Hummingbird Photography Tips

Shooting hummingbirds: A Few Basics To Get you Started

By: Bob Williams, rwilliamsimaging.com

I am by no means an expert when it comes to shooting hummingbirds, but I have learned some things since I began shooting these guys last year and I would like to share some of my thoughts and technique on the subject.

As with any other genre, there are probably many ways to shoot hummingbirds, but I have had the best luck using one or more flashes versus natural light so I will focus this tutorial on the flash technique as it relates to shooting hummingbirds feeding or in flight. If you want to shoot hummingbirds that are perched or in a fountain, nest or some other static environment, then the standard flash and natural light exposure technique should work fine.

Skill Level:

A basic understanding of exposure is very helpful. Knowledge of aperture (F stop), shutter speed, and ISO, as well as a basic understanding of white balance, angle of view and depth of field will make this tutorial easier to understand and will greatly improve your chances of capturing great hummingbird photos.

Required equipment:

  • Camera capable of full manual mode
  • Lens that will provide at least a little distance between the camera and the target area. 100mm will do, but I suggest 200mm or greater with a manual focus option
  • external flash (with manual mode)
  • tripod

Optional equipment:

  • More external flashes with some type of stands (homemade stands work just fine)
  • Remote flash triggers* (no need to go with expensive ones here, non-ETTL triggers are far less expensive and work great for this type of shooting)
  • Remote shutter release (wired or radio)
* I do recommend radio shutter and flash triggers instead of infrared devices since sunlight and distance commonly interfere with reliable functioning of infrared devices.

As with any other photographic genre, you can always add/buy more stuff – but this should get you started in producing excellent hummingbird photos.

Environment:

If you are going to shoot hummingbirds then you need to find or build an area that hummingbirds frequent. This could be as simple as hanging and maintaining one or more hummingbird feeders in a shaded area, to a full blown hummingbird garden. There are lots of tutorials you can find on the internet and in bookstores on building hummingbird environments so I'll limit that discussion here. I would suggest that you find an area (commonly your back yard) to hang a feeder. When you do so, take note of the surrounding area; try and place your feeder in a shaded area and where there will be a pleasant background at least 3 feet away; trees, bushes, flower beds, solid colored fences or exterior house walls all work well. I would also suggest that you hang your feeder out of harm's way from neighborhood predators, especially cats!

Flash Basics

Let's face it, hummingbird photography is high speed photography similar to capturing a bullet plowing through a watermelon. Since shutter speeds of a typical DSLRs are normally very limited, freezing this kind of action requires that the motion be stopped with flash. I know it is natural to think of high speed shutters when thinking about high speed subjects, but even with the most expensive DSLRs you are normally limited to 1/8000th of a second, and that just isn't fast enough to freeze or even acceptably limit hummingbird motion.

Here is a "paraphrased" explanation provided by: Eric J. Miller @ http://www.dyesscreek.com/miscellaneous_pages/howto_1.html

The wings of a Ruby Throated hummingbird beat at 50-60 times per second and have a wing span of 3-4 inches. This means the wing tips travel 6-8 inches from front to back, more or less. This also means that the wings travel between 300 and 500 inches per second. So a shutter speed of 1/1000 second will capture about 1/2 inch of movement which equates to a total blur of the wings. Of course the 1/2 inch distance isn't always true since the wings don't move at a constant speed. Instead, they move through one beat stop (or slowdown greatly) then move in the opposite direction . So catching detail in the wings means you would need a faster shutter speed than even very expensive DSLRs can provide.

Since shutter speed isn't enough to freeze or limit the action of hummingbirds, we use flash to do the job. Below is the flash duration of a Canon 580 EXII at selected power levels:

1/1 power = 1/1000 second
1/2 power = 1/2000
1/4 power = 1/4000
1/8 power = 1/9000
1/16 power = 1/15000
1/32 power = 1/21000
1/64 power = 1/30000
1/128 power = 1/35000

What this means is that the flash is only lit for the indicated amount of time, depending on the setting. If you adjust your camera settings so that no ambient light affects the shot, then apply flash at a reduced setting, you can freeze or limit motion blur.

