An exhibition of photography to highlight the wonderful nature and wild spaces on our doorstep, celebrating the important relationships between people and local wildlife in Ealing.
We want to explore what nature and wildlife means to you. Everyone sees their surroundings through a different lens, so we want to celebrate diverse personal journeys and individual relationships with nature.
This is not purely a technical photography exhibition; equally if not more important is the portrayal of images that will engage the public with the natural world at a local level in Ealing.
We will judge each photograph impartially, without bias and keeping the mission of the exhibition in mind.
The judging panel consists of a panel of wildlife and/or photography enthusiasts, including members of Ealing Wildlife Group, Ealing Council Park Rangers as well as amateur and professional photographers.
Community Conservation: Showcase people, projects or places coming together to care for, protect, enhance and conserve Ealing’s natural spaces. Or tell a story through an image that captures what community conservation means to you.
Abstract Nature: Capture the artistry and magic of nature, which could be the play of light and shadows creating fascinating patterns and shapes, or an abstract image exploring an object’s natural shape and form. This category is wide open so let your creativity go wild!
Urban Nature: It’s incredible what creatures and life shows up in urban environment, so show us where the man-made environment meets the wild.
Relationships with Nature: Capture the meaning of nature and wildlife to you and tell us why it makes your heart sing.
Up Close and Personal: This can be taken literally if you’ve captured incredible detail, it can cover macro photography or you can interpret it as imaginatively as you wish.
Young Wildlife Explorers:This is the under 16s category and seeks to celebrate our young wildlife enthusiasts and engage other young people with nature.
All submissions must be your own work and by entering you declare you have the legal rights to that image.
Each entrant can submit up to three photographic images to be judged for competition
Submission of entries does not guarantee inclusion in the exhibition.
Entries will be eligible for a first, second and third award in 6 categories as well as placing in the overall winner category.
You should specify which category you are entering; judges will appraise each entry using the categories as judging criteria but may award your photo in another category if deemed fit.
Entries submitted after the deadline will not be eligible. Late entries cause extra admin and will NOT be accepted.
Excessive manipulation of images is not allowed and will be grounds for disqualifying a photograph.
Types of editing that are not allowed:
Extreme changes to colour, saturation, light, or contrast.
Adding, moving or removing objects, animals or parts of animals, plants, people etc.
The removal of dirt, highlights, backscatter, bubbles, debris and similar.
Painting the foreground/painting out the background
Anything that could be viewed as rendering the image a dishonest representation will be disqualified.
Types of editing that are allowed:
Digital adjustments including tone and contrast, burning, dodging, cropping, sharpening, noise reduction, minor cleaning work (e.g. removal of sensor dust or scratches on transparencies/scans, removal of chromatic aberration),
HDR, stitched panoramas, focus stacking are permitted providing that they do not deceive the viewer or misrepresent the reality of nature, or what was originally captured by the camera.
No photos of staged wildlife shots, no captive animals, no dead creatures posed as if alive are allowed.
Photographs must have been taken within the Borough of Ealing within the last 5 years; the exact location is to be included in the submission details.
Please include your camera or phone details (e.g. ‘iPhone 10’ is fine, we have winners every year using phone cameras). List the settings if you wish so others who are interested in technical details can learn.
Your description of the photo is just as important as the photo itself and is part of the judging criteria so please fill it in with more than just a name of species or subject and location. We want to hear the story of the photo and perhaps what it means to you. Failure to provide a good description that will be displayed with your entry may lose you significant points in judging.
By submitting your photo to the competition you agree for EWG to share the image in promotional materials in future, with credit to you, the photographer.
Winners will be announced at the opening of the exhibition in Walpole Park this Autumn and a list of winners will be posted online afterwards on Facebook and our website. We cannot guarantee all winners will be informed individually afterwards, and certainly not before the opening of the exhibition.
Political agendas are not factored into any part of the judging criteria. Photos win on their own merits.
