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In this post naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist Steve Berardi from Photo Naturalist shares some tips on how to photograph Hummingbirds.
Hummingbirds are amazing little creatures. They’re the only birds capable of flying backwards, and their wings flap between 15-200 times per second! However, their incredible speed and small size make them extremely difficult to photograph.
There’s no one secret, but in order to photograph them, you’ll need to learn their habits, have a great deal of patience, and of course know what settings to use on your camera.
Here are a few tips for photographing these amazing little birds:
You need to know your subject for any kind of photography, but it’s most important for wildlife photography (when you have a completely uncontrollable subject), and it’s absolutely essential for photographing hummingbirds.
You don’t need to become an expert on hummingbirds, but you’ll need to learn a few basic facts:
Knowing this information will help you be in the right place at the right time, instead of wandering aimlessly hoping to encounter a hummingbird.
Being able to recognize their song is probably the most useful tip, because their small size and rapid speed make them difficult to notice if you’re not concentrating on one spot. About 80% of the time I find hummingbirds, it was because I first heard their song and then started looking around more carefully.
Once you know where to find hummingbirds (based on their habitat, where they get nectar, and their most active time of year), you’ll need to position yourself in their habitat and simply wait. Find the type of flower they sip nectar from, setup your tripod, and wait for a hummingbird to arrive.
This will require patience. Sometimes, lots of patience.
I actually had a bit of luck in getting the photograph above, of a female Anna’s Hummingbird. But, I still needed a bit of patience. I was sitting on a rock along one of my favorite streams in the San Gabriel Mountains, when I noticed a bunch of hummingbirds diving towards the water, taking a quick sip, and then retreating to a nearby tree. I watched them from about twenty feet away, and only having a 200 mm lens, I knew I had to get a lot closer if I wanted to photograph this amazing spectacle.
Since I knew the behavior of these hummingbirds pretty well (by watching them closely), I knew one key trait of theirs: initially, they’ll retreat from approaching humans, but if you wait, they’ll come right back.
So, I decided to get closer to them–about four or five feet away. This, of course, scared them all away at first. But, after about ten or fifteen minutes, they returned and continued to drink from the stream. Then, I started shooting photos.
Most SLR cameras have an autofocus setting that will continue to refocus the lens as the subject moves. Enabling this feature will help keep the hummingbirds in sharp focus as they dart through the air.
It’s also important to setup your camera to use the center AF point only, and then to keep this center point on the hummingbird at all times. This will prevent the focus from searching and drifting away into the background.
Because hummingbirds flap their wings so rapidly, you’ll have to use an extremely fast shutter speed to “freeze” the action of their wings (the slowest speed you can get away with on a sunny day is 1/800 sec). Here are a few tips for getting a faster shutter:
As an example of how important shutter speed is, here’s a photo I took at 1/800th of a second:
Notice how the wings are still a little blurry, even with such a fast shutter speed. If you really want to completely freeze their wings, you’ll need to use an external flash unit. Personally, I prefer a little blur to show motion.
It will also help if you know how fast the particular species of hummingbird can flap their wings. This varies from 15 to 200 times per second, so for the slower ones you won’t need such a fast shutter.
When shooting wildlife or any kind of fast moving subject, the only way to get a nice sharp photograph is to simply take lots and lots of shots.
I took over 400 photos in ten minutes to get the three photos in this article. They were the only sharp photos out of the four hundred I took! Hummingbirds move so fast that most of my shots were blurry, or didn’t even have a hummingbird in the frame!
Once in a while though, you’ll get a hummingbird to stand still for a split second, which is how I got this photo:
You may also want to consider shooting in JPEG, instead of RAW. With RAW, you’ll be severely limited to how many photos you can take in a burst (one right after another), but with JPEG you can usually double the amount of photos you can take in a burst before the camera needs to pause and write the photos to the memory card.
Use a ballhead with your tripod. You won’t have time to lock in your ballhead for every shot, but you can still use the tripod to provide a little support for your camera. Just set up your tripod and keep the ballhead moderately loose. This way, you’ll have freedom to follow the hummingbird with your camera, while still getting some kind of support.
If your lens has some kind of image stabilization feature, I would still recommend turning it on, even thought it’s often said to disable it when using a tripod. Since you’re not really using the tripod entirely (by not locking the ballhead), the image stabilization will help keep the camera even more stable.
Wildlife photography isn’t easy–it involves an uncontrollable subject that is almost constantly moving. This is especially difficult with photographing hummingbirds, since they’re so small and so quick. However, if you know the habits of hummingbirds and have a little patience, you’ll be on your way to photographing these amazing little birds.
