By Dr. Robert Berdan
June 17, 2012
At first glance my backyard isn’t anything special, but as a photographer I try to challenge myself to see and capture beautiful images anywhere. I figure a good photographer should be sensitive enough to see picture possibilities even in their own backyard. Furthermore, I usually test my equipment and new lenses in my backyard to make sure they work properly. Recently, I photographed a pair of robins nesting in my yard and got to thinking perhaps it’s time I put together a collection of images I have taken over the years in my backyard. If you are new to photography there is no better place to learn about your camera and practice seeing then close to home. Shooting digital means there is no cost to taking lots of pictures or experimenting and you can simply throw way the bad images. All of the photographs in this article were taken in my backyard and I challenge you to see what you can photograph in your yard.
My backyard framed by blooming Malus "Pink Spires", also called Siberian Crab Apple. This tree starts to bloom aroud the end of May and into the first week of June. Next to this tree we have a Mountain ash and its berries attract a variety of birds especially Cedar waxwings throughout the year. It starts to bloom around the middle of June.
Cedar waxwing on our crab apple tree. I took this photograph while reclining on my lawn chair. I used a 300 mm f/4 lens, Canon 7D and set the on camera flash to -1 EV. It was an overcast day.
Crab apple blossoms. 300 mm F4 telephoto lens at F4, Canon 7D ISO 400.
Crab apple bloom, taken with a compact Pentax Optio Camera in Macro mode handheld.
I live in a rural neighbourhood in north west Calgary. It’s an older section of the city that has lots of mature trees that attract birds. My backyard has several hedges, a crab apple tree, mountain ash, cedar tree, a few tiny flower patches and even a few ferns that grow in the shade. Neither my wife or I are gardeners, however we do coerce our son to keep the grass cut and sometimes we even plant a few flowers. We like to sit outside on summer evenings and watch the stars, though light pollution only lets us see the brightest constellations and our view of the sky is hemmed in by trees and power lines. We try to attract birds by putting out a water bath and sometimes in winter we also put out bird feed. Water seems to be best at attracting a wide variety of birds, whereas bird feed mostly attracts little brown sparrows, occasional blue jays, squirrels and field mice. There are certainly more attractive gardens then ours in the neighbourhood, but my point is that anyone can plant flowers, attract birds, and small animals to their yard. Get your camera out and explore your yard. If your neighbour has niceer looking flowers, ask permission, you may be able to capture some beautiful images of their flowers.
Possible Backyard Subjects
- Flowers and other plants
- Insects, spiders and spider webs
- Changing weather patterns, clouds, raindrops, snow flakes
- Night sky, constellations, moon, meteors, aurora and other celestial sights
- Try time lapse photography of clouds
Wild rhubarb - 60 mm Canon Macro lens and Canon 7D camera hand held.
As a nature photographer, I am often frustrated that I can’t spend more time outside taking pictures because I have to attend to my business. I spend too much time in front of my computer in the basement when what I would really like to be doing is taking pictures. My backyard, at least in summer, is a sanctuary, where I can practice my craft and enjoy nature on short notice without the need to travel anywhere. I also leave the back door open with the screen door up so I can hear birds that drop in to feed on berries. Cedar waxwings have a peculiar high pitch whistle that alerts me to their presence. When ever I hear these beautiful birds I poke my head out the back door armed with my telephoto lens. One year I even had a sharp shined hawk sitting in our crab apple tree, presumably hunting for sparrows gathering around the bird feeder.
If you have a backyard, start with whatever camera and equipment you own. Some of the photographs in this collection were taken with a compact digital camera (Pentax Optio WG). If you own a tripod get it out and give it a try. If you have the ability to shoot macro then get close to your subjects and you will discover and amazing world of possibilities. Start with flowers, then look for insects, or possibly lichen that might be growing in your yard. If you want to make the flowers look fresh sprinkle them with water from your hose. Then get really close and see if you capture reflections in the water drops. Look at how the light changes in your yard during the day and during different seasons.