“Conservation work involves the protection, preservation or restoration of nature and biodiversity, not a task one would immediately associate with Instagram or TikTok. However, more and more we are utilising social media platforms to share ideas and information, organise events and have conversations with one another regarding wildlife and the environment. It’s blending our very primal need to be one with nature with our newly evolved reliance on technology, and in most cases, it is working to the benefit of the natural world.
In the case of releasing endangered captive-bred harvest mice back in Ealing we have Instagram Stories to thank. No, really.
I have followed Dr Sean McCormack and Ealing Wildlife Group on social media for a while. I was inspired by the passion and innovation of both and drawn back each time on my phone by the community spirit and the sharing of wildlife photographs and information.
When Sean posted on his Instagram about a new project to return harvest mice back in a suitable habitat and monitor their population I paused my Netflix show, put my glass of red wine back on the coffee table and furiously began constructing my reply. I had to be involved.
I work as an Animal Keeper and Education Officer at a small zoo in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. We care for a very successful breeding group of harvest mice and had been on the look out for a while for a project to introduce our mice back into the wild, as we were reaching maximum capacity in their enclosure.
We had explored options in the past, but nothing seemed to work out or last. I wanted a project that Calderglen could fully get behind and believe in, and that gave our Scottish mice the best chance at surviving.
After talks with Sean I knew the area chosen for their release and the people involved offered the harvest mice the best chance at restoring a wild population in Ealing. A species that hasn’t been recorded there since the late 1970s. It was time for that to change.
After a couple of months of more conversations and planning with Sean the morning arrived for the long journey down to London. I plucked the fittest mice from the safety of their captivity, clinging unknowingly to their corkscrew hazel branch and silently wished each one good luck as I placed them into the travel box, awaiting a life of freedom only wild animals understand.
It’s not lost on me the control humans have over non-human species and even though in my heart I knew I was doing the right thing for the conservation of harvest mice, looking at each individual twitching face, I also battled with doubt if it was what they would want.
It may seem silly, after all how could a mouse possibly understand the concept of consent and the importance of its little life in the preservation of its entire species, but it certainly picked at my moral compass regardless.
It’s why I take so much comfort in Ealing Wildlife Group’s project because out of the many that have been reviewed by Calderglen this one surpassed expectation.
It was a lovely evening when I met with members and volunteers of Ealing Wildlife Group and I quickly felt I was with ‘my people’. Our enthusiasm and passion kept the chat flowing as the sun started to dip and the smiles and laughs just got wider and louder even after we stopped recording videos on our phones. Everyone was excited to be there, everyone wished for the success of the project, and everyone believed it was the right thing to do to give back to nature.
We let Calderglen’s mice go in thickets of grass and flowers, with a small shelter and some food left behind for a short-term resource if they should need it. I watched one particular brown and white fuzzy ball dart immediately from the travel box and wind its way gracefully into the foliage.
A bubble of emotion rose in my throat as I again wished it a silent good luck. As I uploaded the video to my Instagram with the caption ‘They’re free!’ and watched the mouse get lost behind stalks of green and fade from view, my doubts vanished. The harvest mice were home. “
Animal Keeper and Education Officer
(All photo credits to Council ranger James Morton, who accompanied us on this release alongside fellow ranger Jon Staples to whom we are grateful for collaborating on this project)
Telephoto lenses have long reaches and are great to ‘bring the subject closer’ to achieve detailed, frame-filling photographs. They can be tricky to use and there’s a huge range of lenses available. Here are six tips and hints to get the best out of your lenses.
Prime lenses – these are a fixed focal length and for wildlife 300mm to 500mm or longer work very well. They are fast (have wide apertures) and sharp (can resolve fine detail). They can also be very expensive and heavy.
Zoom lenses – these have the flexibility of getting a frame-filling shot or a wider composition that shows the subject in its habitat and can be particularly useful for when the subject moves nearer or further from the camera such as birds in flight. Typical zoom ranges are 70-200mm, 100-400mm and 150-600mm. Many have a variable aperture through their zoom range: my 100-400mm lens has an aperture of f4.5 at the 100mm end and f5.6 at the 400mm end. Some zooms have a constant aperture throughout their zoom range but these are more expensive than the more affordable variable aperture lenses. The image quality can be almost as good as a prime lens – you might be hard pushed to tell the difference and they are lighter.
