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Birds have captivated wildlife photographers from the beginning of photography, and no group of birds is more intriguing than hummingbirds.
It’s not difficult at all to photograph a hummingbird when you see one in a garden hovering above a flower. But unless you do it right your efforts will only result in mediocre pictures.
The challenge is two-fold: First, you want the tiny birds to fill a significant part of the frame, and second, you want the birds to be sharp.
Blurred wings are fine for snapshooters, but for serious photographers nothing less than tack sharp wings will do.
The wings of hummingbirds beat about 80 times per second. The range of shutter speeds that we normally use for fast moving subjects is between 1/250th and 1/1000th of a second. This is too slow to freeze the wings. 1/2000th and 1/4000th of a second are not even fast enough to get sharp pictures and to reveal the detail in individual feathers. Some cameras go up to 1/8000th, but even if this were fast enough to get tack pictures of hummers, the light would be so reduced that you would be forced to shoot with a large lens aperture and a high ISO – neither of which are ideal solutions.
The technique that works is to use flash. However, it’s not very straightforward at all. The typical flash duration (the length of time that the flash tube is actually illuminated during an exposure) is typically about 1/1000th of a second when used on manual. However, when the power output of the flash unit is reduced to 1/16th power, the flash duration becomes much shorter, about 1/16,000th of a second. This is definitely fast enough to freeze the wings of hummingbirds as you can see in these photos.
The setup I use consists of four elements:
At 1/16th power (all the flash units are set to the same power output), the recycle time is very fast – it’s almost instantaneous, in fact. That means I could shoot as rapidly as I can press the shutter. I fire in rapid succession each time a bird comes to feed. It’s impossible to ascertain whether or not the wings are in an attractive position when I snap the shutter, so I have to take a lot of pictures to get a winner.
To vary the exposure for each flash unit, I simply move the flash closer or farther away. Three or four inches makes a significant change in exposure. In this way, I could adjust the lighting ratio based on what I se on the LCD monitor. A handheld light meter is not needed at all.
With two flash units in front of the hummingbirds, you will get two catchlights in their eyes. This is unnatural looking because in nature, there is only one light source, the sun. Therefore, in post-processing, I clone out one of the dots of light using the clone tool or the spot healing brush.
Note: These photos were taken during a photo tour I led to Costa Rica.