Wildlife photographer Nick Upton gives tips on how to take captivating wildlife images in your own back garden.
Nick Upton has been photographing wildlife in his Wiltshire garden for more than 10 years, using a variety of techniques, including camera traps. By creating a pond, planting flowers attractive to insects and installing insect hotels and nesting and roosting boxes, he has managed to increase the biodiversity of his garden. He has also photographed a variety of other wildlife-friendly gardens in the South West of England. Nick gives talks to camera clubs and wildlife groups and has run workshops and tutored clients for specific photography techniques. He photographed garden invertebrates for the 2020VISION conservation photography project and recently documented people improving their gardens for wildlife for a current RSPB campaign.
Why photograph garden wildlife?
Almost any garden, especially when improved for nature, can offer plenty of wildlife photography opportunities year-round. Indeed, shooting on your doorstep has many advantages. You don’t have to spend time and fuel traveling to distant sites, and you can use good weather breaks at home immediately rather than heading out in the hope of promised sunshine that often fails to appear. There’s no need to lug heavy camera gear a long way. You can often leave equipment out more securely than you can in public spaces (and it can be brought inside fast when weather turns nasty). Garden wildlife can also become used to people and may allow you to approach closer than is usually possible in the wild.
For me, garden photography fits in perfectly around other work and rest time. My camera trap is often clicking away when I’m on another shoot or asleep. I can also just nip out for an hour or two’s garden photography or take photos from windows when I’m writing or processing images on my computer (I genuinely just photographed two Muntjac deer bucks in my garden during a 5-minute break from writing this!). I love garden photography for the variety it provides, from opportunistic telephoto shots of deer and birds taken from my house, to camera trap shots of nocturnal visitors, macro close-ups of many invertebrates and more carefully-planned shots of owls and pond life that took years to attract and then photograph.
What makes an ideal wildlife garden?
Without doubt, the best way to increase opportunities to photograph garden wildlife is to attract many species. I live on a rural hilltop near Bath in the UK, with quite a large garden backing onto meadows and woods. It’s been easy to lure lots of wildlife here, but I’ve also had really productive shoots in small, urban gardens that have been improved for nature. I’ve photographed a thriving population of hedgehogs in a suburban garden where the owners offer supplementary food, water and cosy shelters, plus crucial gaps in the fences to allow easy movement.
I’ve also photographed swifts coming and going from nests under old roof tiles and in nest boxes on cottages in the heart of local villages. Alongside these, I’ve photographed frogs spawning in a tiny garden in a modern suburban estate. Just a mini-pond in an old washing up bowl can attract lots of wildlife. Likewise, a small patch of wild flowers (even just a window box) will draw many bees and other pollinators.
There’s lots of good information online about making gardens wildlife-friendly, but here are just a few methods that have worked well for me:
- Offer supplementary bird food from late autumn to spring.
- Provide homes for animals by installing nest boxes, including specialist ones for owls, bats and swifts. Buy or make an insect hotel.
- Allow gaps in boundary hedges and fences for badgers, deer, hedgehogs and foxes to move freely.
- Just add water! My small pond was designed with ideal light and angles for photography in mind. Damselflies, dragonflies, water beetles, pond skaters and snails soon adopted it. Toads, newts and frogs have also bred there, and birds, badgers and deer come to drink from it in dry spells.
- Plant flowers, ideally native species, which provide copious nectar and pollen for insects, as well as trees/shrubs that bear fruit/berries in autumn.
- Create a mini meadow by leaving patches of lawn un-mown during the spring and summer, allowing native plants to flower and seed.
- Sprinkle peanuts around for badgers when the ground is too dry for them to easily dig for food.
- Piles of rotting wood and deep leaf litter allow fungi, invertebrates and small mammals to thrive.
- Avoid using pesticides, herbicides and slug pellets.
- Consider which species you want to allow into your garden, as some visitors might leave traces. If (unlike me) you’d object to badgers digging for worms and grubs in your lawn or deer nibbling your flowers, you could just focus on attracting birds, hedgehogs and insects.
Top tips for photographing garden wildlife
Being aware of what wildlife is visiting your garden and what it’s up to is key. Watch from windows, tour the garden looking for footprints, excavations and nibbled plants and listen for distinctive bird, mammal and insect sounds. I’ve learnt exactly where and when to look for specific wildlife at various times of day and year, and know when different parts of the garden are best lit for photography. This includes where the first and last rays of spring sunshine fall for heat-seeking insects to bask in.
Consider buying a cheap trail camera to monitor when and where shy and/or nocturnal animals such as badgers, deer, foxes and owls are visiting your garden. It’s exciting to check trail cams to see what photos and video clips have been recorded. I often share shots with friends and neighbours, but I mainly use these cameras to tell me what’s around before switching to much higher grade DSLR equipment. More on that later.