Now, all of this may seem complicated, but it is really very easy; simply stated, instead of adjusting shutter speed to freeze motion, we use flash adjustments to freeze motion. That's easy.

The amount of motion (or wing blur) you allow will be a matter of your own taste. Some people like to see the wings of a hummingbird frozen, while others like some level of wing blur to imply motion and look natural. The difference is up to you. Experimentation will best help you undersand which you prefer. But, regardless of your taste, you can easily adjust your flash(s) to yield the results you find most appealing.

Depth of Field and Aperture

When shooting hummingbirds, you are normally shooting at close range with a telephoto lens. This means that the depth of field (area in focus) is going to be very narrow. With some lenses you could be limited to less than 1/4 inch of area that is in focus at wide apertures. To defeat this, we simply reduce the aperture as much as we can. To keep a bird sharp we need to narrow the aperture as much as possible while still yielding a properly exposed bird. F/11 or f/16 are nice starting points and you can adjust from there. If you have enough flash power, you might want to try an aperture of f/22.

Shutter Speed

Since we are using flash we need to keep the shutter speed at or below the camera's max flash sync speed. Depending on your camera, your flash sync speeds will be 250 or below, although many cameras have sync speeds of 200 or below, so refer to your user's manual if you are unsure. I commonly shoot hummingbirds at 1/125 shutter speed.

ISO

To limit noise, use the lowest ISO possible. I find ISO 200-400 to be adequate for maintaining proper exposures while keeping noise levels tolerable.

The Background:

As with most other genres, the background is equally as important as the subject, so selecting a pleasing background is also very important in this endeavor. Since we are shooting hummingbirds, plants and flowers usually make a pleasing background that fits well with the subject matter. However, solid colored walls, fences and even shade trees also make great natural backgrounds. Some hummingbird photographers prefer the use of artificial backgrounds which make for very nice bird portraits. They are easier to light and often provide smooth, even colors. Artificial backgrounds can be something as simple as colored poster board or otherwise as complicated as a full studio backdrop; your imagination is the only limit here. One thing to keep in mind is that, since you are working with narrow apertures and wider depth of fields, getting a creamy blurred background appearance may be challenging, especially when your background is positioned relatively close to the subject(s).

If your background has too much detail or looks "clumpy" try moving the background further away from the feeder or move the feeder further away from the background. Lighting the background can also be a challenge, and this is why many photographers will use more than one flash (to light the subject and the background independently) or will otherwise use a smooth colored artificial background to minimize distractions. It is also common for photographers to use a combination of artificial and natural background together. Potted flowers with a colored poster board behind them is a good example. Try different things and see what works for you.

The setup: (basic starting point)

  1. Bird feeder- shaded, at least 3 ft from a pleasing background that is also shaded. Note: if you have a feeder with more than one feeding hole, put a little piece of tape over all of the feeding holes except the one you plan to focus on)
  2. Camera on tripod at a distance that will provide near but not completely full frame shot of bird (leave a little room for bird movement)
  3. Flash mounted on camera
  4. Shutter trigger (wired or radio) mounted
  5. Starting Settings:
    • Camera set on manual
    • ISO-200
    • Shutter @ highest sync speed i.e. 1/200 or 1/250th
    • f/16
    • Flash set to manual and 1/16th power
    • White balance set to flash
  6. Focus: With camera/lens set to manual focus, place a nail or similar object in the feeding hole of the feeder and focus on the nail. If your camera is live view capable, set the camera to live view x 10, then do a detailed focus on the nail and turn off live view. (don't forget to remove the nail from the feeder hole)
  7. You are now ready to shoot. Grab a chair, a beverage of your choice and the shutter trigger, and each time a bird comes to the feeder, snap one or more shots. After a few shots, get up and take a look: adjust exposure, framing and focus as needed.

Important Note: Don't terrorize the birds. Take a few shots, then let the birds feed for a minute or two without flashes going off in their face. Most birds will get used to the flash and the "pop" that occurs when the flash unit discharges. Also, different birds have different tolerances for this. You may have a bird that is oblivious to the flashes, but you can also have a bird that is very nervous around the flash. Pay attention to the birds' reactions and pace your shooting accordingly. Be kind to your subjects and they will reward you many times over.