Teleconverters – teleconverters or extenders go between the camera and the lens to multiply the focal length by, typically, 1.4x or 2x. Other magnifications are available but these are the most common. They don’t add much weight and are reasonably small and are an affordable way to make your lenses more flexible. They can work very well with prime lenses and with high quality zooms but the image can be degraded a little. I use a 1.4x with my 100-400mm zoom with some success but the 2x can make the image too soft. Not all lenses are compatible with them so check before you buy. The downside to using them is a loss of light and a slower auto focus. A 1.4x teleconverter reduces the light falling on the sensor by 1 stop and 2 stops with a 2x. If you are shooting at f5.6 that will become f8 with a 1.4x and f11 with a 2x. Beware that some cameras may not auto focus beyond f8.
Support the lens and camera – Some telephoto prime lenses can be hand-held and most zoom lenses are light enough to do without a tripod. When using a big, heavy lens, especially at lower shutter speeds, a tripod is all but essential. Choose a high-quality tripod that will easily cope with a heavy payload of camera and lens. A flimsy tripod will vibrate and wobble. You will also need a tripod head which sits on top of the three legs and into which the camera/lens is mounted. Gimbal heads are great as are ballheads. I have recently ‘converted’ from a gimbal to ballhead. When properly set up the camera/lens is balanced on the tripod and seems ‘weightless’ in use. Long telephoto lenses usually come with a foot mounted on a collar that fits around the lens. It is this that is mounted in the tripod head rather than the camera so as to protect the camera’s lens mount. Consider using a monopod. This can be easier and quicker to use than a tripod – it is lighter and usually does not have a dedicated head. I mount a camera/lens directly to a monopod.
Steady as you go – telephoto lenses amplify small camera movements as well as subject movement so it is essential to employ good technique when taking the picture. If hand-holding support the lens with your left hand and tuck your elbows against your body and ‘tighten up’. Take a deep breath and hold it – this stops your chest moving and helps keep the camera steady. Squeeze the shutter rather than stab at it. If using a tripod or monopod press the back of the camera against your face and drape your left arm over the lens to dampen any vibrations. Some tripod heads have a little hook on the underside. This can be used to hang your backpack to add more stability. I keep a small cloth bag which I fill with rocks, clods of earth or half-bricks etc. Hanging a weight in this way really helps to dampen vibrations. I often use spikes on the end of the tripod legs when on soft ground in a wood or meadow rather than the standard rubber feet. A fast shutter speed is essential to freeze action and to overcome camera movement. As a rule of thumb use the lens focal length to determine the slowest shutter speed to use: 1/300th second with a 300mm lens and 1/500th second with a 500mm lens etc. It generally needs to be faster than this to freeze wing beats: 1/2500th second is a good starting point. Image stabilisation should be used, too. This can be incorporated in the lens or the camera body. It’s a high-tech system that either shifts lens elements or the actual camera sensor to help compensate for small accidental camera/lens movements. It will not compensate for subject movements.
Calibrate for pin-sharp accuracy – telephoto lenses and wide apertures make for a wafer-thin depth of field so it is essential that the focus is where you want it to be. Slight variations in manufacture of the lens and camera can result in a lens focussing a little in front or behind where you expect. For instance, if a bird is sideways on and you focus on the eye but the folded wing is sharp and the eye is blurry the lens is focussing in front of where you expect and the auto focus needs adjusting. Mirrorless cameras don’t have this potential problem because they use the actual imaging sensor for focussing but DSLRs use a separate sensor dedicated to this important task. Most DSLRs have an AF calibration feature in their menus to correct for this. It’s straightforward but a little time-consuming. I use a special target to calibrate the auto focus. Essentially you focus on one particular point and then see how far off your focus might be and make the appropriate adjustments. Here’s a link to the process, and you can use a clearly marked ruler set at an angle instead of a special target, copy and paste the entire line into your browser:
As the growing season winds down, people are starting to tidy their gardens and prepare them for winter. For wildlife friendly gardens and gardeners however, things are a little different, it’s far less tidy, and far better for the wildlife! Here are 10 things a wildlife gardener can do to prepare the garden for winter that benefit both the garden and the wildlife.
