How to get a Cardinal, or any songbird to pose for you? My theory is that birds possess a list of priorities. Safety is at the top of the list, followed by food, shelter and water. This male Northern Cardinal posed for me because there was food and water nearby. The local birds also know this is a safe location with good visibility so they can check for predators.
I’ve had a simple bird feeder in the backyard for years now. I also make sure there is always clean water available. The local area is an old neighborhood with plenty of old trees along with some wooded areas and a nearby golf course. Even though it’s all “inside the beltway” there is plenty of habitat for wildlife including deer, racoons, possums and even a few snakes. Wooded suburban areas like this are excellent for shooting songbirds.
Aside from being near a good wildlife habitat there are a few other things that can make all the difference in getting a good start in wildlife photography. The first is having a decent long lens. There is simply no substitute for reach, especially when it comes to small animals. Most of the time you are not going to be able to get close enough for an intimate shot with a 50mm lens. This curious Cardinal shot was taken at a 35mm equivalent of 420mm, or 280mm on my APS-C sensor Sony A77.
The second big factor is having a hiding place. Even with a 400mm lens, you will want to get inside 10 feet (3 meters) to get a great closeup. There are lots of ways to get close. It can be as simple as throwing a tarp or some netting over your position to disguise your shape, to building a permanent blind.
The other big factor which is often overlooked is patience. There is no way around it, ‘keeper’ shots often come after hours of sitting in a small space that is too hot or cold, or being in a cramped position. It’s all about waiting for the creatures to come to you.
The payoff is a shot that you genuinely like. That shot is something that you have forever. The cold, the mosquito bites and the muscle cramps all go away. The shot remains.