Using your garden for wildlife photography - Part 3 - dradd's photography

August 2018

Welcome to part 3 of this blog series. I hope you've managed to read parts one and 2. If not, they can be found here for part 1, and here for part 2.

This is a photo of one of the blue tit adults bringing food for the young in the bird box at the side of our house. Read further below about how I got this shot.

Oh, and feel free to click on the photos for larger versions. 

The Rig

It was around now I wanted more control over the shots of birds visiting the garden, in as much I wanted to control the backgrounds better.

To this end a contraption that became known (mainly to me) as 'The Rig' came into being.

This was an upright frame with a tray for bird seed at one end, and a platform to mount the PIR sensor at the other end. With the PIR connected to the camera, I could photograph birds as they fed on the seed. The beauty of this was that I could move the rig around the garden depending on the light, and hence control light and background. What could possibly go wrong? The Rig went through a few designs before the final version became operational. I was quite pleased with the results as it was mostly made from spare bits of wood I had in my shed, so it cost me next to nothing to make.

The Rig was a simple upright affair. A place to mount the PIR sensor at one end, which would cover a tray seed at the other. Any camera would sit away from the frame, maybe on a tripod, triggered remotely by the PIR when a bird landed on the seed tray.

The Rig was a simple upright affair. A place to mount the PIR sensor at one end, which would cover a tray seed at the other. Any camera would sit away from the frame, maybe on a tripod, triggered remotely by the PIR when a bird landed on the seed tray.

Sadly this was one of those cases when the idea had more merit than practical use. The best I could manage in attracting to The Rig was wood pigeons (who would sit and gorge on all the available seed), and the occasional blackbird.

And as to moving it around the garden, this didn't yield great results as the birds local to our garden had become used to the position of the feeders, so anything new, or something placed in a new position in the garden made them wary. I noticed birds would rather take seed from the ground than venture to a tray a few feet off the ground that was full of seed.

But I kept on persevering with The Rig, and got some interesting shots, and a lot of less interesting ones. As already mentioned, the only birds to make use of it were pigeons, and not even the sound of the camera shutter continuously going off would make them fly away. It cost me a small fortune in bird seed.

  • This shows the PIR linked via a cable to the camera which is on a tripod, covered with a scrim net.

  • Wireless trigger hooked up to PIR sensor.

  • I got a lot of shots of pigeons eating seed.

  • Occasionally a blackbird would land on it and look for seed.

  • Even when there wasn't seed in the tray, pigeons would sit on it.

  • Stats for this remote camera trap shot: Old #Canon EOS600D body, EF-S18-135mm lens, ISO3200, 1/640 at f/8.0. Camtraptions PIR and wireless triggers. Scruffy pigeon. Quick tidy up in Lightroom All good. You don't need the latest gear all the time...

So The Rig stayed out in all weathers, but the last winter proved too much for it and despite it being coated with fence paint to protect the wood, it'd got too wet and now all the screws and fittings are lose. It needs a re-think but for now it is resting next to our garden shed.

Winter long tailed tits

Winter 2017/18 we were blessed with a number of long tailed tits visiting the garden. They went mad for the pellets on offer in the feeder, and after several attempts at photographing them on the feeders at the end of the garden, I rigged up the old feeder stand in the middle of the garden (closer to the house so I could shoot from the bedroom window) with a pellet feeder. This worked a treat, attracting a lot of activity.

I then started thinking about what sort of shot I wanted, and attached a branch to the feeder stand, hoping to get shots of the birds lined up on a 'branch' waiting to get to the feeder hanging just above it.

But side on shots of these wonderful little birds wasn't enough for me as most shots of these birds posted online were all the same. I wanted to get a different view. I wanted to get closer.

It's then I had an idea. Why not shoot from above?

So I set to work thinking about how I could get a 'top down' shot of these birds feeding.

To this end I employed the following kit:

- EOS70D - because the silent shooting mode was quieter than the EOS600D, as in it actually had one.