1. Clean feeders, feed the birds!
It’s always important to keep your bird feeders as clean as possible and this time of year is a good time to do it as it the feeders will be very busy over the next few months! Then fill the feeders with fat balls, fat blocks, coconut shells filled with fat, fat pellets, fat filled with berries, mealworms, peanuts! Lots of fat! Don’t use the plastic nets though as birds can get caught in them with tragic consequences! (Also we don’t need more plastic) Don’t forget seeds and fruit, and I was today years old when I found out you can leave out cheese and bacon bits as well (probably go sparingly so you don’t attract too many rats!) A firm favourite with my birds are sunflowers seeds, I think just about everyone likes them, I get the shelled ones, waaaay less mess! Don’t get cheap seed mixes though, they are often made with cheap grains that are too big for anything other than pigeons to eat, I learned this the hard way!
2. Keep water available!
Keep small bowls of water on the ground and/or bird baths available as it’s just as important for wildlife to access water in the winter as at any time of the year. If you have a pond and should it ice over (not super likely in London but it could happen), melt a hole in the ice so the critters can get in and out and drink, and to make sure your pond doesn’t become oxygen starved. Use a pan filled with hot water to melt a hole, do not bang on the ice to break it as this sends out painful shockwaves that can hurt wildlife. (I’m imagining being inside a ringing bell, not a pleasant thought!)
3. Watch out for Hibernating Animals!
Check bonfire material for hibernating animals such as toads, hedgehogs, and frogs before lighting! (Better yet only build the bonfire when you are ready to light it, then nothing can get into it) Be careful turning compost as it’s warm and could be full of slow worms, grass snakes, toads, frogs and other lovely things you want in your garden!
4. Make homes for the animals!
Don’t bag up all your leaves, spread them on the flower beds, it’s good for your soil and it provides shelter for frogs, and insects, and gives Blackbirds and thrushes, and Violet Ground Beetles a place to forage for food. Leave some pots and piles of bricks laying around for newts and toads ( they like the greenhouse too so watch out for them if you are tidying, I have frogs in mine!) Make or buy some bug hotels for the leaf cutter bees and other insects such as lacewings and ladybirds, or just drill some holes in a log! Place clay roof tiles in the pond for the frogs and newts that may be overwintering in the pond.
5. Leave the Soil alone!
If you can help it, avoid digging your garden beds, as many spider eggs and insect larvae (especially moths) overwinter in the soil.
6 Plant some Winter Berries!
Shrubs that feed wildlife in winter are great for gardens because they also provide beautiful flowers in the spring and summer, lovely foliage in the Autumn and striking berries and stems in the winter! I wrote another post with a list of native berries here (such as hawthorn, rowan, guelder rose etc) but other good non-native garden shrubs for wildlife are Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Barberry (Berberis), and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) although be careful with the last one, it can get invasive if not carefully controlled!
7. Leave it Wild!
Avoiding trimming ivy and don’t cut hedges until at least March. Both provide much needed food and shelter for overwintering wildlife. Leave all the herbaceous plants untrimmed until early spring. Leave it messy! Many insects overwinter in hollow stems, ladybirds will all snuggle up on a stem for the winter and if there is one thing you really want in your garden, it’s ladybirds! When you do finally cut the stems down in spring, set them aside in stacks until May so the insects can emerge safely.
8. Clean Ponds!
Winter (Oct through January) is the best time to clean your pond as it is the time of lowest activity. However there are still active critters in there so be careful! Always stack the weeds and debris you clear from a pond on the edge for a few days so things can crawl out and back into the water. Having a little poke around and giving some of the dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, other invertebrates, newts, frogs, and snails a helping hand back into the water is nice too.
9 . Clean out Nest Boxes!
