DMII) is a good idea to capture wildlife. This allows me to take A LOT of photos in a very short amount of time so that I can get every slight movement of my wildlife subjects and choose the one that is best when I pull it up onto my computer screen. The tiniest flutter of a wing or tilt of a head or blink of an eye can make all the difference. Having a camera that can keep-up with those movements can be a huge asset!
Also having a long telephoto lens so that you can reach your subjects without encroaching on their space is also necessary. I shoot with a Sigma 150-600 and a Canon 100-400L. Both are great lenses for wildlife shooting as they allow me to photograph my subjects from a great distance. With a telephoto lens your photos look as though you were right next to the wildlife you are photographing while being far enough away to keep from disturbing them.
There are plenty of telephoto lenses to choose from, but having the focal length over 200mm can really bring the wildlife closer to you.
Related: Prime vs. zoom lenses: What’s the difference and what are they good for?
Use bursting mode
Remember that fast camera? Bursting mode, or hyper-drive, is your friend. Birds move fast and keeping your shutter speed as high as you can will be very helpful.
A high shutter speed ensures that your camera’s shutter moves quickly enough to freeze quick movements. A hummingbird beats its wings 10-15 times per second so your camera will need to move much faster than that to keep those wings from looking blurry. You can find the shutter speed that works best for you, but I don’t recommend going below 1/400 second (and go faster if you can!).
Not only do you need a high shutter speed, but you need to shoot quickly. While you do not need to take 100 photos in a minute of the same bird (that would be a nightmare to cull!), having your camera set to burst mode can be incredibly helpful. I always take at least 2-4 photos at a time in succession before I stop, recompose and take 2-4 more. In that short amount of time, a bird can change their position 3 or 4 times. You will want to give yourself a few choices of shots. Chances are one of them will have the head position you were looking for.
Shoot anytime of day
While the early bird gets the worm, you can find birds out all day long! Of course you can go out during golden hour and capture them, but you are certainly not limited to that time of day.
I am not an early riser and my evenings are often full of family commitments. Therefore I like to shoot during the daytime hours. I simply have to be mindful of my lighting.
My favorite light to shoot wildlife is when it is overcast or cloudy. The light is beautifully filtered and the birds are lit evenly. If I must shoot in full midday sun, then I try to find some shade.
Find the time of day that works best for your temperament and schedule and see what wildlife and light you can find in your own yard!
Related: 4 exercises to help you find the light
If shade is not available, then backlighting is the way to go. Just like with humans, I like it when the light is behind my subjects and I expose for the shadows.
Chances are you won’t have much time to change your positioning before the animal takes off. If you can move yourself around, position yourself so that the sun is not shining directly onto the subject to avoid shadows.
With these four tips you will be well on your way to shooting the wildlife in your backyard and neighborhood.
Tell us about the kinds of wildlife that live in your world in the comments below!
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