Garden birds are great to watch as they come and go at the feeders. Watching from afar is one thing but getting a closeup view would be way better, if only they weren’t afraid of us getting so close. Taking photos of birds at a feeder is surprisingly easy and doesn’t have to cost a bean. So, what are the best ways to photograph garden birds?
In this post I am going to show you some methods that I have found useful when taking photos and videos of birds in my garden. For example, ‘digiscoping’ (using a mobile phone on a spotting scope), wildlife cameras and smartphones. None of these need to be expensive and at most you will spend up to £50, probably a lot less, maybe even nothing.
Garden Bird Photography Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive
When I looked into bird photography a while ago, I searched the internet and found a lot of information on the latest spotting scopes and hugely expensive zoom lenses for top of the range DSLR cameras. This put me off and I thought this kind of thing would be out of my league.
But here’s the thing – getting up close to birds in your garden is super easy and you probably already have enough to get started. It all depends on what you want to spend and the quality of image you will be happy with.
Using a Spotting Scope For Bird Photography (digiscoping)
Spotting scopes allow you to get a close up and clear view of a bird. The first time I looked through one I was blown away by how clear and close everything was. I used to think spotting scopes were for the professional birders out there and judging by the cost of good quality scopes, something I would never achieve.
Here is the basic setup that I use. The scope I have is the Celestron 52223 60 mm Zoom 45 Degree Spotting Scope Telescope. I got it on a Maplins Web Deal – half the current price.
It is recommend you use a tripod because the magnification of the scope will greatly exaggerate movement and the image you see will be unstable and blurred. I was lucky enough to already have a tripod but for not very much money, you can pick one up that does the job just fine.
The Amazon Basics Lightweight Tripod is adequate for a bit of digiscoping. All you really need to something to hold the scope steady with a few adjustments for height and rotation.
Here are a few examples of photos I took through my spotting scope, using a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone. I was quite pleased with these as the clarity and colour were still very good at maximum zoom. Something worth bearing in mind, though, is the field of view. When a spotting scope increases magnification, the width of the image through the scope narrows.
How To Setup For Digiscoping
Setting up a scope to take photos is easy. Most tripods with come with a small attachment for mounting cameras and scopes. It looks like this:
You can see there is a small threaded screw about 5 mm in diameter in the centre of the mount. If you look on the bottom of the scope there is a small threaded hole, specifically designed to fit the screw on the mount. This is universal and you shouldn’t have any problems no matter which scope and tripod combination you use.
Now the scope is set up you can look through it and get the view right, making adjustments to the magnification and zoom. You will now need to find a way of attaching your smart phone to the scope.
A handy little gadget I found online was this:
You can see it over on Amazon here – Universal Telescope Camera Adapter. It cost me just a few pounds but I use it all the time. It has a clamp at one end, which tightens round the eyepiece of the scope. The other end is a fully adjustable frame that holds the phone in place. Once you have this adjusted to suit, it can stay in place so you don’t need to adjust it every time you use it.
Taking Photos With A Spotting Scope
I found out very quickly that when taking photos, even the slightest touch of the phone screen resulted in camera shake and a blurred photo. Due to the magnification through the scope, even the camera’s built in anti-shake function couldn’t cope.
My top tip here is to use voice activation for taking photos. Many smartphones these days allow you to simply say “Cheese”, “Shoot” or similar words to take a photos. This completely negates any contact with the phone and, therefore, movement that will blur the image.
Something else I have noticed is that the auto focus on a phone’s camera will assist in focusing through the scope. So, even if the scope is slightly out of focus, the camera will adjust and correct it. This makes things less fiddly getting the clarity of the image just right.
5 Spotting Scopes To Consider On A Budget
Here are five entry level spotting scopes that don’t cost much. They are the perfect choice to get you started. At the time of writing they are all between £40 – £100.
