Safari in your own back-yard — tips for bird (and butterfly) photography

Updated: Jun 11

I have photographed birds in East Africa's Serengeti and in my own backyard. I get an adrenaline rush in both places.

When I first started shooting back yard bird photography, I would routinely set up my large Canon pro-rig on a tripod, attach my heavy telephoto lens and remote shutter, and off I went. Well, not so much.

Above, I photographed this image of two Cardinals in a tree near my driveway. I am pretty sure the foreground bird is the mother Cardinal and the background bird is her offspring. This is a good time to mention the concept of "depth-of-field." Notice the background bird is out of focus. I was shooting with a telephoto lens stretched out just about as far as she can zoom (200 mm). Telephotos inherently produce a short depth of field, which means there is not much in focus in front of and behind the main subject. You can use this to your advantage in most bird photography when the background is soft and creamy looking. In this case, if I had made different choices in the camera settings, I might have achieved both birds in tack-sharp focus. In retrospect I could have pumped up the ISO (more light sensitivity on the sensor), pulled back on the shutter speed which would have allowed me to shoot with a smaller aperture opening like f16.

The problem I discovered is photographer motion — even just a little motion. In such a tight space as your backyard or patio, just moving your face to the camera eyepiece can scare them off.

Above, catching birds in flight like this Mockingbird, in a confined backyard can be a real challenge. Everything is so much more up close and personal, and your reactions have to be lightening fast, way more so than photographing birds up in the sky. But, when it happens, it is a satisfying experience for sure. I photographed this bird with my older, full-frame SLR camera (Canon 5D Mark II) at 1/1600 of a second at aperture setting F5.6. It was 7:30 am, cloudy overcast and I did not have an abundance of light. To achieve that faster shutter speed I needed to bump my ISO to 2500. Higher ISOs will often create digital noise, so I always run photos like this through a de-noise app (in this case I used Topaz DeNoise AI and I really like this app). For bird photography, if you have a "burst-mode" setting on your camera, use it. Your rate of "keepers" will increase exponentially.

This male Robin posed in the branches of a nearby bush for just a moment. As a bird-photographer, you have to work fast and be ready to smoothly swing into action to get your shot before your new found friend perceives you as a threat and flies off. In this case, I noticed the branches moving and got myself into position. These pictures were all taken in about 10 seconds.

Then one day, I was sitting in my patio lounge chair, with my wife's little pocket Panasonic point-and-shoot camera in my lap, when a beautiful male Cardinal flew up to the fence and just sat there, daring me to take his picture.

I did not have time to react or lift my camera, so I just kept my eyes focused on the camera screen in my lap, then I slowly racked the zoom control to full telephoto, found the bird on the camera screen and started firing off shots. The camera did the auto-focusing. I was amazed at my results, all from a camera sitting in my lap.

I took the above picture on my patio with a Canon 5D Mark II, at ISO 2500, 1/2500 shutter speed at f/3.2 with a Canon telephoto zoom racked all the way out to 200mm. I was about 15 feet away from the bird. Other than stopping the action at mid-crunch with that high speed, look at the amazingly soft and creamy background. The lens did all of that along with the almost wide open f/3.2 aperture. I also ran the image through TOPAZ DeNoise AI and that software did a credible job of removing the digital noise created by the high ISO. In fact, all of these images have been processed through DeNoise.

With this Mockingbird shot, I was able to use the soft background to create a nice "bokeh" (sometimes called "circles of confusion"). Again, this photo was taken just off my patio area.

The key to success with a smaller point-and-shoot camera is that little screen on the back of the camera. It takes some technique, learning how to view the screen, instead of your viewfinder, but it works.

Below are some tips for great bird photography, right in your own backyard, with a simple point-and-shoot camera or a larger SLR.

A lighter feathered Mockingbird set against a darker background, especially a soft background, really can make the bird pop off the picture. I also like the framing in this image, with limbs below and above the bird. See below, where I describe how to use the "center-focus" on the lens to ensure sharp focus on the bird.

For backyard photography, I like to attract birds in a couple of ways. I keep two bird feeders loaded with food and that does the job for me. I position the feeders in an area where I can sit comfortably in my patio chair and get good line-of-sight to the places where the birds like to land.

When you graduate to shooting in the wild, there are certainly no bird-feeders in the forest to attract the birds, but you can use bird calls. There are many of them on YouTube. I even set up my favorite Cardinal bird calls, connected to a Bluetooth speaker near my fence. Depending on the quality of the recording, I almost always attract birds who come closer to investigate.