In late winter clean out the nest boxes for the upcoming spring nesting season. Also be aware that some birds will roost communally in nest boxes in the winter to stay warm, especially wrens and house sparrows so making sure they have nest boxes or roosting pouches in you garden in winter could be very beneficial!
10. Help the Butterflies!
There are five species of butterfly in the UK that hibernate in winter as adults, the brimstone, comma, peacock, small tortoiseshell and red admiral. Two of these, the Peacock and the Small Tortoiseshell usually overwinter in a shed or garage, and if you see them there, leave them be. Sometimes though they will try to hibernate in your house, which would be fine if it didn’t get so warm. When the butterflies get warm they wake up and think it’s spring, and that is not going to be a good time for the poor butterfly when it’s still winter and there is no food in sight. So if you find an awake and confused butterfly in your house, the Scottish Wildlife Trust suggests the following:
The best thing you can do if you see a butterfly flying about in your house in the middle of winter is to help it relocate to a cooler spot. Put it in a cardboard box for a while to calm it down and then leave it in your shed, garage or another suitable location. Somewhere cool and dry is ideal. Remember to set it free when spring arrives!
Laura Preston, Scottish Wildlife Trust
So there it is, ten ways to help make your garden a safe haven for wildlife this winter! You will be rewarded come spring with an abundance of helpful creatures to keep your garden ticking along as well as the knowledge that you are also helping them to survive and thrive when so many are in shocking rates of decline across the country. Gardens make up one of the largest green spaces in the UK so we can have a huge impact on the future of wildlife, one garden at a time!
In the dark cold days of winter, nothing is more cheery in the grey landscape than colourful winter berries dotting the hedgerows. However not only are they beautiful , they provide a vital food source for birds, insects, and mammals when little other food is available. All of the following berries can be found growing wild and in gardens in Ealing. They are a great addition to any garden/greenspace to help the wildlife through the winter! (I realise that several of these are technically not berries, but I will refer to them as such for the sake of convenience)
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
You can find hawthorn pretty much everywhere in the Borough, on the sides of the A40, up on Horsenden Hill, the Bunny Park, everywhere. Found in hedgerows the fruits are called Haws and are eaten by loads of migrating birds such as Redwings, Waxwings and Fieldfares. Our natives such as Blackbirds, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Chaffinches, Hawfinches, Starlings and many other birds enjoy them too!
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Rowan is another winter bird favourite, including Mistle Thrush, Redwing, Song Thrush, Blackcap, Fieldfare and Waxwing. This feeds more than just birds, caterpillars of the apple fruit moth feed on the berries as well!
Dog rose (Rosa canina)
These beautiful native hedgerow roses turn into the bright red hips that feed birds such as Thrushes, Blackbirds, Redwing, Fieldfare and Waxwings, which then disperse the seeds in their droppings, and some birds like finches actually eat the seeds!
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
The beautiful plum like drupes of the Blackthorn (called sloes) provide insects, mammals, and larger birds like the thrushes and hawfinches a lovely midwinter feast. Humans also use them for making flavoured gin!
Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
House Sparrows, Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, various Tits, and Starlings, and even mice and foxes eat the berries of the spindle. (It’s poisonous to humans though!). I haven’t seen a lot of spindle in Ealing, but I might just not be looking in the right places though as it’s a sign of ancient woodland. I will keep an eye out for it in our local bits of woodland such as Long Wood, Fox Wood, Horsenden Wood, and Perivale wood. Please let us know in the comments if you spot any out and about!
Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
Most birds leave these until later in the winter; they eat certain berries at certain times in the winter to ensure they have enough to last until spring. Mistle Thrushes, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Fieldfares and Redwings all eat the berries. However the Mistle Thrushes don’t mess around, they will aggressively guard their berries to prevent all the other birds from getting any! Small mammals like wood mice and dormice also enjoy them.
Ivy (Hedera helix)
This is another high fat, calorie dense berry that the birds leave until late winter when the other berries have dwindled and the ground is still too hard to forage for worms and insects and nothing else is growing. Some of the bird species that enjoy Ivy berries are Thrushes, Blackcaps, Bullfinches, Wood Pigeons, Blackbirds, Doves, Warblers, and Jays. And despite popular belief Ivy does not kill trees!
Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)
Another ancient woodland indicator, the red berries are an important food source for birds, including Bullfinches and Mistle Thrushes. Far from ancient woodland however, the berries are a favourite food of Waxwings coming from Scandinavia who can often be seen scarfing them down in car parks! If anyone knows of a local guelder rose landscaped car park, please comment below so we can all potentially see some Waxwings this winter!
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
I almost didn’t include mistletoe because it is relatively scarce in Ealing (and London in general) but can you talk about winter berries and not mention mistletoe? Mistletoe doesn’t grow as a separate shrub, they are parasites and derive most of their nutrients from their host trees. They particularly like Hawthorn, Lime, Poplar, Sycamore, Ash, and in the UK their favourite is Apple trees. They are hemi parasitical however so they do also photosynthesize. Blackcaps love mistletoe, they eat the pith but wipe the sticky seeds off their bills and onto the tree branches, helping the mistletoe find new hosts trees. Mistle Thrushes (unsurprisingly) also enjoy mistletoe berries.
This Friday Dec 4th at 8pm, join Sean McCormack for an online discussion about a potential reintroduction project of Harvest Mice in Ealing. We’ll be exploring whether we have Europe’s smallest rodent species in the Borough, how we might find out with some help from our members, whether we still have suitable habitat and why such a project might be beneficial to people and biodiversity.
This is hopefully the first in a series of talks exploring rewilding and nature conservation in Ealing.
There are 100 spaces; first come, first served. Please do join live so you can take part in the Q&A afterwards. A recording of the session will be posted after for those who missed the live event.
The meeting will be on Zoom, details as follows:
Ealing Wildlife Group is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
At the mention of Zen, a Buddhist monk in search of enlightenment might come to mind. When I think of Zen, I think of an approach to photography, especially my own wildlife photography. For me, Zen is a state of mind. A state of quietness and stillness and contemplation when engaging with the natural world and finding beauty in all things. I try and remember that Zen photography is more about mindset than the subject matter.
I completely absorb myself in the process of photographing wildlife and nature and think of nothing else during the process. Time slips away like a flowing river. All that matters is the subject, the light and the creativity. It’s a way of meditation. A way of Zen. Nothing else seems to matter.
Look at the light. See how it forms the shapes, lines, textures, patterns and shadows of the world around us. Notice the colour and quality of the light. Listen to the sounds and the smell of the location. Observe your intended subject. When photographing fungi emerging from the leaf litter, I get down to their level. I can smell their habitat. I can smell the fungi. Feel the wind and sun on your skin. Become part of the location. I spend several minutes getting into a Zen mindset, a Zen zone before setting up the camera.
Set up your camera.
When photographing fungi or botany, I will generally use a tripod or a beanbag. It slows me down. It makes me think. Don’t just point and shoot. Don’t think that you have the definitive shot and fire the shutter. Take your time and really look at your subject through the viewfinder or on the camera’s screen. Try different compositions or exposures or focus adjustments. See everything within the frame. You will almost certainly be more creative and come up with better ideas by resisting the urge to fire the shutter and quickly get the shot.
Look closely at the world every day.
For me, Zen-like observation works very well when photographing wildlife and nature but it’s something that I like to undertake every day. I can’t do it all the time – I’d be walking around in a complete introspective trance. Whenever I am in a wood, meadow, park or wildlife situation I ‘switch off’ and observe. I make mental notes, or use a notebook, to return if the light isn’t right or if the subject ‘isn’t ready’. Or I may have a camera with me and begin my Zen photography process. When you truly open your eyes and your senses there is so much to see. And photograph.
