How to photograph wildlife in your garden

You don’t need to go far to capture great images of wildlife. Indeed, if you have a garden you can start right there – Tom Mason explains how.

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For many of us, our garden is the first point of contact we have with wildlife. Being so close to home, they provide an escape from everyday life into a small pocket of the natural world we can call our own. Gardens can often be deceptive because, despite their small physical size, they harbour an abundance of potential subjects. Contained by four sides, our outdoor living spaces are shared by thousands of of species just waiting to be discovered.

Unlike in the wider countryside, gardens comprise of a number of habitats in an extremely small area. In a small garden it’s easy to find hedge row, lawn, meadow and pond habitats. Together they provide a home for countless species of birds, insects, plants and amphibians – the perfect location for some wildlife photography!

Once you start to delve a little deeper, it will quickly become apparent just how photographically fruitful your garden can be. And, being so close, you can almost always make time for a photo shoot, however busy and stressful life may be.

Understanding Your Garden

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Focusing on the small things can be great fun when working in the garden. Even some of the most common species can be the subject of excellent images.

Photographically speaking, in order to get the best from your garden, you first need to understand it. Don’t just look at the whole picture, but systematically break it down into habitat sections. Maybe you have a few trees at the back, together with a hedge on one side and a mown lawn in the front with longer rough grass behind, in addition to some planters and finally a pond. These six habitats can easily be taken in within a single glance, but each provides different opportunities for certain species.

Once you have identified the habitats within your garden, spend some time focusing on them individually. Take notes on some of the species you find, as well as how nature interacts with the section of the garden and what you think might benefit that area in the future. Don’t play the short game with garden wildlife photography; invest time, watch, wait and let nature present its opportunities to you. In the long run, a garden can be worked to produce hundreds of striking and individual images, but it will take a little effort and time.

With your analysis complete, it’s time for some DIY and garden improvement (or, sometimes, the random addition of objects to attract certain species).

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I used a long lens to isolate this orange-tip butterfly from the background. Telephoto lenses also provide a greater working distance for less disturbance.

Think about the types of images you would like to achieve and work towards building locations that will provide these opportunities. For example, if you like photographing butterflies, you will almost certainly want to turn that section of rough grass into a colourful flower meadow, the perfect location for attracting a range of species for your images. Do some research and select wild flowers that will attract the subjects you intend to photograph. If you don’t have a preference for a subject, a standard UK wild flower mix will provide an excellent starting point.

If insects are not your thing and you would rather photograph garden birds, you can easily improve your chances of success by building a garden to entice them. Putting up nest boxes and feeders will ensure you maintain a stream of avian visitors all year round. When establishing nest boxes and feeders, be sure to think about predators; cats can be a huge problem so be sure to put boxes out of reach and feeders well away from areas that the local moggy can access!

Those with larger gardens (or ambitions) may also want to work on photographing mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Placing a few bricks together with a slate roof is a excellent way to provide a home for frogs and toads, while a sheet of corrugated metal in a bit of rough grass provides a home for many creatures and an excellent place for grass snakes and common lizards to warm up in the morning.

The possibilities for attracting wildlife into your garden are really limitless. With some research and hard work, you can make sure your outside living space is teeming with wildlife all year round, providing you with hundreds of possible subjects. For more information on turning your garden into the perfect wildlife haven, check out the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts websites. One more thing: before you set about placing random bits of corrugated metal, logs or seed, make sure everyone who uses the space is happy about it!

Equipment

Garden wildlife can be photographed with pretty much any type of camera. From top-of-the-line flagship DSLRs to simple compacts, almost any camera can produce stunning images with some thought and planning. Macro lenses and close-focus functions will be very useful for photographing flowers and insects, while having a telephoto reach equivalent to 300mm (in 35mm terms) will be beneficial if looking to photograph garden birds. Most people will already have almost everything they need for very successful garden wildlife photography, but here are a few of my recommendations for some useful additions:

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Remote release

Most compacts and DSLRs can be fired with a remote release, which are small and relatively inexpensive. As they remove the need to physically press a camera’s shutter-release button, they reduce camera shake and help to create sharper images. They can also be used to trigger a camera for wideangle images of skittish subjects.

Reflector

Lighting can be an issue when working up close to a subject. If you are not keen on flash or don’t own a flashgun, think about purchasing a fold-up reflector to throw some light on your subjects. Easily picked up for around £30, they fold down flat for slotting in the camera bag, and are very handy for those occasions when you need a little extra fill light.

