How to Photograph Hummingbirds

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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.

Photograph hummingbirds 02

The challenge with hummingbirds

The challenge itwo-foldld: 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.

Add flash

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

The setup I use consists of four elements:

Photograph hummingbirds 03

  1. Four flash units (I use Canon 430EX Speedlites). Two flashes are placed in front of the setup, one on either side. One flash is used as a backlight to give a little separation between the subject and the background, and one flash is placed to illuminate the background. Metal stands support the flash units.
  2. A 24×36″ photographic print of out of focus foliage is placed in the background. I have several different prints that can be easily changed. The large prints are simply clamped to a piece of foam core.
  3. A wireless transmitter sits on top of the camera to trigger the strobes. Units that work well for are the Canon ST-E2 or the Pocket Wizard. For Nikons, the built-in commander mode works.
  4. A flower that can hold the nectar is clamped to a support like a metal stand, the back of a chair, or anything that is sturdy. The same sugar water that is used in hummingbird feeders (the nectar) is placed in the flower using a syringe so the birds hover above the flower to drink.

Shoot in burst mode

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.

Photograph hummingbirds 06

Refinements

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.

Photograph hummingbirds 04

Note: These photos were taken during a photo tour I led to Costa Rica.


NOTE: Get Jim’s e-book Fundamentals of Photography Made Easy now 30% OFF at Snapndeals, only until April 25th AUS time.

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Jim Zuckerman is a photography educator and photo tour and excursion leader, taking groups to exotic locations like; Indonesia, Spain/Portugal, Iceland, Patagonia, Namibia, and Turkey. Get his free monthly newsletter full of tips on photography and Photoshop by signing up on his website.

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  • rahul

    Nice post..thanks for sharing with us..
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  • Now this time for capturing Hummingbirds. Many thanks for including beautiful some images!

  • Jim Zuckerman

    You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    I’m glad you appreciate the images. Thanks.

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  • Lori Quillen

    Your images are fantastic! Would also love to see a shot of the setup you describe. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Lori, Thank you for the compliment. I don’t have a photo of the setup, but here is a diagram that shows the placement of everything. I hope this helps. Jim https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a2f7d0844768367741f3f95c1407eadd4a4cf2346d121812efc5edc1f276d46e.jpg

  • Lori Quillen

    Yes – thank you!

  • Alvie Morris

    Thank you for the article. While your technique obviously works, it would be nice to know how it works. With the flash at 1/16,000th of of a second, the shutter, at max, is still only 1/4,000th. Wouldn’t the blur mentioned at the start of the article still be visible? Is it just blown out by the flash? Is it similar to long exposure photography where people disappear if the shutter is open long enough? Or is it removed in post processing?

  • Paul Smith

    Most of us that don’t have humming birds in their own part of the country, have to wait for a park or refuge that uses feeders to attract them. 99.9% of such parks forbid the use of flash, and quite rightly so. What do we do then ?

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Alvie, The shutter is not 1/4000th. It has to be the sync speed in which the camera’s shutter has to open fully and then close to allow the light from the flash to cover the sensor. This shutter speed for all of these pictures was 1/200. The fact that the hummingbirds’ wings are frozen in their motion is not a function of shutter speed; rather it’s a function of the short flash duration. This technique has no relation to long exposure photography, and none of these hummingbirds have been manipulated in post-processing.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Paul, Don’t go to places that have hummingbirds in which flash is prohibited. I’ve used the flash setup in Costa Rica and in the Tucson, Arizona area where no one cared about anyone using flash. Flash does not bother the hummers at all. They seem completely oblivious to it.

  • Alvie Morris

    Forgive me for being dense. I understand that it is a result of the flash speed, what I fail to understand is, at the beginning of the article you said even 1/1,000th of a second was not enough to freeze the wings. The speed of the flash will certainly freeze them, but what happens to the rest of the information gathered by the sensor while the shutter is open? 1/200 is obviously much slower than 1/16,000.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    You’re actually asking a good question. The hummingbird setups are done in the shade, thus the light level is low. With a shutter speed of 1/200, a lens aperture of around f/14, and the ISO usually at 400, there isn’t additional information gathered by the camera. It’s all underexposed, and thus very dark or black, except for the light from the flash.

  • Kathy Ashmore

    What focus mode do you use? I use spot focus, but it sure is tough tracking those beady little eyes with that tiny square!