Macro photography generally means close-up photography, usually of very small subjects such as insects, in which the size of the subject in the photograph is the same or greater than life-size. It’s a specialist area of photography and special kit is required, but it needn’t cost the earth. Remember that most compact cameras have a macro mode, allowing the lens to focus at a short distance. Many standard lenses, fixed focal length or zoom, will focus close enough to photograph natural patterns, groups of flowers and fungi and larger insects etc. No further kit is required. Interchangeable macro lenses for DSLRs come in different focus lengths and most can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses. I own three macro lenses: a 100mm which I use generally. I also use it for other applications: portraiture and for photographing large format vintage glass negatives in order to digitise them. I have a 180mm macro lens which is more unwieldy than the 100mm but has the great advantage of having a longer minimum focus distance: I can stand further away to get a macro shot – ideal for skittish subjects that will flit off if I get too close. My other macro lens is very specialised and difficult to use. It’s a Canon MP-E 65mm and can go up to 5x life size.
Use extension tubes – these are simple metal tubes with no glass, weigh very little and are easy to use. They fit between the camera body and lens and increase the close-focusing of the lens with no effect on optical quality. It’s best to use ones with contacts between camera and lens so the metering system still works. Autofocus remains but it is always best to use manual focus with macro photography. If you buy extension tubes, make sure you get ones for your camera system – Canon, Nikon etc. Mine are third-party but work very well. If you are unsure buy ones made by your camera manufacturer.
Use a supplementary close-up lens – These are magnifying lenses that fit onto the front of standard lenses to facilitate close-focusing without any significant decrease in image quality. Canon make excellent two-element close-up lenses that can be used with any manufacturer’s lenses and work very well with telephoto zoom lenses. Make sure you buy one with the correct filter diameter to fit your lens and they come in different focal lengths. Canon make single element lenses, too, but these aren’t quite as good. Look for the identifier “D” which signifies a two element lens. Supplementary close-up lenses can also be used with macro lenses to great effect. I use a Raynox DCR-250 close-up lens. It clips to the front of a macro or zoom lens to magnify the image by about x3 and works very well.
Invest in a macro lens – The greatest benefit of a ‘proper’ macro lens is that they will provide at least a life-size magnification (1:1). Some will go beyond life-size, up to 5:1 (which makes a spider look very scary). Supplementary close-up lenses can be used with them to great effect and can increase the magnification of the bare lens tremendously.
Choose a focal length that suits you best. 50mm macro lenses have limited use as they force you to set up very close to your subject which isn’t always practical. Your subject may be scared off, for a start. Mid-range 100mm lenses are probably the most versatile and the most cost-effective. Lenses in the range of 150mm to 200mm allow a greater working distance and will also provide a more diffused or blurred background to make the in-focus subject stand out. Macro lenses are designed to provide the best image quality at close-focusing distances but will also focus to infinity, so can be used as ‘ordinary’ lenses.
Tips – Try and use manual focus rather than auto-focus. The depth of field is often very shallow and the camera’s auto-focus system can be confused and doesn’t know what you want to focus on. Use your camera’s depth of field preview button to see what’s sharp and what isn’t. If your subject is moving around, try continuous auto-focus. You may get lucky, especially if you fire a burst of shots. Firing a burst may be a good option when using manual focus, too. When in manual focus once the focus has been found try moving your body, and therefore the camera, very slightly closer and further away to fine tune the focus. Take a breath, breathe out slowly, lock your arms, brace your body and gently press the shutter. If the subject is still consider using a tripod. If you are using a tripod enable mirror lock-up. This means that when the shutter is first pressed the camera’s mirror flips up (the viewfinder goes black), then wait a moment for any in-camera vibrations to subside and press the shutter again and the photograph is taken. Consider using a cable release to reduce vibrations further. Often it is best to photograph butterflies, dragonflies, other insects and spiders first thing in the morning when it’s chilly. They tend to keep still at such times and may also have a coating of dew which can be visually very interesting. Wait for a still day, too. Choose a fast shutter speed, 1/500 sec is a good starting point with an aperture of f/8 to f/16 to get a reasonable depth of field and try and get your subject in the same plane of focus – that is to say parallel to the camera and not at an angle. If your subject is parallel with the camera you stand a good chance of getting the head and tail sharp otherwise it will be one or the other. Practice, practice, practice. Bring a small flower indoors and in a bright room practice with that.
