by Joel Eade
1. What is a setup?
A setup is using food, water, sound or other attractants to cause birds to perch or fly within close range of your camera for the purpose of creating detailed natural looking images. Of course I didn't invent the idea and there is much about this on the internet and in books. I have been reading and working at this for about 5 years and this article is sort of a list of suggestions, ideas and techniques that I have learned and used to successfully create pleasing images.
If you are already into digital photography you can get into back yard setups easily and inexpensively. Along with some very basic equipment all you need is the desire to learn and experiment plus some persistence. It's a fun way to create great bird images at home.
2. What do I need to get started?
You need some basic items to attract birds to your setup. This typically means bird feeders. There are a myriad of feeders available but I recommend simplicity and low cost. I use a few suet cages and a platform feeder fixed to an old 4X4 post about 4 feet tall and held up by a cheap plastic Xmas tree holder. A water feature such as a bird bath is helpful as well. A small fountain to make the water gurgle attracts a lot of species especially in winter if local water sources are frozen.
The food you choose should be based on what bird species are in your area and what their preferences might be. Search the internet if you do not know this information. I use Sunflower seed, Safflower Seed, Thistle seed, Corn and suet cakes (usually peanut flavored). You can also use fruit and jelly which is good to attract Orioles. Mealworms are a popular attractant for Blue Birds and other species but they are expensive.
You also have to have a supply of natural looking perches. This can be just about any old twig, branch, weed stem, flower etc etc…. I try to keep the perch proportional to the bird that I am trying to attract. Small birds look better on delicate perches and the woodpeckers look better on a thicker trunk-like perch. The idea is to make it look natural.
Your perches have to be placed close to the food. The birds will naturally use them as they go back and forth to feed. You must also try to predict how the bird will sit on the perch so you can orient it appropriately to get the best image. I think the images look best with a side view of the bird with it angled slightly toward the camera.
If the perch you are using has some leaves or small twigs extending from it you can remove a few of those creating a small empty space and birds will usually land there. Using imagination and creativity in selecting and positioning the perches will pay off with more unique images.
You will need to rig a mechanism to hold your perch in place, anything goes here. I use Xmas tree holders, an old tripod or light stand, wire ties, string, tape, clamps, whatever you can find. It just needs to be adjustable so you can control the height and angle of your perches. They don't need to be too tall, just about eye level when you are seated in the blind.
A blind is also an integral part of this process. You can shoot from your house through an open window but this doesn't let you change position and it's hard to get good light on the subject. I use a pop up blind made for deer hunting called the Doghouse blind by Ameristep. There are many varieties of these available for less than $100.
I fashioned a 5 foot square frame of 1 inch PVC pipe and attached the base of the blind to the frame with wire ties. This anchors the blind yet it is still very easy to move it around the yard. Remember you want to keep the sun behind you so moving the blind is helpful.
You want a blind that has some way to adjust the window size so you can snug it closely around your lens as possible. This prevents birds from seeing movement inside. Birds tend to spook more from sudden fast movement than sound in my experience.
You'll want some type of chair inside the blind, an old lawn chair works well.
A DSLR camera is best for this type of photography and you will need a telephoto lens. I would recommend a focal length of at least 300 to 400mm to allow you to be back away from the perch 15 to 20 feet or so but still allow you nearly fill the frame with your subject and be able to get good detail. I believe the lens is more important than camera body in producing great bird images. If possible don't skimp here, get the best lens you can afford. I absolutely love my Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens for this purpose. I frequently add the Canon 1.4 Teleconverter as well for a total focal length of 420mm.
A tripod is essential as well. A gimbal type head is not mandatory but is very helpful to allow you to easily aim the camera. Again I would not skimp too much on the tripod, get the best one you can afford, I believe it makes a difference in image sharpness.
Keep in mind your subjects are small, they move constantly, you are magnifying those moves with a telephoto lens so … you really want a solid foundation to shoot from. I use a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod and Wimberly II gimbal head.
External flash is also a consideration. If you are in a relatively open area with good light you can make great images without flash but there are many times when it really helps to have just some fill flash to eliminate shadows, enhance color and contrast as well as give a little extra light so you can increase shutter speed. You will want one that has high speed sync and is manually adjustable as well one with a high guide number (ie a powerful output).
There is a flash extender called the Better Beamer that I would highly recommend as well. It is a fresnel lens that focuses the flash farther away from your camera than usual. That way you can get fill flash on your subject at a distance and since the light is focused your flash uses less output and the batteries last longer. I use the Canon 580 EXII and the Better Beamer.
Audio can also be used to attract birds. You can purchase recordings of bird songs for an IPod or similar device. Small, battery powered external speakers can be used for playback to attract birds. This is not a necessity but is an option that works in many areas and can be helpful if you are traveling for photographing birds and don't have the availability of a setup.
3. How do I get started?
First start feeding the birds regularly and don't stop. It will take some time for your local birds to find the food and develop a habit of visiting regularly. If you always have food available you will get more and more activity over time. Take some time to think about where to put the feeders, consider that you will be placing a perch close to the feeder and you will place your blind within 15 feet or so and you want the sun at your back.