Photographing wildlife without disturbing it is important – not only for getting good shots but also to ensure it keeps returning. I’ve taken many opportunistic, mostly hand-held photos of deer through house windows. I keep the glass very clean and try to get the lens right up to it to reduce reflections. I open windows if at all possible to avoid distortion (although warm air from a house can mix with cold air outside to create a de-focusing shimmer). I’ve also taken photos from a garden shed doorway, draped with an old green sheet, with lens and peepholes cut out. I often deploy a camouflaged hide to give me a closer view of garden wildlife I’ve seen more distantly, or which my trail camera has recorded.
Add context to your frame
It’s possible to take wildlife photos in gardens that look like truly wild shots. But you can choose to emphasize the domestic setting by juxtaposing wildlife with houses, sheds, tools, fences, colourful garden flowers or people. I often seek to get close to my subjects, using wide angle lenses to show them boldly in the foreground with garden elements framed into the background.
Get low and level with your subject
Shooting with the camera on the ground, especially if that’s where the subject’s eye level is, makes for more intimate images. A right-angled viewfinder or the flip up LCD screen of a modern camera makes framing and focusing images much easier.
Stay up late, get up early
Much wildlife is active in gardens before most people are up and after they’re indoors for the night, so early morning and evening photography is often very productive. Dawn and dusk light can also add a new dimension to images, though low light photography needs good technique and equipment.
Choosing the right equipment
Some garden wildlife can be photographed with very basic camera equipment including mobile phones, if subjects can be approached closely. That’s very possible with some insects, and even hedgehogs, badgers and foxes can get used to people and house lights. The quality and range of possible images though, inevitably increases with better and more varied equipment. I’ve done most of my garden photography using DSLR cameras and a range of lenses.
Lens choice depends on what you’re photographing and the style of photo you’re seeking. Long telephoto lenses, ideally on a tripod, are often needed for close up shots of birds and mammals, with zoom lenses allowing a wider range of shot size and composition than prime lenses allow. Macro lenses allow you to take frame-filling photos of small subjects such as flowers and insects.
I also often use more specialist lenses that focus down to a few centimetres or less and offer wide-angle views; these allow me to photograph small subjects boldly in the foreground with the garden setting obvious in the background. I have a long, thin macro probe lens that does this, which wildlife often accepts very close, perhaps as it’s less threatening than bulkier lenses. I can also dip the probe a few inches underwater for pond life shots, sometimes boosting daylight with a built-in light and flashguns.
I often use a remote camera to get unusual angles of view, fired with a wireless remote trigger as I watch from the house or garden up to 50m away. I’ve used this for birds visiting feeders with the house in view, bees and swifts returning to nests, hedgehogs feeding on a patio, badgers visiting my pond and pine martens on a bird table as I (and others) watch from a window in the background.
I also use a DSLR camera trap by day and night to photograph wildlife when I’m not around. The camera is protected by a waterproof housing, is triggered by an infrared sensor or beam. It is usually linked to multiple flashguns in waterproof covers on light stands or mounts clipped to branches. I sometimes aim to light passing animals with just a hint of garden background, but often compose shots facing the house and use extra flashguns to throw light onto it to emphasize the domestic setting. Many things can go wrong, from false or failed triggering to condensation or ice obscuring lenses and housings. So it takes a lot of experience to hone camera and flash positions, as well as settings for different situations without frightening wildlife away, but it’s very satisfying when everything goes well.
Natural daylight is bright enough for most garden wildlife photography, but I occasionally boost this with diffused flash units by day and always use flash after dark for invertebrates (spiders, slugs, millipedes and more). You need to be cautious, though, with shy mammals and birds that can be frightened away by camera clicks and flashes. When using flashguns linked to camera traps, I usually begin very carefully with low power flash settings. I even use infrared equipment at first to get clear black and white images with virtually no disturbance.
I sometimes observe the impact of flashes from hides or record trail camera footage of reactions to be sure they’re mild. Then I slowly increase flash brightness and frequency of firing for more and better shots. I’ve found that hedgehogs and badgers habituate very quickly to flashes and shutter clicks. Even deer and owls come to accept camera traps with regular use and gentle introduction.
In the end…
If garden photography appeals to you, I’d suggest starting with whatever equipment you have, analysing the results and honing your approach and skills. Then, if you’re sure you really need it and can afford it, consider buying more and better equipment. Some economise by making camera trap housings from plastic storage containers, and I often buy 2nd hand equipment if it’s to be left outside for long periods in all weathers.
Wildlife-friendly gardens really do offer great chances for photography in all seasons. Warm spring and summer days see many kinds of insects and birds feeding, singing, mating and nesting. Autumn is great for late season insects visiting ivy flowers, many spiders are active and birds and squirrels are busy plundering ripe fruits and berries. Winter is usually quieter, but offers the occasional chance to photograph birds and mammals visiting in snow and ice.
I hope these tips help you take some great pictures of garden wildlife. With time and practice, you may get shots worthy of entering to the RHS Photographer of the Year or International Garden Photographer Of the Year competitions.
To see more of Nick’s amazing garden photography, click here!