First, attract birds to your garden! – Provide bird food in regularly cleaned feeders positioned near to shrubs or trees high enough to be out of a cat’s leap and fresh, clean water in a bird bath. Check out the ‘how to attract birds and wildlife’ advice from the RSPB.
Your garden is a wildlife stage – If birds come into your garden it can be straightforward to photograph them. With a little craft and guile you can get some very pleasing shots.
Set the scene – I use interesting and natural looking sticks and twigs as well as larger pieces of wood to serve as perches for garden birds. These can be positioned on a workbench – the vice is really useful, tied to something in the garden like railings or a garden chair, or otherwise bodged somehow. I have a couple of articulated arms with jaws at each end that are really useful. Position perches near food: the birds will soon come in.
Get to know your birds – Watch their behaviour. They may prefer to be very close to shrubs or other cover, or a particular sort of perch in a particular place in the garden.
Use props – Consider using props for the birds to perch on. Clay pots, interesting looking watering cans and tool handles etc. Use your imagination to set up an interesting scene.
Go natural – Birds will use natural perches, of course. Keep observing and get to know their behaviour and favourite spots in the garden at different times of the day.
Choose an interesting background – I like plain, out of focus backgrounds without any intruding clutter. If you are using moveable perches, do just that and move the perches so that the background is uncluttered and a few feet at least behind the perch in order to throw it out of focus. Move the perches around or take up a position to vary the background. If a shrub is in flower, make use of that. Sometimes moving the perch or camera a just a little makes a big difference to the composition and the background.
Clock the light – My garden faces east, which means that the sun is behind me in the morning and I’m looking into the bright light in the afternoon and evening. Both front-lit (with the sun behind you) and back-lit (with the sun behind your subject) photographs can work really well. Side lighting can work well, too, to bring out texture in the feathers.
Find a spot – I photograph from both inside the house and from the garden. Often I shoot through an open door and sometimes through the glass. Window glass isn’t optically great and can soften the shot and it must be clean! If the door is open, I’ll be inside the house by a few feet and largely ignored if I stay still or move slowly. If I’m in the garden I’ll usually sit or stand covered with a bag hide. This is a like an unstructured tent which covers me and my camera with a hole for the lens and a netting window for me to see out. It can get hot!
Cameras and lenses and such – One of the benefits of photographing garden birds is that they can come quite close, so you won’t need a very long lens. A 100mm to 400mm zoom is ideal, even a standard 50mm lens can be used to good effect but won’t let you ‘fill the frame’. A tripod can be a good idea because you can set the camera up, pre-focus on the perch where the bird will land, make some test exposures and then simply fire the shutter when the time is right. One you have pre-focused, switch the lens to manual focus so that the focus is locked in. You can always tweak the focus manually if necessary.
Otherwise, use auto-focus set to subject tracking. Canon calls this function “AI Servo”. Nikon calls it AF-C or Continuous Servo. As long as you have the camera’s focus point or points on the bird, the camera will do its best to keep it focused.
Set a fast shutter speed whether you are hand-holding or using a tripod. The bird will sometimes oblige and sit still, but it’s usually a fast-moving ball of feathers. Use a minimum of 1/500sec and the faster the better to freeze the action.
Set an aperture of around f/5.6 or f/8 to achieve a good depth of field to get the bird in focus without having the background anywhere near sharp. For an uncluttered, blurred background try and keep a separation of at least three feet between it and the perch. More is better.
Try setting your ISO to Auto. The camera will continuously adjust it’s sensitivity to the changing conditions.
On an overcast day, typical settings would be 1/500sec at f/8 at ISO 500. Bright sun these might be 1/1000sec, f/8, ISO125. Use aperture priority to dial in a particular value or shutter priority to put the onus on speed. I always shoot in manual: I dial in the shutter speed and aperture I want and with the ISO in Auto, the camera looks after the exposure.
Set the camera’s drive to continuous high-speed to increase your chances of getting a ‘keeper’. A downside to this technique is that the shutter may make a bit of noise and this could scare the bird.
Finally, always keep a camera handy. You just never know what might come in to your garden and if you have a camera nearby you stand a chance of photographing it.