Tips for Doing a Backyard Photo Safari


Have you ever thought about taking a trip to the other side of the world to get beautiful shots of exotic locations? You certainly can, and traveling is one of the best things you can do to take your photo skills to the next level. If flying across the world isn’t an option, what about stepping out of your door? A backyard photo safari is just a few meters away instead of a thousand miles, and you can take some beautiful photos without expensive gear too.

backyard photo safari dandelion
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/2000 second, ISO 100

While you could just drop what you are doing and head outside right now, it helps to do a bit of planning first. If you keep a few tips and techniques in mind, it will save you some frustration and give you a few ways to approach your very own backyard photo safari that will help produce the best possible results.

Timing is everything

Familiar places can take on dramatically different appearances depending on the time of day. It’s not just about the quality of light but the type of things you are likely to find – especially in your backyard. In the morning, plants are covered in dew, and bugs and insects are seizing the day. You might also find familiar sights shrouded in fog. Revisit the same patch of earth in the evening, and the scene will be dramatically different.

backyard photo safari frog
Nikon D750, 50mm, f/8, 1/90 second, ISO 800. This frog wasn’t just in my backyard. It was on my back door! I shot this after the sun went down after a rainy day.

You already know your own backyard well, but have you ever gone out in the early hours of the morning, or as the sun was setting, or even late at night? It’s not the same place at all. You will quickly notice things that you just don’t see during the day. Familiar objects take on a whole new appearance when photographed in the early morning or late at night.

You can even take great shots after the sun goes down by using a long shutter speed.

backyard photo safari night stars
Fuji X100F, 23mm, f/8, 15 seconds, ISO 1250. I took this from my back porch very early on fall morning. It was only a few feet away from where I shot the photo of the frog!

It’s not just time of day that matters, but the time of year as well. Revisiting familiar places, even your own backyard, throughout the year can reveal amazing photo opportunities that were hiding right before your very eyes.

Act fast though! When you see an interesting picture idea, take the shot. Waiting even one day can change everything and suddenly your beautiful photo is nothing more than dust in the wind.

backyard photo safari leaf on ground
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/1000 second, ISO 100. I saw a photo opportunity on a Saturday morning right as the sun came up, so I ran outside barefoot to get the shot. The very next day, the leaves had all blown away!

Spring, summer, winter, fall – everything changes throughout the year, and this has a profound effect on the photos you can take in your yard.

Rich greens in spring, deep colors in summer, browns and yellow in the fall, and shades of gray in the winter.

Even if you think you’ve seen it all, try revisiting familiar spots in your own yard at different times of the year. The result may surprise you and give you some interesting photo ideas.

Tips for Doing a Backyard Photo Safari
Nikon D7100, 85mm, f/4, 1/30 second, ISO 800. Composite of several shots of a lunar eclipse I took from my back yard over the course of two hours.

Look at the light

No matter the time of day or season of the year, it’s essential to look for where the light is coming from.

Then think about how you can use the light to make a more interesting or compelling composition.

Most objects look great with standard front-lighting – that is, with the main source of light positioned behind you, the photographer. You might need to scoot around or shift your position to make this happen, but your photos will be better off for your efforts.

backyard photo safari sunflower
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/2.4, 1/80 second, ISO 100. This sunflower was right by my back porch, with the sun positioned behind my shoulder so the flower was evenly lit.

Backlighting is a fun technique to use also, especially on a backyard photo safari where you get fun and interesting colors. This involves placing the main source of light behind your subject, which can create really fun effects and make ordinary objects take on a whole new appearance.

It’s loads of fun if you have flowers. Even ordinary, run-of-the-mill flora that you probably have in your own yard.

backyard photo safari crocus
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/2, 1/3000 second, ISO 100. These crocuses show up for a few days every spring, and each year I enjoy taking their picture. I didn’t plant them, but I sure enjoy having them while they bloom for a few days. I used backlighting to make it seem like they were glowing.

It’s not all about sunlight either. There are other sources of light that you can keep in mind when looking for photo opportunities right where you live.

Streetlights can cast an eerie, moody glow over everyday streets and sidewalks. Passing cars can make really fun motion trails. You can even create amazing artwork right in your yard with nothing more than a tripod and a flashlight – all it takes is a little creativity!

backyard photo safari foggy morning
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/16, 15 second, ISO 200. This is looking down the street from my driveway on a calm, foggy morning.

Adjust your angle of view

Most of the time, we see the world around us, especially our own domicile, from the same point of view. Our eye-level remains roughly the same throughout the day, altering between three to five feet off the ground, depending on whether we are standing or sitting. To really find some interesting photo opportunities, particularly in your backyard, try getting low to the ground. Really low. A whole new world awaits you if you have eyes to see it.

backyard photo safari Indian Paintbrush
Nikon D750, 85mm, f/1.8, 1/200 second, ISO 125. I had to position my camera very low to the ground to get this shot, but it was worth the effort.

Lots of interesting things start to show up when you change the angle from which you see the world around you. Even familiar settings can be transformed with a simple change in perspective. While you could get some really good shots by getting up high and shooting with a ladder, I find that it’s a lot more fun to literally crawl around on my hands and knees when looking for photos in my backyard.

backyard photo safari toys on ground
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/3000 second, ISO 400. I put a few of my kids’ toys on the ground, laid down on my stomach, and photographed them in my own backyard. This picture isn’t going to win any awards, but I had fun taking it.