Troubleshooting:

If the shots are dark (underexposed), bump up the ISO and try again, if you bump the ISO up to 400 and the bird is still underexposed, reduce the aperture by one or two Stops, but not below F9.

If the shots are too bright (over exposed), set your camera to a lower ISO or increase the aperture.

If the images are out of focus, check your focus again on live view x10. Keep in mind, the bird is only going to be in focus when it is within the focal plane of the feeding hole, so it may take several shots to get a sharp image. Out of a hundred shots, you may only get 3 or 4 that are really sharp. Patience and tenacity are the keys here. A change in the bird's position by as little as 1/4" (0.64 cm) can mean the difference between a properly exposed, in focus shot and one that is not. Therefore, it's a good idea to shoot at least 20 or 30 shots before you decide to change settings.

If you are getting "ghosting," which is a blurring or multiple images of the same wing, then you are recording too much ambient light in your exposure (a common problem when shooting outdoors. You may have to reduce your exposure settings and increase your flash output or otherwise can block some of the incoming natural light with a dark curtain or black poster board placed between the subject and the ambient light source (typically, the sun).

Although great technique will increase your chances of a successful day of shooting, there is also a lot of luck involved with shooting hummingbirds. Be patient and try often. Patience and practice will be rewarded with great images.

Moving beyond the basics

Multiple Flashes:

As with any other photographic subject, you can push hummingbird photography as far as your imagination (and checkbook) will take you. Multiple flashes, high end lenses, expensive backdrops and high-end flash triggers can all serve to improve your results. But... there are also inexpensive ways to get great hummingbird shots.

Let's talk about flashes first. If I were forced to suggest only one way to improve hummingbird photography, it would be to move to a multiple flash set-up. Multiple strobes/speedlights/flashes can really help in lighting the birds, freezing the action and lighting the background. However, you don't necessarily have to use top-of-the-line, expensive equipment. By sticking with inexpensive, manual flash units, you can achieve great results without breaking the bank. For example, you can purchase 4 or 5 Yongnuo or Godox shoe-mount flash units for the price of one top of the line Canon or Nikon flash. The same thing is true for remote triggers. If you are ok with non-ETTL flash triggers, then inexpensive options abound. One word of caution, though. When buying equipment, consider all of the uses you will have for that equipment. For example: if you plan to use the same flashes for hummingbirds, weddings and portraiture, then you may want to go with some of the more expensive and versatile options or simply use a combination of high end and inexpensive units. Decisions like this are far beyond the scope of this article, so I'll end this topic with "You don't have to take out a second mortgage to achieve great hummingbird shots".

As I said before, multiple flashes can make a huge difference in your hummingbird photography, so revisiting the basics is warranted. Since we are trying to freeze or at least limit much of the wing blur, we are working with significantly reduced flash power to minimize flash duration. This often requires more flashes to adequately expose the subject (and possibly the background). Considering the reduced flash power and the narrow apertures being utilized to freeze movement, we often have to increase the light on the subject to obtain a properly bright exposure. Since we want to maintain our camera settings for depth of field, the shutter speed to stay below our max flash sync speed and the ISO to ultimately isolate ambient light, we really only have two options.

First, add more flash units. I have found that two or three lights on the bird is more than enough to properly expose the subject with ample detail while maintaining the necessary depth of field. The same goes with the background. Four to six lights can certainly get expensive, but there are still options, as I'll discuss below.

Second, if you don't have more flash units to put on the subject or background, use the inverse square law to figure out how close your flash (or flashes) need to be to the subject to create the desired exposure. So, what is the inverse square law? Simply stated, if you reduce the distance between the flash and the subject by 1/2 then you will double the amount of light on the subject. For example, if your flash unit is 4 feet from the bird feeder, and you find your shots are underexposed, then move your flash 2 feet closer and you will double the light on the bird. Hummingbirds will often tolerate flash units as close as 6-12 inches from them. They are normally more interested in the food than your flash set-up.

