Bird feeders are a useful way to attract photo subjects, but they don’t usually make the best backdrops for your shots. Fortunately, most birds prefer to perch near a feeder for a moment before they fly in. With some careful planning, you can create a photogenic pre-meal landing spot.
Prep the Bird’s Perch
Where you place the bird feeder and the perch depends on where you’ll be positioned and at what time of day. You’ll want the light to come from directly behind you (although sometimes backlighting can be beautiful, too). Birds are most active in the morning, right after dawn––if you plan to shoot then, position the perch facing east. Keep in mind the bird will always orient its face and body towards the feeder, so place the feeder in a similar plane to the perch.
Consider the background carefully—it’s just as important as the perch you choose. A distant background is better than a close one, allowing the bird to stand out more distinctly. Shooting at a wide aperture helps separate the bird from the background too. Try thinking about color like a painter with a canvas, making use of fall foliage, out-of-focus blossoms, or other details that could add subtle interest. Make sure no poles or branches in the background have a chance of intersecting the body of the bird, even if out of focus. Some photographers will even go to a fabric store and hang a large cloth behind the feeder that is a specific color or out-of-focus pattern.
First, determine if there’s a natural perch you can place a feeder near. It should offer a good line of sight from where you will be standing. I have a wonderful wisteria bush near my feeder that has provided many great photographic opportunities for me, and I can shoot from my windows.
Usually, you will need to create a perch. Find an appealing branch, preferably one with leaves, buds, or blossoms to make a standard bird portrait more artful. Take a walk through nearby woods, and find one covered with moss or lichen. Try to choose branches that are dark or mid-toned; lighter-colored ones will distract the viewer’s eye from the bird. With a clamp, attach the branch to vegetation already near the feeder, or place a metal stake in the ground for support. Put the perch on a slant—straight across is less visually interesting. Make sure it’s more or less parallel along its length to your camera’s position.
If you need to buy a perch, consider using a container plant that does double duty as food. Sunflowers draw all kinds of seed-eating birds, while flowering plants, especially red tubular ones like cardinal flowers, will attract hummingbirds.
Decide Where You’ll Perch
Sometimes, if you sit or garden near your feeder a lot, birds accept you nearby as a benign presence. But for most of us, ensuring natural, relaxed behavior in our subjects means concealing ourselves. Cheap hunting tent blinds are easy to set up and can remain in your yard for a full season. A tripod and comfortable chair are essential. Your car can make a great blind as well, if in view of the feeder/perch. Use a beanbag to prop your camera on the windowsill.
Backyard photography from your house can produce great images while giving you lots of flexibility. You can sit in a comfortable seat and aim your lens by hand or tripod out an open door or window. This can be particularly good with hummingbird feeders placed nearby. Shooting from the second floor can put you in the treetops, granting access to all kinds of natural perches. Do watch out for heat shimmer if it’s very warm in the building and cold outside.
Can you shoot through glass? Yes, but only if you avoid reflections by placing the lens hood right up to the window. Results will be highly variable and only you can decide if the image quality is up to snuff. Another option is to sit in the house with a cable release in your hand, with your camera set up on a tripod near the perch. All you have to do is click.