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How to Photograph Hummingbirds

Image: By Dario Sanches

By Dario Sanches

In this post naturalist, photographer, and computer scientist Steve Berardi from Photo Naturalist shares some tips on how to photograph Hummingbirds.

hummin-bird-photography.jpg

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:

Know your subject

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:

  • Name of the species you’d like to photograph
  • Where can you find them (their habitat)?
  • What time of the year are they most active?
  • What’s their diet like? Where do they get their sweet nectar from?
  • What do they sound like? (be able to recognize their song and the sound of them flapping their wings)

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.

Be patient

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.

Use continuous focusing on your camera

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.

Use a fast shutter speed

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:

  • Use a higher ISO (try 400 or 800–anything higher will have too much noise)
  • Use a wider aperture (as long as you can still keep the entire bird in focus)
  • Underexpose your shot (this only works well if you shoot in RAW)
  • Use an external flash unit (this is the only way to really freeze the action of their wings)

As an example of how important shutter speed is, here’s a photo I took at 1/800th of a second:

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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.

Take lots of photographs

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:

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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.

Summary

Steve Berardi.jpgWildlife 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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