…through the double-glazed window
BY OLYMPUS MENTOR ROB COTTLE
Since moving house a few years back, I’ve run a small project of photographing birds through the double-glazed office (mostly pigeons, but I love pigeons) or kitchen windows and in these weird hermit-like times of self-isolation, I thought it a good time to write a blog about it.
My north facing garden, being the size of a small postage stamp (although admittedly large second class), is not the ‘Mae West’ for bird photography, however I count myself very fortunate that I live on the edge of the countryside and quite a few different bird species visit or fly past my garden and not wanting to miss out on my avian friends graciousness, the ‘through the window project’ came about.
Now my house is slightly unusual in that it was built on sloping ground and has two and a half floors, with a lower ground floor basement room. Main access is from the front ground floor but at its rear, including my office, is one floor up with a small balcony (nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds but at least I can wave at strangers and pretend to be royalty). The ‘balcony’ unfortunately gets in the way of seeing the garden so, as we couldn’t watch the birds feeding from the kitchen or office, I set up feeders on the balcony railings. This has not only allowed me to capture some nice portraits but also some close-ups of usually skittish birds and the odd flight shot, through those double-glazed windows. It’s not ideal but beggars can’t be choosers (that saying could be updated to ‘influencers should not be choosers!’ Don’t get me started!!!). So, here’s how I went about things:
First things first, if you have the space, a set of thermals and the inclination, it’s better to work in a hide or shed as shooting through glass is a compromise, however photographing birds through the window is a great way for most to capture and enjoy our feathered friends. If you have some of those new-fangled designs that open enough to point your lens through, unlike me, you could of course also be radical and open the window (it’s okay if you do, I’m not bitter!).
Of course, you need birds to visit your garden, window box, patio etc regularly and to do that you must feed them every day so they know you are a regular food supplier. When we moved into our house, we didn’t have many bird visitors, from what I can remember just a sparrow or two and a robin watching avidly as I dug the garden. One of the first things I did was install bird feeders and it took a little while for birds to visit regularly but once they’d had a good chirp to their mates down their local (and they do) they gradually grew in numbers. It will start with your usual suspects, sparrows, robins, blackbirds, dunnock, etc and then if you are fortunate maybe the tits and wrens will appear. If you are really lucky you may get more exotic species like goldfinch whose wonderful colour and metallic song are a delight, nuthatch who not only have a stunning colour but also a lovely vocabulary and various other finches although they are unfortunately on the decline.
What you feed to the birds is very important and can decide which ones visit your feeders. You do not need to buy fancy makes but try to buy decent quality. I use Love Garden Birds as they are good quality and relatively cheap if you buy in bulk. I only use 3 types of feed otherwise it gets a bit unwieldy and complicated. A general seed blend (I buy the no grow, no waste version as it is much tidier), peanuts (tits like them, a real lure for nuthatch and once in a while you maybe really lucky, great spotted woodpecker) and the one that really works especially during the winter, sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds bring in all the finches and joyously the goldfinch. Being a vegan, it’s a great alternative to fat balls and I’ve found they work better anyway. Remember this process will take a little while. We had the odd goldfinch visit after a week or so but gradually their numbers increased and now there isn’t a day that goes by without tripping over one of the little blighters. In the winter and during breeding we can have six or so on the feeder with maybe 20 waiting their turn. One thing to be wary of though, where there are little birds, there are sparrow hawks. It can be quite traumatic to see a bird being taken but it’s nature and a sparrow hawk is a wonderful looking bird too.
Nothing to do with photography but please wash your feeders every week. A lot of our birds have various types of pox and viruses (how we know only too well) caused by dirty feeders. You may notice a fairly new one of cotton wool like growths on chaffinches.
Now the reason I use my office or kitchen window is fourfold, one: the feeders are outside, two: I can’t really do it any other way, three: it means I can dip my toe in and out without having to set too much up, four: birds will be used to you coming and going. Oh! hang on there’s a fifth: it’s right next to the kettle (which is right next to the biscuit barrel).
Wash your windows (well at least the ones you want to photograph through!) as any spots or marks will show up on your images but can also cause flares and sun spots.
Try to rest the lens perpendicular to the glass (a side benefit is that this will help stabilise the camera) and preferably use a lens hood. If you haven’t got a lens hood just wrap a dark cloth around it. If you don’t, you’ll get flaring, reflections and refraction. Turn your lights off and do not use your flash unless you want to blinded!
