You don’t have to go far to capture great images of wildlife, and of birds in particular. A simple water feature, even a DIY one in your backyard, provides plenty of opportunity to observe birds from home. But to capture stunning photos, you’ll need a little preparation.

Create Attractive Habitat 

You can always create a bird-friendly backyard by planting native trees, bushes, and flowers. Another strong bet for attracting birds is a water feature: Flycatchers and insect-eaters won’t come to your feeder, but they can’t resist a simple fountain or bath. Make sure you keep both your water feature and feeder clean (try using white vinegar). You can also place artificial perches at judicious spots where the background is nice or the light falls nicely.

Pick a Fountain or Bath

From homemade bird baths to sophisticated fountains, you won’t lack for choices in setting up a water feature. You can simply use a terra-cotta plate on top of an upside-down flower pot, fill it with water (not too deep, an inch of water is enough), and add a few pebbles in the center so birds can stand on them without getting wet.

You can also find running-water bird baths in a garden store for a reasonable price, but again, make sure the water is no deeper than 1.5 inches, maximum. The sound and sight of moving or dripping water is irresistible and can attract all kinds of species: Hummingbirds may come to drink and bathe, as well as finches and all sorts of warblers and thrushes. California Quails also frequent my fountain at home.

Place your water feature in a shady area with vegetation around. That helps birds feel safer. In the open, they are vulnerable to predators.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo: Sandrine Biziaux-Scherson

Set Up Your Background

Pay attention to the background of your subjects. A very busy background can distract. You may want to lure subjects a few feet away from your desired backdrop and blur it by using a shallow depth of field (use a small number like f/4 or f/5.6). Geometric backgrounds, such as houses, walls, or cars, are usually not aesthetically pleasing; colorful flowers or vegetation a few feet behind your subject, melting into an artistic blur, are preferable.

If you want the water droplets to stand out on your picture, a darker background will help the effect: Get the light on your fountain and the background in the shade. Position your camera so the bird is not necessarily in the center of the frame and give your subject a little space so your viewer can also see the surroundings.

Choose an Ideal Time of Day 

Morning is my favorite time of day because birds are usually very active and the light is soft and nice. Check the light at different times of day to see how it falls on your water feature. You can then decide which time is best for photography.

Considering the season is also important. For instance, birds are very active in spring looking for mates. If you have feeders, they may bring their young with them, and you can watch adults feeding the chicks.

Prepare Your Gear 

Photography is as much about gear as creativity and patience. While many point-and-shoot cameras will do a great job, more sophisticated equipment may help you release your creativity and achieve better results. 

Use a tripod. I suggest using long lenses (a 300mm lens is usually the minimum) and setting up your gear inside your house or hidden behind a bush or a tree. Sometimes, you don’t even have to hide—after awhile, birds will get accustomed to you if you stay still. If you have a remote control, you can pre-focus your camera, sit back, and use the remote to fire off the shutter at a distance.

Use the Right Settings

A lot will depend on the light available. I like using a shallow depth of field (f/4, for example) for three reasons: This gives my pictures a nice “bokeh’’ (blur created by the out-of-focus part of the image), isolates my subject from the background, and allows me to work with high shutter speeds. The latter is indispensable for birds in flight or to achieve the effect of water droplets frozen in mid-air. To get a water freeze effect, use a high shutter speed (in good lighting conditions, up to 1/3000). If, instead, you want a moving water blur, use a steady tripod, make sure the bird is still (not easy with many birds), and use exposures from 2 seconds up to about 1/8 second.

When birds start bathing and splashing do not hesitate to try backlit photography. This creates halos or rims around your subjects and yields amazing shots. Avoid including the sun in the frame, however, as it can erase all the details of your subject. Instead, try blocking it, either with your subject or maybe a tree. Make sure you use a hood to avoid lens flare. You’ll also have to decide if you want to capture either the details or the shape of your subject (as in a silhouette shot). If it’s shape, expose for the highlights, but if you are looking for more details, expose for the dark areas.

Keep Practicing

One essential tip: practice, practice, practice. Try different angles, settings, and moments of the day, and don’t expect the perfect shot immediately. The more you practice, the more you’ll get to know the birds’ habits and the easier it will be to master the light. For example, my hummers are the firsts in the morning, and the doves like to come at sunset.

Once your bird bath is ready, your camera is on a tripod, relax, and wait. Be patient. Hey, a goldfinch is coming already. Click!

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