Garden Feeding Station for Bird Photography

Setting up a garden feeding station is a great way to attract birds to your garden and practice some bird photography.  It also helps small birds during the winter periods when food can be sparse.

I believe that starting a project like this will set you on the right path if you want to take your photography to the next level.  This is because it gets you in the mindset of thinking like a wildlife photographer. You have to consider all the variables.

Like:

  • Attracting your subject
  • Using a hide
  • Light direction
  • Background
  • Distance from you to subject
  • Distance from subject to background
  • Other elements in frame such as branches, logs etc.

The more variables you can think of the better your photographs will be.

Here are some of the lessons I picked up when I set up my own feeding station, and some tips I got from books and videos.

Attracting Birds

When it comes to attracting birds to your garden you can put in as much or little effort as you want.  It doesn’t take much to attract the most opportunistic birds. 

I went with a simple bird feeder that I filled with peanuts and got species such as blue tit, coal tit, great tit, chaffinch, house sparrow on my feeder, as well as blackbird, dunnock, wren and robin on the grass below my feeder.

Chaffinch on feeder.

One thing that is important is to place your feeders close to somewhere safe for the birds to retreat to.  By placing your feeding station close to a hedge or shrub the birds have an easy escape route. They will also come more readily to a new feeder if there’s a hiding place nearby.

To attract more species it helps to keep feeders out over a long time so that more birds will find out about it and use it as a consistent food source. 

You’ll also have to experiment with different types of food for the birds. Species such as goldfinch and siskin prefer nyjer seeds, but of course it depends on where you live if you can attract certain species.

To get more information on feeding platforms and feed for certain species check out the RSPB website.

Remember to clean your feeders to prevent disease spreading.

Using a hide

Garden birds aren’t as skittish as many animals, but you’ll still want to stay hidden or at least partially hidden to give you the best photo opportunities.  I work with Tragopan who make hides and equipment for wildlife photographers so I used their photography hide, Monal which has space enough for two photographers and 6 windows to shoot from.

There are plenty of options for building your own DIY hide, throwing up some camo net or even shooting through your window from inside your house.

Light direction

One of the most important considerations is where the light will come from.  So observing the sunlight falling on your garden or using an app like Photographer’s Ephemeris can tell you where the light is going to be at what time.  I’d say the app is a good guidance, but actual observation works best, that way you know if a house or tree is going to block sunlight at a particular time.

Front light or sidelight is likely going to be best, unless you want to experiment with back light and silhouette shots.  For front light you want the sun coming from behind you and hit the birds straight on.  Though, beware the height of your hide as it may cast a shade.  This happened to me, but an easy fix was to move my setup a little so that the light came at an angle between front and side lit.

Golden hour(s) will be best so it’s important to set it up so that you either get good light in the morning or evening, depending on when suits you best.

Background

For your background you want to something clean and even coloured, darker colours can help make your birds pop.  Most importantly you need to pick a distance which will allow you to throw your background out of focus to make it nice and soft. 

A distracting fence post in my background.

Darker backgrounds are ideal for bringing out raindrops for some moody shots on wet days.

The distance will depend on the equipment you are using and the distance between yourself and the subject.  In “The Handbook for Bird Photography” Bence Mate recommends that the background should be twice the distance between the subject and the lens, preferably even more.

This is a good starting point, but take some test shots to make sure you acquire the desired effect with your equipment.

BTW I highly recommend “The Handbook for Bird Photography” – It’s packed full of good advice and incredible imagery over 350 pages by some of the world’s best bird photographers Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomaki and Bence Mate. 

Natural elements

Finally, we need to add something natural for the birds to land on so that our shots will look aesthetically pleasing and ideally not all containing a bird feeder.  I experimented with several different positions for branches that I wanted the birds to land on, and I found most success by placing the branch directly above the feeder.

The birds would often fly to this branch and drop down to the feeder after looking around for danger.  Sometimes they also had to wait their turn.  It can help to block off some feeding entrances and only leaving one open when you’re photographing.  This way birds will often land on nearby branches when the feeder is busy.

Branch taped above feeder and 360 camera to try and record the action.

Blue tit on large branch.

The size of the branch matters.  For a small birds you want a small branch so that it looks natural.  The blue tit here landed on the large branch my feeder was hanging from, and I think the large size of the branch creates an unbalance to the image.

Blue tit on a smaller, more natural looking branch.

Blocking feeding entrances can also help to predict the flight path of the birds to and from the feeder when you’re wanting to practice some photography of birds in flight.

Hopefully, these tips will come in handy if you want to setup up your own feeding station to photograph birds up close.

Some further reading material that can be useful for more tips:

Secrets of Backyard Bird Photography by J. Chris Hansen

The Handbook of Bird Photography by Markus Varesvuo, Jari Peltomaki and Bence Mate

For my garden bird photography setup, I used my Canon 7D mark ii with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens.  For a complete breakdown of my equipment, you can check out my gear post here.