- 50mm f/1.4 lens - the 'nifty fifty' because it was lightweight and would give a good blurred background.

- Gorillapod - to hold the camera to the bird feeder.

- Remote triggers

- PIR sensor

The aforementioned gear was assembled as per shown in the photo, and after some trial and error, I started to get some interesting shots.

Focusing was a bit of an issue and I chose to use manual focussing mode, meaning I had to pre-focus the lens at a fixed point on the feeder.

The reasons I chose manual over auto were:

- The auto focus on the 50mm f/1.4 is slow.

- By the time it had focussed the bird could have flown off.

I needed to the camera to fire as soon as a bird landed as they didn't hang around on it for too long. I guess this was because it was exposed in the middle of the lawn, and not near the shelter of the hedges at the end of the garden as per the larger feeder.

Of course I didn't just capture long tailed tits in their fashion; I got the occasional blue tit too.

Sure, these photos weren't going to win any awards, but sometimes its just about the thrill of getting shots of birds going about their business, but from a different perspective.

After having some fun with this setup, I moved to a more conventional approach, and looked to get side on shots of the birds on the feeders and on the makeshift branch. Again results were mixed, but this whole process was a lot of fun and good learning experience, and I kept at it until the seasons changed and the long tailed tits left.

Sometimes I wondered if these little birds knew they were part of photography experiment. I shot this from the house to give a sense of bird vs. photography kit scale.

Watching the blue tits nest

Late last autumn we brought a bird box on a whim while out doing our weekly shop. I mounted it to the east side of the house, and forgot about it.

Cue spring and we noticed a blue tit sniffing around it, so to speak.

Some time later I noticed nesting material poking out from the underside of the box. This looked promising.

Now, this is where I learn't a huge lesson: if you're going to provide nesting facilities for garden birds and you hope to photograph them, actually get a box that has camera facilities, or is placed where you can easily mount a camera to monitor the goings on in the nest.

I had done none of this, and was now regretting it.

As it became apparent we now had an active bird box with baby blue tits in it and parents coming and going on feeding runs around the clock, I had no way of actually getting a decent photographs of this activity without disturbing the box.

I felt a bit silly!

So the only thing for it was to 'think outside the box' so to speak. This resulted in me positioning myself and camera some way back from the box, with a big lens, in the hope of getting shots of the parents flying in and out of the box.

  • Canon 1DXII and 100-400mm lens mounted on tripod under a tree, pointing at the nest box.

  • View of the nest box on the side of the house (just under the eves).

  • View of the adults birds coming in with food for the young.

Thankfully this arrangement worked, and I got some nice shots, but plans are already in place for next spring, and a box mounted where I can place remote cameras.

Our family of wild rats

We've always had a wild at in the garden since we moved in here, and at most we've had a pair, but this summer we were in for a real treat - our resident female gave birth to a litter of 8!

(We'd named this female 'Petal' as she was a regular sight in the garden, and rather than say "The rat's in the garden" it felt better to say "Petal's out feeding again".)

Now some would tremble at that figure, but this family of rats has been responsible for clearing up the seed that drops from the feeders, and keeping the ground around said bird feeders tidy. It's also given me some great photo opportunities.

After studying their movements, I set up the trusty EOS600D and PIR sensor to get some shots of the babies as they came out of their hiding place around our pond.

I was rewarded with a number of shots which I'm very pleased with, and to be honest, the youngsters have become used to the sound of the camera shutter going off, and random bits of camera kit littering their feeding area.

The setup... various incarnations of camera and PIR locations

Summing up

This has been a great experience, and with what I have learnt I am able to photograph pretty much anything that ventures into the garden now.

But sometimes it not just about taking photos. It's about watching the activities of wildlife in the garden, seeing its habits, where it feeds from and where it takes shelter, and most importantly, how to take photos of it without disturbing it. In the meantime I'll keep on taking photos of garden wildlife for all those time is can't get out to photograph wildlife 'out on the field'.

I hope these blog posts have been useful in some small way, and if you have any questions or comments, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Thanks for reading.

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