The Bird Studio

I will be the first to admit that I don’t shoot much at home. I tend to find most of my inspiration when I travel. Getting out of my comfort zone helps me to focus on my surroundings, and it challenges me to react to what I see in a creative way. But these days […]

Written By Rob Knight

On May 12, 2020
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I will be the first to admit that I don’t shoot much at home. I tend to find most of my inspiration when I travel. Getting out of my comfort zone helps me to focus on my surroundings, and it challenges me to react to what I see in a creative way. But these days that’s not exactly happening.

I have seen all of my events, classes, and workshops cancelled over the past few months. Even now I’m not sure if I will get to host my workshops this summer. That leaves me at home with an itch to get creative. 

I was on a panel during the Out of Chicago Live conference a few weeks ago with Steve Gettle and my friends David Akoubian and Judy Malloch to discuss photographing nature close to home. I was actually at a disadvantage because I generally don’t shoot that much at home! I think I ended up learning as much from the panel discussion as anyone watching. I realized just how little I knew about the wildlife in my own neighborhood.

Since then I have been working on what I refer to as the “Bird Studio” in my front yard. It started simply enough, but I have found it to be both inspirational and very rewarding. I generally spend about an hour each day observing and photographing the birds in my front yard. I have learned a lot about my feathered neighbors, and it has helped me to hone my photography skills and stay in practice. I thought I would share my experience with you and maybe inspire you to get out and shoot!

Scouting the Bird Studio

The first step to setting up your own bird studio is to look around and see what you have to work with. You need to decide where you will be shooting from so you can arrange the other pieces for best results. Ideally you will want a comfortable spot that is easy for you to access without disturbing the birds. The covered sidewalk along the front of my house offers me easy access and shelter from the sun or the rain. I don’t use a blind, but the place I usually sit is next to a big rose bush that offers me a tiny bit of cover.

Once I decided on my perch, it was time for me to decide where I want the birds to perch. The light and the background are the most important things to consider. I have a corner lot with a lot of open space, and it was easy for me to observe where and when the sun hits various sections of the yard. I chose a spot that is in direct light in the morning, and is in beautiful open shade in the afternoon. It also tends to be in different light than the background. In the morning the perch is in the sunlight while the background is in the shade. In the afternoon the perch is in the shade and the background is in and out of the sun. This contrast in the light has given me some really interesting results, and it helps to separate the birds from the background.

The background of my chosen spot is several trees that are across the street from the bird studio. I’d say they are at least 40’ behind the perch, so they are completely out of focus and soft behind my subjects. I got a wonderful surprise when I began shooting in my bird studio. There is a school across the street from my house that is behind the trees I chose as my background. The large tinted windows on the front of the building reflect the sky and provide a soft “sky” behind my subjects that is a few stops darker than the actual sky. I wish I could say that I planned that!

The Set up

During our panel discussion, Steve Gettle said that birds want food, water, and shelter. David Akoubian talked about the “pecking order” and explained that you need to give the birds a place to sit while they are waiting to eat. My plan was to build an attractive and natural looking “tree” in the spot I chose with the nice light and good background. Then I would arrange the other pieces of the studio accordingly.

I collected a few logs I liked and wired them to a post that I drove into the ground. The arrangement I’m currently using has three vertical posts and a horizontal “branch”. After shooting this set up for a couple of weeks now I am planning to rearrange a bit based on the behavior of the birds and to change up my photos. 

I already have a bird feeder and the large bushes around my yard provide shelter. I hung the feeder a few feet from my “tree”, and I built a bird bath between the two. The birds were fairly cooperative off the bat and they posed for some nice shots. I immediately noticed that several birds spent most of their time looking for snacks in the grass around the feeder. I found a log with interesting bark and some nice moss and laid it on the ground where the birds usually forage. As I hoped, the birds regularly hop onto the log when they are feeding. This gets them out of the grass and makes for much better photographs. I will be planting wildflowers in a raised bed soon that I’m hoping will make for some good shots with the smaller birds.

This setup has been working well so far but I am planning to make a few changes based on my observations. I’m going to simplify my regular perch and build another post or two for the birds to land on. I will be placing one closer to my shooting position so I can get tighter shots of the smaller birds, and I will be placing one closer to the feeder as well. I saw David talk about placing suet into the cracks and creases of the log posts to attract woodpeckers. I will be definitely doing that with an eye on the angles I’ll be shooting from.

Camera settings.

I’ve been mostly shooting with the Olympus E-M1X with the m.Zuiko 300mm f4pro lens and the TC-20 teleconverter. This gives me a 1200mm equivalent focal length at f8. I generally use S-AF and a single focus point, and I use the back-button to activate the AF. 

Even with the excellent IBIS in my Olympus cameras, the bird studio is one place where I generally use a tripod. I usually use a Uniqball head on FotoPro E6L legs. The Uniqball gives me the functionality of a pan/tilt head that works great with long lenses. I can get my focus and exposure dialed in for the perches I know the birds usually use, and I can be ready to shoot with little or no notice. A tripod definitely makes my time in the bird studio more comfortable! 

Having a regular setup like this has given me the opportunity to try a few different things when it comes to exposure. My usual choice for photographing stationary birds is evaluative or spot metering and aperture priority mode. I set the aperture at f8 and the ISO depending on the light. The camera chooses the shutter speed, and I keep an eye on it to make sure I’m not getting speeds that are too slow. As long as I am above 1/30 I am usually good to go. I can use the exposure compensation to adjust the image brighter or darker if necessary. In the bird studio I use ISO settings anywhere from ISO200-ISO3200.

I know a lot of wildlife photographers who use manual exposure mode and auto ISO. I have tried this from time to time, and I’ve been giving it a go in the bird studio. In my experience it’s basically the same as using aperture priority, but I can see the appeal if you want to control the shutter speed more specifically.

I have also been using manual exposure mode when the light is consistent, but birds are in sun one second and shade the next. I often find that full manual exposure mode results in a lot of missed shots and/or blown exposures. 

I’ve had a ton of fun in the bird studio so far! I’ve made some images I really like and gotten to know my local wildlife a lot better. I feel like this practice will keep my skills sharp for when we all get a chance to go look for wildlife farther from home again.

Don’t miss David Akoubian’s great video on backyard birds, and you can check out the panel that started all this for me HERE.

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