Northern Cardinal

Songbird photography is one of my favorite pastimes. It has everything a serious amateur could ask for. You don’t have to travel far to get good shots. It doesn’t require hyper expensive equipment. And a big bonus is that a lot of people are fascinated by bird photography.

A big plus is that if you do it right, your subjects will come to you. Over the years I’ve found that stocking a bird feeder make life a lot easier. It will bring the seed eaters, Chickadees, Cardinals, Blue Jays and more. The other birds pay attention, once the first group become regular visitors, more will come to see what’s going on. Even the species that are not normally seed eaters. If you have water, you’ll attract many more. All birds need food, water, and a place they feel secure. They like to check out a location. Make sure there are no cats setting up an ambush. So viability is a big thing. Don’t put your feeder right next to a place where predators can hide. Once you’ve got subjects visiting on a regular basis, all you have to do if figure out how to get the shot.

Songbird photography is one area where a good mid-range camera is more than adequate to get good shots. A moderately priced long zoom lens will get you close enough for portraits. Personally, I use two Sigma telephoto zooms, a 70-200 f/2.8, and a 120-400 f/4.5-5.6. With the 70-200 I sometimes add a 1.4 teleconverter to get that extra bit of reach. The tradeoff is that it makes the lens an f/4.0, but that’s fast enough for 90% of the bird photography you’ll ever do.

These are not cheap glass, both cost me around $1000 when I bought them years ago. But compared to $2400 for a Nikon 70-200 f/2.8, or $1700 for a Canon 100-400, the Sigmas are a bargain. And keep in mind that when you get into the high end of 400mm lenses, prices top $10,000. A bit much for anyone who is not making a living as a photographer.

The good thing is that when it comes to songbirds, developing the skill to get a good capture, along with some skill in post processing, will be of more value than super high dollar gear.

A Carolina Chickadee in the garden

The single thing that will be the most help in getting those close ups is a blind. I bought a single person, foldaway, hunting blind from a sporting goods store. I think it was about $49. It’s the single best investment you can make when it comes to songbird photography.

I run a long extension cord from the house, with a little electric fan, put a small cooler inside along with a lawn chair, and I can sit outside on the hottest summer afternoon and wait for the birds to come to me. Cool and comfortable.

Bird photography appeals to a lot of people. Songbirds are subjects that are difficult to photograph with phones. Not that it can’t be done, but how many shots taken with a phone have really knocked you out? You can’t get close enough unless you’ve taken all summer to train a bird. Yes, it can be done, but most folks won’t invest the time. And the small sensor in a phone is never going to let you get that creamy background, that’s just a matter of physics. That makes songbirds an ideal subject for a dedicated amateur with a few decent long lenses. It’s more a matter of taking the time, and getting the birds to come to you.

Quote of the Day
“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”

Henry David Thoreau


Cornell Ornithology – Carolina Chickadee

Cornell Ornithology – Northern Cardinal