Celestron 52223 60 mm Zoom 45 Degree Spotting Scope
Emarth 20-60x60AE Waterproof Angled Spotting Scope with Tripod
Svbony SV28, 20-60×80 45 Degree Angled Eyepiece Spotting Scope
LUXUN 20-60×60 Power Monocular Focus Zoom Outdoor Portable Telescope
Landove Waterproof Spotting Scope
Pros & Cons Of Digiscoping
There are a few things to think about if you want to use a spotting scope and a mobile phone to photograph birds. The main thing I quickly noticed was the circular border around the image, caused by the eyepiece. There is an easy fix to this if you have the ability to crop your images. Most phones can and most computers will have built in functionality to do this. There is a bit of a trade off between magnification and field of view – too close and you will be limited as to how much you can crop to remove the round border.
The other thing to do is use the optical zoom of the phone’s camera. Depending on the zoom capability the quality could suffer a little but, as the camera lens zooms it passes through the circular eyepiece. The image will be narrower in terms of view but less cropping will be needed.
The good bits:
- Photos are really close
- Detail can be quite impressive
- You can see birds that are much further away
- You can take advantage of the phone’s camera features, such as slow motion and time lapse
The not so good bits:
- Image quality can be reduced with lower light conditions, or from behind windows
- Not ideal in wet weather, unless the scope and the phone are water resistant
- If you don’t have voice activation, photos may be less clear, due to phone movement
- A spotting scope can cost a lot of money, although there are some good ones out there for a reasonable price
Taking Photos Of Garden Birds Without A Spotting Scope
This is my favourite way of doing this right now. I simply attach my mobile phone to a tripod and control it remotely. You can use remote desktop app to do this, or some kind of security/ CCTV app. Let me explain.
My preferred method of garden bird photography at the moment is to just use my mobile phone, mounted close to my feeders, controlling it from my laptop indoors.
Using Apps To Photograph Garden Birds
I have been using an app called Alfred Camera, which is a security camera app allowing users to turn an old smartphone into a CCTV camera. You will find it on both Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.
It enables motion detection, night mode, two way audio and more. You get notifications and video clips of activity in front of the camera; you can even view the camera live, take photos and video from a second phone or computer. The big benefit is that you can just leave the phone where it is and let the app do the work for you.
While this app is good for watching birds at a bird feeder, there are some limitations. For example, the maximum resolution is 720p, which is the lower end of HD video. While motion detection is adjustable (low, medium and high) there are many activations as a result of a breeze swaying the feeders. I definitely recommend this app as a free starter.
Here is a movie captured by the Alfred:
My Favourite App For Bird Photography
The best app I have found so far for remotely watching a bird feeder is Samsung Flow. It is available on Microsoft Store and Google Play Store but, as the name suggests it only works with Samsung smartphones.
This app allows you to control your phone completely from a tablet or computer while on the same WiFi network, or via Bluetooth. The advantage if this is that you get to use all the premium features of your phone, without compromise. Slow motion video, time lapse, Pro camera mode, viewing and deleting footage and so on.
Samsung Flow is free and is easy to use and I like being able to use my smartphone camera’s full resolution for both photos and videos, while not having to actually be holding it or touching it. I am currently indoors writing this post while taking photos and making videos of the birds outside, like this:
Again, you will need a tripod for this, or some other way of securing a smartphone close to a bird feeder. You could use tape or hang it with string! Your WiFi signal will also need to be strong enough to allow a good connection. One advantage of using Alfred is that mobile data can be used, as it links through a Google account – it is web based.
Pros & Cons of a Smartphone and Tripod
This is a good way of getting good quality photos and video of garden birds feeding. You don’t even need to use a phone app to enable this method, you could just start a video recording and step away. I do not recommend this though, as you will have no control over starting and stopping the video, nor how much storage is taken up on the phone.
- High quality results, limited only by your smartphone’s ability
- Remote activation and monitoring
- There are some good apps, free to download
- If you use your current phone, you can still make calls, send and receive messages through your other device
The not so good:
- Not great in bad weather unless both phone and tripod is water resistant
- Battery life of phone may not last (you could use a power bank)
- Risk of damage to phone from bird poop or bird attack
- Some birds can become a little suspicious and wary of the phone being so close.