About the Author : Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist. You can usually find him hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Mojave Desert, both located in the beautiful state of California. You can read more of his articles on nature photography at the Photo Naturalist.
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December 9, 2011 07:28 am
What a great article! Thanks for the tips! I work from home and finding it a bit hard to focus with the pair of Anna's Hummingbirds that have been feeding outfront all day. Such gorgeous creatures!
June 21, 2010 03:00 am
The biggest problem you are going to run into with faster shutter speeds or longer lenses and moving back is lack of DOF. It starts getting pretty narrow pretty fast. You can end up with eyes in focus and end of the bill and tail both out of focus if you stop down too far.
June 18, 2010 01:22 pm
Each time I read new photography tips I want to grab my camera and go outside....
1) Why 1/800 only? My camera can go to 1/8000 of a second
2) Can you get a little further away 10-15-20 feet maybe and use a 70-400?
OR should I get closer and use the F2.8 70-200 ? (F2.8 will give me more options I suspect).
3) I usually use RAW & JPG. Spec says 5fps with RAW. RAW give me more range in the lighting.
4) What would be some settings to use with a flash and where to aim it?
MANY thanks to all for the tips.
It seems the more I learn the less I know
but Experimenting is lots of fun
Regards & Great Photos to you all
September 19, 2009 01:12 pm
Thanks for your tips. I have photographed hummingbirds a few times in the past and plan on heading out tomorrow to photograph hummingbirds during their migration. Your article was a great refresher for me. I will let you know how the photos turn out tomorrow.
March 24, 2009 12:56 am
I wanted to comment and thank the author, good stuff
February 24, 2009 07:56 am
wow it really is an amzing topic it seems really hardd to take a picture of a humming bird. i think my goal is to go exploring an find a humming bird and at least try and take a picture
February 21, 2009 05:02 pm
Here's mine: http://flickr.com/photos/rasch/tags/hummingbirds/
If you zoom in on a couple of these, you can see the hummingbird's tongue.
February 20, 2009 03:05 pm
You just have to have a kid that isn't camera shy. the shot of mine above is with a 100mm macro... but then I was only a foot and a half away or so.
February 20, 2009 02:47 pm
Thanks everyone for your nice comments today!
@Eduardo Perez - If you shoot in RAW, then correcting a slightly underexposed shot will not add too much noise. All the photos in this article were actually shot in RAW, at ISO 400, and underexposed. There was some noise for that, but Photoshop has some decent noise reduction filters :)
@buck - I would avoid shooting any kind of bird with a macro lens (or using the macro mode on your camera). macro is for those really extreme close-ups, about 12 inches or closer. For hummingbirds, you probably won't get closer than 3 or 4 feet (and that's if you're lucky, heh). I'd recommend a 300 mm (or greater) telephoto zoom, or maxing your zoom on a P&S.
@Alfredo Cofre - I agree that the depth of field could have been better in all my photos above.. it's probably my biggest dissatisfaction with the photos, especially with the second one. but, its just a great reason to go back to this spot this summer, and try again :)
February 20, 2009 10:04 am
Good article. Like any, it is good to use your own variations according to conditions so not be locked into specifics. Ive got many pictures of Hummingbirds with my Nikon D200 using Raw. It can take more pictures and also save them to the card while allowing you to continue taking pictures. It works faster also if I do not use the largest size Raw, but Medium, means more images on a 4GB card.
Generally I prefer to use my 300mm Zoom VR lens. From about 15 feet can get many good images. Shooting them on a feeder also can make a difference as I hang the feeder from the awning on our RV. Then I can sit under it, in a chair and relax.
If in CA, there is a Hummingbird Sanctuary if I remember right it is in Modjeska Canyon in Irvine. You sit on the porch about 5-6 feet from the feeders and take all the pictures you wish. Google Hummingbird Sanctuary and you will find lots of places you will find them....
February 20, 2009 07:18 am
I've always been fascinated with hummingbirds. Great tips! Sure could have used this info last Saturday. Was out shooting at a wildlife sanctuary & they were everywhere! I got a few photos, but am not satisfied with them. Will try these techniques next time I am around them!
February 20, 2009 06:51 am
Well darn, mine didn't work either. Let's try this again.
February 20, 2009 06:05 am
Great points....enjoyed very much. I snapped these in the Rocky mts last year.
February 20, 2009 04:10 am
I love taking shots of the hummers around my yard. I keep the feeders full and have them near where I work in the yard or where we relax on the deck so they're used to us moving near them. You're right about knowing their routines and habits. It helps tremendously if you pay close attention to see where they go when they leave that feeder or flower or whatever. These are two of my favorites. One is a young male ruby throat perched in the top of a crepe myrtle, and the other is in the middle of a summer rain and he's shaking the water off. Not the clearest pic, but still one of my favorites. Hope you can see them.