Tripod

Most of us own a tripod – so use it! Not only will a tripod increase the sharpness of your images, it will slow you down so that you think more carefully about composition, framing and lighting.

Kneeling mat

Available from a local gardening store for about £4, these handy foam mats are excellent for reducing strain and keeping you dry after long hours crawling around in the grass – and some are even small enough to slide into a camera bag.

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Multi tool/knife

A tool of some kind is excellent for removing unwanted blades of grass or even for quickly tightening bolts and screws on tripods. Being so small, lightweight and very handy, they’re well worth having in your kit bag.

Coloured card

Getting bored of dull green backgrounds on those flower images? Here’s a solution: coloured card! Place a sheet of card behind your subject and you instantly get a different image. Carry a range of tones to suit any situation, and use something like a Wimberley Plamp to hold it in place.

A notebook

A notebook is handy for jotting down ideas, thoughts and sightings. Pair it with a good set of ID cards to help you work out what some of the trickier subjects are and you can make sure you improve your photography as well as your identification skills!

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Producing images

With your garden all set up and your gear ready, it’s time to get to the fun part: creating images. If you have worked hard in the preparation your garden should now be teeming with life throughout the year, providing you with an excellent location to spend many hours indulging in photographic pleasure.

The first step in producing some beautiful images is to choose a project. Remember you don’t need to run out and photograph everything in sight straight away – your garden isn’t going anywhere! Slow down, pick a project, stick with it and focus on producing a few excellent images, rather than a whole bunch of mediocre ones. Time is on your side, so you can really plan the images you want to achieve.

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Autumn brings a fresh bunch of colours and subjects. Fly Agaric is one of my favourite species of fungi.

Try being seasonal, picking around four small projects a year or two larger ones. Winter birds, spring flowers, summer insects and autumn colours could work, but feel free to think outside the box. Research the images you would like to produce and then get to work. The best thing about being so close to home, working on a project with such easy access, is that you can experiment with every aspect of image creation. Lens choice, composition and shooting techniques can all be thought about and explored in depth, and if you have a brainwave one Sunday afternoon, you can kit up and be in your garden shooting images in a matter of moments. And, if the weather turns foul, or you get cold or hungry, you’re never far from being home and dry (literally).

Try and keep notes about your projects. This might sound boring, but see it as self development. Be very self-critical of the images you produce, as it will serve to not only improve your images for the project, but improve your photography overall. Garden wildlife photography can be an excellent training ground, a safe environment for honing skills and techniques for the wider field. Keeping up to date with my detailed notes and log books is not something I find particularly interesting, but through the years I have seen that working on these small projects, all the while being ultra-critical and keeping notes, has majorly benefited my photography. I would go as far to say that my notebook has been as important in my photographic development as new cameras have!

Building setups

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A feeder is an excellent way to attract birds into your garden, while adding some branches can help create natural-looking images.

If you want to take your images a step further, why not think about building custom set-ups for specific images? Here’s an example: instead of simply photographing birds on a feeder, consider placing the feeder on a tall ground stake, with a dish below to protect it from squirrels if you have them. Then, simply attach an aesthetically pleasing twig below the feeder, sticking out to provide a perch for the birds. Position it close to a tree or bush and the birds will come and settle on your branch before hopping on the feeder, giving a chance to make some excellent natural-looking images. You can move the stake to a location that gives a nice clean background, changing it with the moving light, and once you’ve completed all the images you want on a particular stick, simply change it for another to get a whole new set of images!

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One of my favourite images from the garden studio setup was this toad. It took a long time to put together, but I was very happy with the result.

For the image of the toad (above), I built the entire environment in order to produce the image I was after. The drainpipe is just the end of an old one that I found, and I placed this on an old board to hold it still, before slowly layering moss inside to give the natural look. The photograph was taken with a 105mm macro lens and two flashguns off camera, as well as a reflector to get the lighting right. It took a while, but I finally got the shot I was after.

Using set-ups can be a great way of creating excellent wildlife images in your garden. By attracting wildlife into environments you have pre-visualised, you can make stunning images that would be almost impossible in other situations. If you work hard to create mini garden studios and are patient in waiting for your subjects to use them, the image possibilities are truly endless!

Finally: if you do take some images that you are particularly proud of, why not enter them into the RHS Photographer of the Year or International Garden Photographer Of the Year competitions?

About the Author

Tom Mason is an up-and-coming wildlife and nature photographer from Hertfordshire. He has worked on a number of projects both in the UK and abroad and is passionate about the natural world. For more information on Tom check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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