While it is relatively straightforward to take portraits of birds in our garden, David Tipling shows how to capture them in action. Don’t miss his upcoming AP workshops, too

Food for wild birds is at its scarcest in February and March, so the numbers visiting gardens peak. This creates good opportunities to capture birds in flight in our garden and with more hungry mouths, this inevitably leads to conflict around bird feeders. Some species are more feisty than others with goldfinches, greenfinches, starlings and blackbirds the most likely candidates for a scuffle.

As well as photographing aggression, this is the perfect time for capturing flight shots. Plumage is at its best before the breeding season gets under way and as we start to come out of winter the sun is getting stronger, giving a bit more light to work with.

robin garden bird in flight

Robin landing on fork handle. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk lll, 1/2000sec at f/2.8, ISO 800, taken using Pro Capture at the high setting

You can create a set with a woodland feel with logs and leaves or you might want to give a garden atmosphere to your pictures using flower pots, fork handles and so on. The important consideration is the position for the best light, ideally in the sun and with a good background.

Good backgrounds

I tend to have three or four bird feeders hung up when I am not photographing. When I come to photograph I remove them all except for one. This helps create a queuing system for birds arriving and having to wait to get to the food. You can make the bird food receptacle part of the picture by using a flower pot or other garden implement.

For a natural look, hollow out part of a log to hide the food from the camera. This provides a natural-looking perch where birds congregate. This approach is better than using a garden bird feeder for photographing conflict as fights usually break out at the food source – so having something more natural in the frame is beneficial.

blue tit garden bird in flight

Blue tit. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk ll, 1/2500sec at f/4, ISO 400

Backgrounds are important to ensure there are no distractions. The cleaner the better but this can be challenging in a small garden. A false background created from a painted sheet or board can work well. Greens and browns or perhaps a pale blue to mimic the sky are all good options for a natural look.

Once everything is set up, where you plan to conceal yourself will dictate lens focal length to choose. You do not want to frame too tightly especially when two birds are squabbling. So having space for the subject to be cropped later is a good idea as the action is usually so fast, it is hard to assess where in the frame the birds are.

Keep it up

Shutter speeds need to be high. I usually try not to drop lower than 1/2000sec, however you can sometimes get away with a slower speed for larger birds. A good rule of thumb is the smaller the bird the faster the shutter speed you require. When I have enough light then I use a 1/4000sec shutter speed to freeze a blue or great tit’s wings.

black birds in the garden

Blackbirds fighting. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk lll, 1/4000sec at f/4, ISO 800

Aperture is always a balance between keeping your background softly out of focus and having enough depth of field to ensure two fighting birds are both sharp; this can be helped by making sure you are parallel to your food source.

Autofocus can work well for birds squabbling over food. However, flight shots of small garden birds arriving or departing from the feeder are best captured by pre-focusing. Place a perch a short way from the feeder but in the same line of focus so it is parallel to you, then capture the bird in flight between perch and feeder.

To do this you can pre-focus on a garden cane placed midway between perch and feeder, pre-focus on the top of the cane, then remove it. You then need to fire away each time a bird leaves the perch to go on to the feeder. I tend not to use the viewfinder but I have the camera and lens locked down on a tripod then I fire the shutter as soon as the bird takes off from the perch, hopefully capturing it midway between perch and feeder.

Why it works

great tit flying

Great tit. Olympus OM-D E-M1X, 300mm, 1/4000sec at f/5.6, ISO 400, taken using Pro Capture at the high setting

Photographing small garden birds in flight is challenging and you should expect plenty of near misses. I like to experiment with the direction of light. My West-facing garden allows me to shoot into the light. On this occasion I set up a feeder and a perch 2 metres apart. There was constant activity, allowing for lots of shots to be taken.

After checking a number of pictures I was finding the left-hand part of the frame was often empty, creating dynamic tension within the picture. I felt that I needed some balance to the composition so I introduced a pot plant with a single stem to the set. The resulting pictures have a better balance to the composition because the plant on the left, I feel, helps to draw the eye back into the picture.

I like this image for the translucent effect of the light shining through the feathers and the great tit’s wing position. The picture was captured at 1/4000sec using the Olympus Pro Capture feature. This gives an advantage for this type of photography as I was able to fire the shutter as soon as a bird entered the frame and finish often with a series of three to five pictures from which I could choose the garden birds at their best.

Kit list for photographing birds in flight

Camo nets

Camouflage netting comes in very useful if you want to conceal your camera or string a net across a shed door or between canes to create a screen from which you can sit behind.

Wireless trigger

By setting your camera up on a tripod you can then fire the camera remotely in the garden while you stay in the warmth of your house. This is a good workaround if finding somewhere in the garden to hide away or shooting from the house is not feasible.

Flex arm with spring clamp

A very useful gadget for fixing to a pole or other upright to hold an attractive perch in place in a specific spot either for birds to perch on or to add decoration to part of the frame.

Study with David Tipling

Wildlife ace David writes or contributes to many books, including the RSPB Guide to Digital Wildlife Photography. David will also be leading some of our photography workshops in the UK and Abroad with Zoom Photo Tours:

Birds of Bempton Cliffs with David Tipling 12-14 June, 2022

Sea birds of the Farne Islands with David Tipling 4-7 July, 2022

Slimbridge Wetland Centre with David Tipling 27-29 January, 2023

Birds of India with David Tipling 12-18 November 2023

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