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How to Photograph Hummingbirds

How to Photograph Hummingbirds

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 with hummingbirds

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.

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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.

How to Photograph Hummingbirds How to Photograph Hummingbirds

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:

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  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.

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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.

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

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Jim Zuckerman
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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