Learn from my mistakes. On the above photo of a female Cardinal, I shot at a 1/1000 shutter speed and it still was not fast enough to stop this bird's wings in motion. For that you will need 1/2000 of a second or more. To do that, you will likely be forced to ratchet up your ISO to over 2,000 or more, depending on availability of light that day.

For back-yard photography, I have noticed that invariably birds will do a trial landing in a safe zone near the feeder, before jumping to the food. That "safe zone" is normally on a branch, fence or railing and is a good place to take pictures.

It takes practice though, to pre-frame your shot. I now hold my point-and-shoot camera at chest level but far enough away that I can see the screen.

Also, with the camera set at full telephoto, the picture area is small. It is not easy to find the bird on your screen. I do a lot of pre-focusing and I pre-frame the camera near areas where I know birds tend to land.

Lighting is important; enough of it and the direction of it. I love to photograph birds early in the morning and late in the afternoon. I call this the 'sweet-light." I watch for locations where the birds tend to land and l try to position myself, so the light bathes the birds from the side or front (cross-lighting) and not from overhead. Noonday sun is the worst light, but you may be forced to use it.

I usually set my camera ISO at 800 (minimum) and often at ISO 1000 or even higher. Why? So, I can get a faster shutter speed. I try to never shoot under 1/1000th of a second if possible. The faster the better, and always in "burst-mode." Birds do move around a lot, even while they are sitting and eating. Also, at ISO 800-1200, you can set your camera on P" or "Automatic" and the camera will set a high shutter speed for you.

I should probably know what this bird is (above), but I don't. Send me a message under "contact" if you know and I will update this blog.

If you want to practice with this yourself, set your camera "S" (shutter-speed) setting on 1/500th to 1/800th, ISO 800 and watch where the camera f-stop sets itself when you take practice pics. Usually, it will take the photos at around f-5.9 to f8.0 which is enough to get the bird all in focus and still throw the background out of focus, which is desirable.

What do I mean by "throwing the background out of focus?" Take a moment to look at my bird photos. There is one common theme; the background is almost always soft-focus. This technique is called a "short depth of field" (depth of field is the area in front of and behind the bird, that is not in focus). A short depth of field makes the birds pop off the screen. Shooting with the long telephoto setting will automatically throw the background out of focus. My little Panasonic has a 250mm telephoto lens and that is a terrific lens for bird photography. Practice this technique; it will make your bird-pictures look great (people pictures too, but that is the subject of another post).

Focusing takes on a whole new meaning with bird photography. Your camera will do the heavy lifting for you, but there are some settings that will make things much easier (and your bird pictures show-worthy).

First, set your camera setting to focus on the smallest area (sometimes called "spot" mode, or AF or "Auto-Focus mode) and shown with an icon that looks like this.

The goal here is to get your auto-focus area as small as possible (on the bird), then the surrounding tree limbs, fence and lawn furniture won't be creating confusion for the camera, causing it to lose focus on the bird itself.

Then put that focus area in the center of your screen. Always focus on the birds there. I rarely compose my final pictures inside the camera. It is all happening too fast. I shoot with the bird in the center of the frame and crop the picture later to personal taste using a photo editing app (I use Adobe Photoshop, but there are many great apps like PicsArt, Google Photos, Snapseed and Pixlr, that will do the job nicely).

Here are a few more backyard shots. I also played around with an art style just for fun on the last one. I took a silhouette photo of two birds and did the rest in Photoshop.


Remember, the more you can fill your frame with the bird or butterflies like this Monarch above, the better (more tack-sharp) your pictures will look when you crop later to make big wall-size prints or post your pictures online. Of course, that means getting as close to the birds (or butterflies) as close as you can without spooking them.

Speaking of butterflies, as a hobby, while in season, nothing is more fun than photographing butterflies. We plant Lantana, milkweed and other flowers around the house just for that purpose. I am including some of my favorite butterfly images here, but in full disclosure, almost all of these were taken away from my home, in rural East Texas locations where I do most of my butterfly photography.

I use a telephoto lens on all of my butterfly shots for one very practical reason — butterflies will not sit for long if you get your camera up too close to their space. Also, as an added advantage, telephoto lenses create awesome background blur (bokeh).

Be aware though, long telephoto lenses also create a short depth of field. You might end up with the head of the butterfly in focus and the tail is soft. To correct this issue, stop down the lens to a smaller aperture (like f/12) if you have enough light to do so.