The wider the lens and acuter the angle, the more refraction will occur. Try to get as straight on as you can to the subject. This isn’t always feasible and you may need to compromise with just getting the main subject in focus (as the central area of the frame will be sharper) and not worry too much about the surroundings. There are times when by accident this may even help, a bit like using a ‘lens baby’, where the eye is drawn to the main subject and the surroundings are blurred.
If you have enough light you could try using a polariser to remove most of the reflections. If the polariser is turned to cut out all the reflections You can also come away slightly from the window but be careful when focussing as your focus point may catch the glass instead. If that happens you can always manually focus.
Distracting backgrounds can be a problem so try and find a place where this is at a minimum.
Use the widest aperture (small f/numbers) you can get away with to blur the background (unless you have a nice environment shot) but having enough depth of field to capture what you want. My feeders are only about 1.5m away and it’s difficult to have enough depth of field for an eye no matter a head, experiment to see what you can get away with. One caveat: if you are attempting to capture birds in flight sometimes it helps to have a narrower aperture (bigger f/numbers) to give you a bigger depth of field to allow for movement. Remember the wider the aperture you use, the more light enters the camera allowing a higher shutter speed.
Don’t think that just because a background looks like it won’t work, means it doesn’t! The beauty of mirrorless is that we can look through the EVF and see what it looks like. I have a few distracting backgrounds but if I’m lucky and a bird is in front of the right distracting background it can turn into a not distracting background (I’m not sure if that even made sense to me). People across the way have painted their house a vibrant yellow (that’s what I’m calling it just in case they read this!) and sometimes it looks great as a background, it almost looks like we have some sun in Wales.
Where you can’t get rid of the background try to zoom in tight and lose it that way.
I think it looks much better if you avoid having man-made objects in your composition (unless you want man-made objects that is) so, leave some perches near the feeders for birds to land on especially if they are waiting their turn. A lot of the birds will land on my balcony’s black handrail and sometimes that works. Even if you are working on a balcony or window box you can still have a few plant pots or similar with perches and realistic looking habitat. You can even go the opposite way and use objects just to make it interesting, like gloves, old spade handles, watering cans, teapot (drink the tea first, don’t be a heathen), hairdryer, cuddly toy, fondue set, Cousin It etc.
Shutter speeds are going to be highly dependent on light especially when the glass will reduce some light reaching your camera. For portraits you can get away with a slower shutter speed but you will be surprised by how much birds are always moving and rarely stand still. Therefore, unless it’s for a specific effect (intentional camera blur etc) use as quick a shutter speed as you can muster. Birds in flight of course need rapid shutter speeds if you want to freeze them and it’s just a case of ramping the ISO up as much as possible to achieve this. The trade-off is deciding how much noise you are comfortable with against the speed necessary to capture a sharp bird. I am quite happy to use ISO3200 especially in the daytime. Because I live in Wales, I am often at ISO800 at the best of times. It’s important to experiment with different speeds and ISO’s, use the time to learn and don’t be afraid to fail. You only ever see the best images of photographers, not their deleted bin!
Exposures are slightly trickier through glass and I often find myself having to over expose what I think it’s going to be. Again, experiment and once you’ve worked it out you will have it for future reference. I always shoot in RAW and that allows me to recover quite a lot of shadows and highlights in Capture One (or whatever program you use) which can help massively.
If I’m taking bird portraits, I will use the smallest single focus point and aim for the head. Sometimes the birds are so close that if I’m using a wide aperture (shallow depth of field) I have to focus on the eye making sure it is sharp. This is critical for a composition to work.
For birds in flight you need to use the smallest focus point array you can get away with (which could in fact be a single one) to avoid the autofocus losing focus on the bird and locking on a distracting background instead. Try a 5, 9 or 25 array and annoyingly once more, I’m going to tell you to experiment again. If you can master this through your window at garden birds, then you are going to be unstoppable when you are finally released from your isolation.
It can take a while simply waiting for birds to start visiting your garden no matter photographing them so enjoy the whole process. I was whooping and a hollering when my first goldfinch turned up and now, I’m over run with the damn things (it’s like a psychedelic version of the movie ‘The Birds’). Be patient at the window, let them get used to you being there and use slow movements.
As I write this, we are in virus lockdown (that’ll age well then!) and it’s a great time to lose yourself in watching the birds as well as photographing them. Really look at their details (or jizz if you are a twitcher), colours, observe their behaviour, listen to their song, revel in their wonderment. Mindful birdwatching can lift the spirits especially if you listen to their song as well.
Have fun, after all, we are only messing around with cameras.
If you want any more information or details, please feel free to DM me on Instagram.
Be kind, be thankful and be safe. Rob.