February 20, 2009 04:05 am
My link didn't work last time so here it is: http://i369.photobucket.com/albums/oo139/sandabear88/Hummingbird.jpg
February 20, 2009 04:03 am
February 20, 2009 03:02 am
Oh joy!!! A fellow "hummer freak" I lived in Paraguay for over 15 years, the last twelve with hummers visiting every day (except when it was very cold, just a few days per year).
I spent MANY MANY hours happily waiting for the critters to appear into my camera-path and probably have about 25 nice takes, of which I sell a few.
Congrats again and keep 'em comin' !
February 20, 2009 02:34 am
Great tips again Darren!
I don't often see hummingbirds round here, but it's still nice to know anyway just in case ;)
February 20, 2009 02:18 am
I posted earlier but it doesn't seems to publish my comment.
I agree with almost everything, except that I'd prefer to lower the depth field... the bokeh is worth of. So I took this picture of a Patagonas Gigas on La Campana, Chile:
The setting: 3200/f5.6, ISO1600, 300mm, gear XTi/Sigma 70-300 DG, from something like 6 meters far.
If the post appears repeated, please erase this one.
February 20, 2009 01:09 am
Great shots and thanks for letting us know how difficult it can be to shoot hummers. I shot 400 shots last fall and got 2 keepers and they weren't the sharpest. I was shooting in macro is that necessary? I hope to catch some great shots using your methods this spring. Thanks again.
February 20, 2009 12:02 am
There are two tips in this article that seem contradictory to me:
# Use a higher ISO (try 400 or 800–anything higher will have too much noise)
# Underexpose your shot (this only works well if you shoot in RAW)
Correcting an underexposed picture will add more noise than raising the ISO.
February 19, 2009 08:30 pm
Great post and fantastic photos. Many thanks for sharing your tips. Like the comment above, I doubt I will be seeing any humming birds in the near future from where I am, but you can use much your advice for photographing many other bird species.
February 19, 2009 07:59 pm
Thanks for sharing your amazing shots and techniques. Doubt I'll get a chance to see a hummingbird -not many around austraila ;) but at least I've taken away two important lessons from your tutorial: "Know your subject" and "be patient" which applies to so many photographic genres.
February 19, 2009 03:44 pm
Thank you so much for all of your nice comments! I really enjoyed writing this article and I'm glad it was useful to some of you.
@Cowboy's Wife - I think that first photo of yours would have been perfect if you used a slightly higher f-stop and focused on the bird's eyes, to get its head in focus. the rest of the bird is super sharp though!
@Alli - I love watching them too! I must have sat along that stream for 2-3 hours watching them all take turns drinking.. I was reading some jack kerouac too at the time--a great afternoon in the San Gabriels!
@docsconz - I have an obsession with trying to get photos as sharp as possible, so I use my tripod whenever I can. I have shaky hands too, so even with IS on my lens, I still get blurry photos sometimes. Using the tripod with a loose ballhead helps provide a little extra support, while still giving you the freedom to quickly move the camera around.
@Harley Pebley - thanks for adding that link--great example of why you need a flash to really "freeze" the wings.
@James - I would definitely recommend a telephoto zoom (at least 300 mm) over a macro lens, because macros usually start to get blurry around f/8.0, and with hummingbirds, that's probably where you'll be shooting.. plus, most macro lenses are in the 50-100 mm range, and to photograph a hummingbird, you'll need to be a bit further away (so you'll need a greater zoom)
@owen - #1. see my response to @docsconz above. #2. I prefer to photograph wildlife in their wild environment, so I've never tried luring them.
@Michael VanDeWalker - that's an amazing photo!!
February 19, 2009 03:04 pm
Hummingbirds are an addiction. I'm lucky enough to have them year around. Anna's Hummingbirds do actually winter over here in Oregon and even as far north as Vancouver Island. If you are interested in learning a few facts on them feel free to visit my site.
This is a young Anna's that has no fear of me or the camera. He sits on his perch by the feeder and will let me get the lens within about a foot and a half of him. He's about 6 weeks old in this shot. It was taken in August of last year. He's starting to fill in with some of his male color now. He is one of the seven of them I have wintering over this year.
If you are interested in a book to learn what hummingbirds are in your area and when I suggest "Hummingbirds Of North America" by Dan True. For those of you not in the America's... sorry about that but you don't get any hummingbirds. They are found in the America's only.