Magnifying water drop technique - Ox eye daisy', Photographed with Pentax Option compact camera. I held a pice of grass in front of the flowers using a small tripod and then placed the waterdrops onto the grass stem with an eye dropper.
If you have the ability to take closeup or macrophotographs another interesting technique is to try and photograph water drops. The water can be natural from rain or you can simply take your garden hose and spray some plants. I even use a eyedropper to place water drops on certain plants to create small magnifying lenses which I then photograph with a macro lens.
Closeup of Ox eye daisy - notice the spiral lines on the inside of the flower. 100 mm macro lens, F11.
Raindrops on pine needles outside my backdoor. 100 mm macro lens F2.8 to create a shallow depth of field.
Oriental Lilly - my wife purchased and planted these beautiful flowers. 100 mm macro lens at f/22 with an attached extension tube was used to take this photograph. Also I used a tripod to hold the camera steady.
Nobody says every photo has to be sharp. If you are looking for some interesting things to try, set you camera shutter speed to 1\2 second or longer, then point your camera at something colourful and move your camera during the exposure to create an abstract image. Try twisting your camera, movie it up and down or in a rotational direction. Most of your pictures may not look very good, but the more you take the greater your chances of getting a good one. Look for colourful subjects. I find I get about one interesting photo for every 10-20 shots I take. The good news is with digital photography there is no cost. Try different lenses, focal lengths and different shutter speeds. I was inspired to try this technique after looking at the beautiful photographs Michael Orton has on his web site – I encourage you to visit his web site and examine his galleries for inspiration.
Backyard abstract. I took this photo by using a slow 1\2 second exposure and simply moving the camera quickly up and down. Try to point at some colourful subjects and overcast light seems to work the best.
Camera movement with slow 1\2 sec shutter speed - I moved the camera in an arc during the exposure.
Another technique you can try is to multiple exposure twirl photography (below). If you camera allows multiple exposure you can experiment with this technique that I describe in a separate article. This techniuque also produces abstract looking images that can be fun to produce.
Multiple Exposure Twirl Photography - see my article on how to do this.
These apple blossoms were photographed from my backyard, but are in my neighbours yard. 300 mm F4 lens.
Common Grackle sitting on the fence
Spider web - I sprayed the web with water from a perfume bottle to help make the web more visible and simulate dew.
Lichen growing on our Mountain Ash - about 4X magnification. Canon MP-E 65 mm macro lens and flash.
Fern - I placed the leaf a glass table and photographed it with the "microscope" mode of the my Pentax compact Optio-WG camera. This camera includes small LED lights, about 1X magnification.
Fern leaves, Pentax Optio WG compact camera.
The Aurora Borealis over my garage one hot August night. Taken with a Fuji Finepix digital camera on a tripod, 6 seconds exposure at ISO 1600. It is rare to see the aurora within the city limits of Calgary.
The moon photographed with my 300 mm f/2.8 telephoto lens on a tripod. The moon can be photographed at any time of year. You might try and capture the different moon phases.
This lunar eclipse was taken from the front porch of my home - OK its not the backyard, but its close!
Jack rabbit in the backyard, photographed with 300 mm F4 Canon telephoto lens. This rabbit and several others frequently visit our yard.
Red Squirrel n the grass - he was attracted to bird seed we put out. 300 mm F2.8 lens, Nikon D300 camera.
One winter day I came in the back door and noticed these beautiful snow flakes on the black iron veranda handles. I set up my camera and a 100 mm macro lens and used a tripod to photograph these beautiful crystals.
If you are an amateur or even a professional photographer I challenge you to take pictures in your backyard. It’s a great self assignment and even if you don’t achieve award winning photographs it is an excellent seeing exercise. Seeing is what photography is all about and to improve you don't need the best equipment or to travel around the world. You can practice sseing anywhere and there is no better place to start practice then your own backyard. RB