Lens Choice:

You can adequately frame a hummingbird with virtually any lens simply by moving the camera closer or further away from the subject. Big, expensive telephoto lenses are not necessarily required for great hummingbird shots. The background, however, can pose a problem. The wider your lens is, the more background you will have to deal with. The inverse is also true. The longer your lens is, the less background you will have to deal with in regards to staging, composition and lighting. My recommendation is to start with the longest lens available to you. This limits the amount of background you have to deal with and also provides some distance between you and your subjects. Once you practice with your longest lens, then you can work with the shorter lenses to develop the perspective and techniques that you prefer.

Getting flowers into the shot

Let's face it, no matter how good a hummingbird shot is, it may not look quite right if it doesn't have flowers or vegetation in it, but... how do you predict which flower a hummingbird is going to decide to feed from? Well, you don't. Instead, you create an area that the birds will be drawn to. This is where those bird feeders come into play. You have labored all summer long to keep fresh nectar in the hummingbird feeders and now the birds are flocking to those feeders. Now, you can simply replace your feeders with a flower. But, how do you get a flower positioned in the same place as the feeder? Feeders are usually perched high above the ground, higher than flowers normally grow. To solve the problem, you can manufacture a device that can support a flower in the exact place where the feeder was positioned before removal. When the birds come looking for the feeder, they will instead have a single flower nibble from.

It sounds simple, but there is a bit more to it than that. Once you have a device that you can hold a flower in the same place the feeder, you need to choose a flower that the birds will be drawn to. For example, hummingbirds don't normally feed from daises, roses or sunflowers, but they will usually feed from trumpet vine flowers, honeysuckle, and butterfly bushes. Choose a flower (a tubular flower works best) that the birds normally feed from to replace your feeder with. Now what? Assuming you choose a flower the birds normally feed from, the birds may buzz around looking for their feeder but they will eventually hit the flower. To keep the birds coming back to that same flower, place a few drops of nectar (feeder water) into the flower. Make sure you refill the flower often to keep the birds interested in your feeder replacement.

To get a good focus on the anticipated bird, focus on the center or tube portion of the tubular flower you have staged. This should give you a pretty good chance of a well focused bird when he/she comes to feed from the staged flower.

Now, Lets put it all together:

The image below is an example of what a little imagination and some garage scraps can do when you are building your set up. The setup below consists of 1 camera, 1 flash, 1 shop light bungee corded to a ladder and a few potted plants on the other ladder, and of course, a birdfeeder on a piece of PVC held in a Christmas tree stand. It may be a cheap setup, but it works.

Hummingbird 1

Here is a closer look of the set-up. Note the board that the plants are on was bolted to the ladder.

Hummingbird 2

The picture below was one of my first taken from this exact set-up. I know, I am missing flowers in the shot, but it still demonstrate that with a little patience and imagination, you can get good hummingbird shots from the simplest of setups.

Hummingbird 3

This year, I managed to collect some additional speed lights, stands, and pocket wizards and I've constructed a small studio on my back porch. This time I used lumber and, yes, PVC (I just love this stuff).

Hummingbird 4

This setup seems to work pretty well and is versatile. I can mix and match plants, adjust lighting as necessary and change out backgrounds as needed. If I decide I want a softer more diffuse background, I can move the plant stand and use the trees as background. Note that I always keep the feeder stand right where the setup is pictured, that way the birds keep coming back.

It is not clear in the photo, but the background poster board is supported by two 1/2" dowel rods placed in two 1/2" holes drilled into the platform. The background is held in place by two small spring clamps available at any hardware store (I think I paid $1.00 each for them).

Hummingbird 5

Now, occasionally, you may want to use a down facing flower and in this case, I simply use an alligator clip to hold the flower and hang it from the same holes I normally hang the feeder.

As I said at the beginning of this, I am by no means an expert, but these are some of the things I have learned over the last year of photographing hummingbirds and I hope you will have found this information useful and that I have given you enough ideas to get you started on your quest. I would also like to share a video by Wildlife photographer Ben Clewis:

Finally, I will leave you with a few shots from my own back yard setup. Happy Shooting!

By: Bob Williams

Hummingbird 6

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