Also consider the background of your images. Background elements should be as plain as possible and as far back as possible so they will be out of focus. Avoid back lighting or reflections of light in the background.
You will need to collect a variety of sticks, twigs, limbs etc….. to use for perches. I like to change them frequently so all my images don't look them same.
Place a perch near your feeder, it can be an old tree branch in an old flower pot, just make it simple and it should look natural. If you leave it there very soon birds will start using it as they come and go. Make it about 4-5 feet tall at most.
Also consider the shape, configuration and orientation of the perch in relation to the camera and the background. Don't give the birds too many options of where to land otherwise you will have difficulty keeping your camera aimed at them. You need to be able to predict where they will land and how they will be positioned. If the perch has numerous forks or branches you will miss a lot of shots. Keep it simple. If the branch has leaves or blossoms you can remove a few in just a small section and birds will naturally perch in that open space.
If you are trying for bigger birds (like Jays or Woodpeckers) you can use a thicker perch and drill some holes in it to fill with suet or seeds, just keep these out of sight in your image.
Place your blind about 15 to 20 feet from the perch (close to the minimum focus distance of your lens) and leave it up as much as possible so it is part of the landscape and birds will be accustomed to it. Consider sun angle and image background.
4. How do I take images?
Set your tripod and camera at a comfortable height so you do not have strain to look through the viewfinder. I will assume you know how to operate a DSLR and make basic adjustments to exposure parameters.
You will need to understand the basics of exposure. There are a couple of key elements for bird photography that will help you make better images:
You need as much shutter speed as possible and underexposure is "death" to a digital image. So you have to adjust the exposure accordingly. The birds that will come are generally small and they are constantly moving, you are using a telephoto lens that has significant magnifying power so without a really fast shutter speed you will rarely get a sharp image. I am talking at least 1/500 sec or faster to start with. Once you have honed your tripod and long lens technique you can go slower and get away with it occasionally. Do not be afraid to increase the ISO to prevent under exposure.
An under exposed image will be very noisy and detail will be poor. I frequently use ISO of 1000 to 1600 if I have to in order to keep the overall exposure correct and enable a faster shutter speed. Read and learn to use the histogram, find out what it means to push the exposure to the right without blowing out the highlights.
The aperture controls depth of field and in most cases you want to be f/5.6 or higher, otherwise a good part of your bird will be out of focus.
Point your camera at the perch, set the shutter speed at 1/500 sec, set the aperture at f/7.1, adjust the ISO so the meter reads zero on your camera. Now take a picture of the perch. Is it sharp and well exposed? Look at the histogram and make sure there is no data pushed against the left side (ie under exposed). If you need to, adjust the f-stop or ISO a little more to get the exposure right. I like to use the center autofocus point only on my camera for this type of shooting. I also like AI Servo mode so the camera stays focused on a moving object when I keep the shutter pressed halfway.
Take a bunch of test images of the perch until you have the exposure adjusted. As the light changes you will have keep adjusting over time. If you do not like manual mode, it is certainly fine use aperture priority or shutter priority mode. I use manual mode and I find it easy to adjust on the fly. I try to expose for the bird and not the background.
When a bird perches for you try to make sure the focus point is on the bird's head or eye. The image will look much better if the eye is sharp and well-focused.
Also take into consideration the pose and head angle of the bird, it's best if the head is parallel to the camera or angled slightly toward you. This will make the best image. When you see what you like, start shooting, if possible take a lot of images - but I don't think the "machine gun" approach usually works too well. You will have some birds that are very skittish and some that will let you shoot all you want. Sometimes it's best to let them come and go a few times before you start shooting so they aren't permanently frightened away.
I have found that birds will react more to motion than they do sound so avoid sudden fast moves as many times they can see that even inside the blind. Of course keep the opening in the blind as small as possible to just let the lens protrude.
When there's a break in the action you can adjust exposure, review your images and consider if you need to move the perch or the blind slightly to improve the light or the background. Watch the sun angle and keep it mostly behind you.
If your images aren't sharp try increasing ISO or lowering the f-stop slightly so you use more shutter speed. Like maybe 1/1000 sec. or faster if possible. Take some more test shots of the perch and check the histogram.
I have noticed birds are most active in the morning especially the first 2 hours after sunrise but there can periods of activity on and off all day. In colder weather birds feed more steadily.
The best light is when the sun is low in the sky morning and evening. Very bright cloudless days when the sun is high in the sky are bad, the images have strong shadows and are usually too contrasty. Soft over cast days can produce nice images all day. An external flash and better beamer can really help on days like this.
Use your imagination, change the perches frequently so all your images don't look the same. You can have more than one perch set up simultaneously.
These are the techniques I have learned and taught myself. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to make the birds pose where I want them and challenge of using proper camera techniques to create sharp, well exposed images with pleasing backgrounds and with somewhat artistic composition. I know you can do the same. I am not a pro photographer and you may find many other opinions or techniques that are different from mine. Keep in mind I am self-taught and in photography there are no rules "set in stone".
If you start doing setups, you will learn your own techniques and develop your own style. I hope this information has been helpful as a starting point.