  • Paul Smith

    Thanks for the reply Jim. Unfortunately most of us cannot pick and choose where we go on holiday and know that we can use flash. I just came back from Costa Rica and the only places I could have used flash was in private gardens (b+b’s). Selvatura forbade it and for the most, guides in Manuel Antonio and Cahuita were telling those with smartphones and P & S cameras to turn off their flash

  • Alvie Morris

    Thank you. Now I can think about something else. Lol!

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Paul, I’m surprised (and disappointed) to hear that. That’s not my experience in Costa Rica at all. I’m leading another photo tour down there in November of this year, and I will ask my guide about this. All of the places I’ve gone in Costa Rica had no problem with flash at all. Maybe my guide knowingly took me and my photo tour group only to the places where we could use flash.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Kathy, I use AI servo for the mode, and for the focus points with hummers I use a tight center grouping of 9 or 15 points. But these guys are so fast it takes your breath away. Many times I will simply use manual focus and pre-focus on the flower. I let the birds come within the plane of focus as they drink and then I shoot using f/14 to f/16 which extends the depth of the focus range.

  • Bob Smyth

    Thanks Jim, It all makes sense now, never would have guessed that you just use the period that the flash is illuminating the subject.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    You’re welcome, Bob. It’s very cool how it all works. And when you get a great picture of a hummingbird in flight, tack sharp, it’s pretty exciting.

  • Kathy Ashmore

    Thank you!! I’ll try that. I already use a bit of flash, but this recommendation about the point grouping will help a lot!

  • Narendra Bansal

    wonderful pictures. Your set up requires four sets of flash lights! It is a great set up for professional photographers to make a living. However, for amateurs/enthusiast, it is absolutely impractical. It would have been nice to know your expert opinion for the great majority of photographers. Thank you.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Narendra, You can do these kinds of pictures with three flashes instead of four. Instead of using two flash units for backlighting, you can use only one. Then, get together with two other friends who want to photograph hummingbirds and who have the same flash unit as you do and that solves the problem. Or, join a photo tour, such as mine, and all of the setups are done for you.

  • Narendra Bansal

    Thank you for a prompt response. I suppose there are no short cuts for stunning pictures you have posted. One thing is not clear to me is how to sync a flash at extremely high speed which you have suggested?
    I have taken, what I consider decent pictures of humming birds in our back garden w/o flash and a 300 mm zoom with my Nikon D7100. I will continue to shoot some more as opportunity arises.

  • Jim Zuckerman

    The sync between camera and flash is no different at high speed than when the flash is used normally. Just set the shutter speed to the sync speed . . . or slower. So, if your camera’s sync speed is 1/250, you can use this setting or any shutter setting slower, such as 1/60.

  • Gustavo Donado

    Jim: thank you for the article and for the stunning pictures of the hummingbirds. I live in Colombia, a paradise for birders and I love taking pictures of them. I use 2 Nikon bodies (full frame) and have several lenses in my bag. Nobody has asked you this question so here it is: what’s your recommended focal length for the lens required to take decent hummingbird pictures?

  • Escobar Driver

    Three related questions.
    How far was the camera from the flower/bird?

    Handheld or tripod?
    Remote trigger or not?
    Thank you for the clarification.

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  • Jim Zuckerman

    Hi Gustavo, Because hummingbirds allow a close approach (I’ve even had a hummer sit on my lens!), you can get as close as you want. I use either a 70-200mm lens or a 100-400mm zoom, and the lens-flower distance is about 8 feet. Sometimes I will add a small extension tube between the lens and the body because that allows me to fill the frame more with the tiny bird.

  • You can even do this with one flash, as I’ve done many times in the past. Balancing natural light together with the single flash is enough to create a well lit photo.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c0e02d2fd63498cc551beeb12e16ec8a1b5e466d196ba0d8fa06fb1efe8978f5.jpg

  • Narendra Bansal

    Thank you Will. This is one awesome setup. I bet almost the price of a BMW:)

  • Jim Zuckerman

    The results will not be nearly as good with this setup. Either the background will be black — which is incorrect because hummingbirds fly in the day — or it will be messy and distracting. Plus, if you balance the flash with daylight, you need to deal with shutter speed. You won’t be able to freeze the wings as I do without ghosting.

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  • John Ellis

    Very nice based upon a professional photographer, but how many of us backyard photographers are going to have 4 flash units that cost over two hundred a piece; Sorry not practical for enthusiasts. I have taken thousands of hummingbird shots and never went through a process as complicated as that and have many wonderful pictures just having a two feeders.

  • AL

    Thanks for this nice article. I will try this during the summer. Here is one, however, that I captured several years ago. The only light was sunlight. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/207a3aa7a38fcb1a528c034efdcebb40736cc078eeebaa34a62d2dd979fef067.jpg

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