The Black Swallowtail Butterfly (above) was photographed from a car at about 30 feet away.

The Monarchs in this series were all photographed with a 200 mm telephoto lens at about f/5.6. Note the shallow depth-of-field producing an almost ideal creamy background. This is called "selective-focus" photography.

On the Monarch above, my depth-of-field was extremely shallow (the width of the butterfly). One wing is in focus tack-sharp and one wind is not. Everything else is tack-sharp. What could I have done to get both wings in focus? HINT: increase the f-stop. I went back and looked at this image and checked the metadata. Did you know that all of your camera settings are saved for each digital picture? I exposed this image with a 200 mm zoom lens, exposed at f/5, 1/500th of a second with an ISO of 800. In retrospect, I should have exposed it at least f/8 and maybe f/10. To keep the favorable fast shutter speed, I would have needed to increase my ISO to at least 1000.

On the Monarch butterfly photo above, everything was working except depth of field and some blur motion on the nearest wing. The butterfly head and stamen is tack-sharp. Think to yourself, how could I have fixed this one to be a perfect butterfly photo? HINT: use a faster shutter speed (maybe 1/1500 or even 1/2000 of a second). I shot this at 1/640th of a second, which was a bit too slow. To achieve faster shutter speeds, you likely will need to dial in a faster ISO (ISO 1,600 or higher — I used ISO 250) which will create some digital noise that can be removed in post-editing using a software like Topaz NeNoise. Also, the short depth of field (approximately the width of the butterfly) was created by me shooting with a my f-stop too open (I shot this at f/5.6) when really I should have tried for f8 or higher (even f/11 would have been better).

I love this Monarch photo. It has all the makings of a technically good butterfly shot. I took the image with a 200mm telephoto. The background has that creamy soft look that is a hallmark of good insect pics.

Photography in the wild

Below are a few bird photos I shot while visiting an East Texas wildlife preserve. These were taken with a relatively short telephoto lens. Really excellent bird photography in the wild requires specialized equipment like an SLR or mirrorless camera and a longer mega-telephoto lens (500mm to 600mm or longer). Until I can acquire such a lens, I shoot the best photos I can with the tools I have, and I encourage you to do the same.

The Great Blue Heron above was photographed at 1/800th of a second which managed to get the image but I think 1/1000th would have been even better. I was shooting at ISO 800 and f/10.

Above, this photograph is a pair of immature White Ibis and a Snowy Egret exposed at f/13, with a shutter speed of 1/1250 of a second, at ISO 850. If I had been in an experimenting mood, I might have played around with my camera's HDR (High Dynamic Range) settings. The concept for HDR photography is to compensate for the brightest whites and the deepest shadows in the same photograph. Most cameras cannot cover such a range of of seep shadows and bright whites in the same image. Most newer cameras have a setting that allows the photographer to automatically shoot three photos of each exposure; one correct exposure which is the camera's best attempt to the the whole scene right; one under exposed by any setting you choose (say one f/stop under) to try and bring down the blown-out whites; and one over-exposed by any setting to bring out detail in the dark, deep shadows. Then, in post-editing software (like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop), you merge the three different images to capture the "whole" image (including correctly exposed dark shadows and blown out whites). It is a great concept but requires some pre-planning.

Above, I photographed this Double-crested Cormorant at 1/1000 of a second, f/10 with an ISO of 840. I might also have used HDR photography here to better capture the tonality range of the darker body of the bird (shadows) and the white rocks that are blown out.

Above, this Great Egret was photographed at 1/800th of a second, f/8 and ISO 600. This was the only bird in this series that was acceptable. I made a few mistakes. Really, for this shooting situation I should have cranked my ISO up to 1,500, shot at 1/2000 of a second and the f/8 f-stop would have been fine.

Above, I photographed this Great Blue Heron at Caddo Lake, Texas which is the subject of another post. I got lucky with this one. I was photographing landscapes that day and I had my camera set at ISO 100, which forced me to use a lower shutter speed (1/400 second). The bird was a grab-shot and I was not prepared. I took 4-5 images of this same bird and all but this one were either blurred or simply out-of-focus. For bird photography, if you have a "burst-mode" setting on your camera, use it.

There we go, bird (and butterfly) photography 101 in one easy lesson. I will end this post with a dragonfly photo on my patio. I hope you will try wildlife photography, even in your own backyard and patio. It is fun and satisfying and a great hobby.

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