It might not be the most glamorous or flattering photographic pursuit, but photography can be a messy hobby. And if you’re more worried about how you look when taking pictures instead of the pictures you are taking, it might be time to reevaluate your priorities!

backyard photo safari bubble on grass
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/1500 second, ISO 280. My kids were blowing bubbles in the front yard. I had to practically lay on the ground to get this shot but the result was worth it.

Look for wildlife

I live in a small town in middle America. The most exotic animal I’m likely to see on any given day is what we call a Texas Speed Bump. (Think of what happens when an armadillo crossing the road meets a pickup truck.) It might seem like any attempt to take wildlife photos on a backyard photo safari would be an exercise in futility. However, while you might not have lions, giraffes, or gazelles out your front door, you probably have more interesting animals than you realize. You just have to look for them.

backyard photo safari spider and grasshopper
Nikon D750, 50mm, f/8, 1/180 second, ISO 5600. Shot with a +4 close-up filter. This was right outside my garage door. Cue the Lion King song “The Circle of Life”

Bugs, insects, worms, and other multi-legged creatures might give you the willies, but they can be fascinating photography subjects. The same goes for bees, butterflies, or anything with wings.

If you look closely and have a bit of patience, you can find all sorts of wildlife right where you live.

backyard photo safari wasp
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/4, 1/125 second, ISO 400. Shot with +10 close-up filter. This wasp was hanging out on the lid of my trash can on a chilly autumn morning.

I’m no entomologist or zoologist, and when I’m out in my backyard looking for photo opportunities, I don’t even know what most of the animals are that I’m photographing. If it’s interesting to look at, and if the lighting is good, then I’ll take a picture. Sure I get a little grossed out from time to time, but I get some really cool images too.

backyard photo safari cottonwood borer
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/750 second, ISO 200. I don’t know what this thing is, but it was hanging out in a pine tree in my front yard and it made for a really interesting photo.

You don’t just have to think small when taking pictures of animals on a backyard photo safari. Rabbits, squirrels, snakes, and birds – you probably have lots of animals come through your property that would be fun to photograph. The trick is to keep your eyes open, and it helps to have the tiniest sense of adventure too.

You don’t have to just look for small things either. Always keep your camera ready in case something larger comes your way! It might not be especially exciting, but it’s fun to get shots of everyday wildlife like rabbits, squirrels, birds, or other critters that call your backyard home.

backyard photo safari cardinal
Nikon D500, 200mm, f/2.8, 1/400 second, ISO 1600. A little patience was all it took to capture this photo of a male cardinal on my backyard fence.

Every now and then, you might see something a bit more exotic too. When those moments strike, it can be supremely rewarding to attempt a shot. Even if you don’t get the photo, you will at least have a fun story to tell.

backyard photo safari snake in grass
Nikon D200, 50mm, f/4, 1/160 second, ISO 200. My wife saw this snake slithering across our front yard, so I grabbed my camera and a broom. After I got a few photos I gently encouraged it to vacate the premises.

Get a set of close-up filters

One of the best things you can do if you’re looking for a way to get great shots of the world around you is to buy a set of close-up filters. When you think of going on a wildlife safari, you might imagine huge camera rigs and giant telephoto lenses. Close-up filters are the opposite: they let you get very close.

Close-up filters are extremely inexpensive and screw on to the front of your camera lens. They take a bit of patience to learn, so make sure to plan some time to get acquainted with how to get the best results in order to avoid frustration when the moment strikes. Once you get the hang of it, close-up filters make even the most ordinary backyard subjects appear majestic and even otherworldy. In other words, they’re perfect for a backyard photo safari.

backyard photo safari mushroom
Nikon D7100, 50mm, f/11, 1/200 second, ISO 400. Shot with a +4 close-up filter.

Flowers, mushrooms, berries, leaves, sticks, even blades of grass take on a whole new appearance when shot up close.

These stationary objects work really well for macro shots because they allow you to try different focal lengths and experiment with manual focus.

When you’re ready for something a bit more challenging, you can combine close-up filters with bugs and insects. This involves a lot more skill, practice, and patience (as well as mastering the back-button focus technique, which I recommend for best results) but you will never look at your own yard the same way again.

backyard photo safari bee
Nikon D500, 50mm, f/5.6, 1/250 second, ISO 360, shot with +4 close-up filter. It took nearly a hundred shots over two days to get this image of a bee in my back yard, but it was worth the effort.

If you can find a bug that is relatively slow-moving, you can combine all the techniques in this article to get some really amazing shots. For this final image, I went out in the evening, looked at the angle of the sun, adjusted my own point of view accordingly, and used a close-up filter. I’m not even sure what kind of bug or insect this is, but I really like the photo.

backyard photo safari insect on tree
Nikon D750, 50mm, f/1.8, 1/100 second, ISO 900. Shot with a +4 close-up filter.


This list is really just scratching the surface of what’s possible when you go on a backyard photo safari. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment, and you don’t need to hire a tour guide. These few simple tips will be enough to get you started, and then it’s up to you. How far will your creativity and sense of exploration take you when you’re right in your own yard? It could be a lot farther than you think.

Share your tips, tricks, and backyard safari photos in the comments below!

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