Using Wildlife Cameras For Garden Bird Photography
There is something quite satisfying about being able to get close up to wildlife, especially those animals who don’t usually let us. When I found a few rat holes under my fence I was curious and wanted to see what made them and when they were being used.
This is the one I got – Victure Wildlife Trap Camera 20MP
There are two big advantages to these cameras that I have identified. Firstly, they are made to go outdoors in all types of weather – something a mobile is probably not up to. Secondly, the batteries last along time, allowing the camera to be left in place for many days.
Capturing the movements of a slow moving hedgehog or rat is easy but what about faster, twitchier birds? As I had just made a log feeder in the hope of attracting a woodpecker to my garden, the first place i put my new wildlife camera was in the tree looking at the log feeder.
I left it there for a few days and I was pleased with the result, albeit the quality of the images were a little disappointing.
The night vision of the camera is often better than the daylight when taking both still images and video. As I had hung the camera under the canopy of a low tree the light was not so good. I could still see the bird activity quite well, with audio too.
The best images are gained in well lit areas, the closer the better. These cameras are good at seeing what’s in front of them up to around 6 feet. Anything further than that is not so detailed.
Here are a few examples:
Wildlife cameras have a few good features that mobile phones don’t. These include – longer battery life, time lapse photos, simultaneous still and video recording, motion detection and night vision.
While these features may be things an amateur birder would benefit from, the quality of the lower end cameras may leave you feeling disappointed. Here are some things to bear in mind…
Things I like:
- Good outdoors and in all weathers
- Motion detection
- Long battery life
- Timed activation
What I don’t like:
- Not great quality but OK for the price
- Sometimes the motion detect and images are delayed
- No way of knowing what was recorded until you retrieve the camera
- Requires 8 AA batteries
Digiscoping vs Remote Smartphone vs Wildlife Camera
Below are some comparisons for you to make your own mind up. I think I have to say the spotting scope really does do the job very well, if you have the minimum distance required to focus on anything at all through the scope.
You can still use all the features of a smartphone camera – slow motion, selective focus, professional mode. You can control the phone from another device, so you don’t have to stand next to the scope.
Image quality is great, as long as lighting conditions are adequate and any windows between the scope and subject are clean without glare. The ability to magnify and zoom right in allows some really awesome photos.
Using voice control eliminates camera shake. You are limited by the battery life, unless you run a cable or use a power pack. Not a great idea in wet weather.
Smartphone (no scope)
Phones without the scope also provide good quality and clear images, depending on which smartphone you are using. You really need to use a security camera app or a remote access app to control your phone from a distance – standing next to it is not an option, being so close to the feeder.
While you can position the phone close to a feeder, you will not get the clear magnification and zoom of a scope. You are limited to the phone’s camera functions.
I recommend a remote control app, so you can take advantage of the camera functions, such as slow motion or pro mode while hidden away at a computer. Not great in wet weather, unless you are happy for your gear to get wet. Battery limitations of the phone also apply.
I like the idea of wildlife cameras – they can be secreted almost anywhere to record activity and movement in the immediate vicinity. However, at entry level there is no remote access, no image setup and no way of seeing what was captured until you recover the camera. Quality is not great either, compared to a decent camera or smartphone.
I have also found the recording function is sometimes slightly delayed following the motion detection. This means that anything that doesn’t hang around for more than a few seconds may not be recorded. Putting one of these in a tree somewhere may capture some great candid activity but I was left a little disappointed at the low quality.
From my recent experience I would recommend trying out a spotting scope. They are fairly cheap to buy at entry level and even these provide some surprising results.
Even without a scope you can get some great bird shots from the feeder, just use a free app to control your phone from further away.
Make sure you have the appropriate accessories, such as a tripod (or sticky tape and sting, if all else fails!) attachments to use smartphones and so on.
Wildlife cameras are OK but I think they are better used for capturing images of other things. Any shots you get may be exciting at first but you will be left wanting better quality, which will cost a lot more.