February 19, 2009 12:52 pm
Great photos. I definately love taking pictures of humming birds. I find with most wildlife, as you stated, you need to know their habits. Putting out feeders also helps. That way they'll have a reason to hang around. As always another great article and photo set.
February 19, 2009 10:28 am
Awesome and interesting tutorial! While I haven't seen hummingbirds around the area where I currently live I have always wondered how people manage to get their shots. Next time I am around an area I will keep this article in mind so I'll actually be able to get a shot of one. :)
February 19, 2009 08:19 am
Oh yes, one point I forgot to add...I've timed the hummingbirds and if you only have a few they come to the feeder or flowers about every 15 minutes. If you're lucky to have more there will be a lot of activity. Watch closely and you'll see the tree limb they perch on watching their feeder. They are very territorial. Great entertainment.
February 19, 2009 08:13 am
I've been photographing hummingbirds for years. One way I do this is to be sure they are established in my area by providing feeders. I place my feeders out April 1st of every year. Hummingbirds return to the same site every year.
At some point I will take cut flowers and place in a vase. If in the sun, put ice in the vase to keep the water cool. If necessary arrange these flowers so that the hummer can only come to the side which gives you, the photographer, a profile. From my experience, if flowers face away from you the hummer will always go to the rear. The same applies with feeders. Put tape on the holes in the back and front of the feeder. Leave holes on the sides.
If you are in the shade, flash is a must. I'm only familiar with Nikon and they have wireless flashes one can set up. It is referred to as CLS Creative Lighting System. No electricity. Everything is remote.
If your setup is in the sun, a high shutter speed of 500-800 and perhaps push the ISO to achieve this is all that is necessary to capture these wonderful little creatures.
In this photo listed here with flickr.com, I had to remove the feeder from the loft above to make the hummer come to the flowers. The moment I removed it, the hummer was right where I wanted her.
Enjoy and get ready, they will be arriving soon.
February 19, 2009 05:53 am
Actually dcclark, you'd be surprised how many hummingbirds are around even up north. I'm on the prairies in Canada and I used to think we didn't have any here, being so far north. One day we thought we saw one so decided to put out a hummingbird feeder with sugar water and it's amazing how many will come. Lived here my whole life and never knew they were here. I know we have the ruby throated (not sure about others), but they're still pretty cool. Now that I have a new better camera (and some more smarts!) I can't wait to try again for pictures this summer!
February 19, 2009 05:39 am
Thanks for the great article. It's exactly what I was looking for.
Two questions for the author or any readers:
1) At such high speeds, ISO, and using a flash, why would you use a tripod? It seems it would be more of a hindrance than a help.
2) Any luck luring hummingbirds and using an IR sensor to snap a picture?
Thanks in advance!
February 19, 2009 04:54 am
Some lovely shots here and good to hear someone extolling the benefits of JPEGS over RAW - Its very much horses for courses but as a wildlife photographer much of my work is shot in high JPEG - the advantages and disadvantages are covered in an article on my site:
Birds in flight is probably the most exciting part of working in this field and as mentioned in the article its all about percentages and being prepared to shoot a lot - another great advantage of digital.
February 19, 2009 04:42 am
February 19, 2009 02:36 am
Sounds awesome, quick question which lens would you recommend, a macro or telephoto (or other?). I can't get wait to go out and try some of those tips.
February 19, 2009 01:44 am
And there's this guy's amazing hummingbird photos that were featured on Strobist:
February 19, 2009 01:05 am
Why use a tripod in the first place when shooting at such fast shutter speeds?
February 19, 2009 12:57 am
My in-laws live on a lake where my FIL has been religious about filling five or six hummingbird feeders around the property. At one point he was entertaining 30 or more hummingbirds at his feeders. They are so much fun to watch and I have been successful in getting some pretty nice pictures of them.
Here is one of many:
You have excellent advice here. I'll be looking back on it this summer.
February 19, 2009 12:50 am
Great photos - Very specific subject :)
Well.. At least I learned something new today.
February 19, 2009 12:45 am
Those are amazing photos!! I'm a newbie still but I did get this one. Not near as beautiful as yours though.
Love the tips by the way. Thanks so much!
February 19, 2009 12:29 am
Wow. What an extremely cool subject to cover! I can't say that I had ever thought about the details of photographing hummingbirds before (we don't have many up here in da great nort).
It sounds like a lot of this advice would be useful to wildlife photographers in general as well, especially those interested in other kinds of birds.
Finally, not to start a war, but thank you very much for suggesting to shoot in jpeg, not raw. That's some good general advice for anyone taking action / burst photography: raw will just slow you down, and that extra flexibility is no good if you can't get a shot in the first place!
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