The Secret to Photographing Hummingbirds

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Birds have captivated wildlife photographers from the beginning of photography, but no group of birds are more intriguing than hummingbirds. It's not difficult at all to photograph them when you see them in the garden hovering above a flower, but unless you do it right your efforts will only result in mediocre pictures.



The challenge, though, 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 200 times per second. The range of shutter speeds that we normally use for fast moving subjects is between 1/250 to 1/1000 of a second. This is too slow to freeze the wings. 1/2000 and 1/4000 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 1/8000, but even if this were fast enough to get tack sharp 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 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 used consisted of four elements:

1.  Four flash units (I used 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 subjects and the background, and one flash is placed to illuminate the background. Metal stands support the flash units.

2.  A 24 x 36 inch photographic print of out of focus foliage is placed in the background. I have several different prints that can easily be 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. This can be the Canon ST-E2 (which also works with Nikon) or the Pocket Wizard.

4.  An appropriate flower is clamped to a support like a metal stand, the back of a chair, or anything that will work. The same sugar water that is used in feeders is placed into the flower so the hummingbirds hover above the flower to drink.

At 1/16th power (all the flash units are set to the same power output), the recycle time is very brief—about 1/2 second or even less. That means I could shoot quite quickly. I fired in rapid succession each time a bird came to feed. It's impossible to ascertain whether or not the wings are in an attractive position when I snapped the shutter, so I had to take a lot of pictures to get a winner. 

To vary the exposure for each flash, I simply moved the flash unit 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 saw on the LCD monitor.

These photos were taken during a photo tour I led to Costa Rica last month. If you are interested in attending a photo tour to Costa Rica or to other exotic destinations like Indonesia, Spain/Portugal, Iceland, Patagonia, Namibia, and Turkey, contact me or visit my website: jimzuckerman.com.

On the home page of my website, you can also sign up to receive my free monthly newsletter where I give lots of useful tips on photography and Photoshop, and where I promote my various photo tours and workshops.

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Great Tips thanks for sharing

I enjoyed your humming bird commets and would like to know more.

zrnkr

Very useful Jim, I am interested in details like the lens, camera and its settings as well. But a good article, thanks!

Unfortunately I am not able to confirm the specific camera/lens used by the author, but he is using a Canon DSLR in High Speed Shutter Sync mode with the flashes (this is a feature of all Canon DSLRs).  I would recommend a camera such as the Canon EOS 70D which offers wireless flash control built in and would allow you to easily set up remote flashes such as the 430EX II flashes Jim used.  The lens we would recommend for the task would be a tele-macro lens, such as Canon’s 180mm f3.5 L series macro lens.

Below are links to camera and recommended lens on our website for you to regard:

http://bhpho.to/1f4qPOC

http://bhpho.to/1f4qWJN

Was just trying my luck at photographing hummers.....I don't have the set up that you do. I will have to try using my flash attachment to see what happens! I'm not sure which lens I have is the best to use.  I have a Canon EOS 40D (and a Rebel) and have a 70-300 mm 1:4-5.6 normal or in macro (200-300), or I could try my 70-200mm ultrasonic Zoom, or my 150-500mm 1:5-6.3 APO.

I love your photography and envy your knowledge. I have only been self taught, and I don't seem to be getting tack sharp results that I want.

Sincerely,

Deborah

***** Jim, thank you so very much for all this helpful information.  I am traveling to a hummingbird sanctuary upstate NY in a couple of weeks.  The man that owns the propery only gives you a 2-1/2 hour window to shoot.  We will not be given an opportunity to set up flast stands.  So I was wondering if you could offer some suggestions on shooting with the camera body flash.  I would be grateful.  Brad

There is a product called a “Better Beamer” which is available for select auxiliary flashes.  Once attached it has a Fresnel lens inside it which will help increase the reach of the flash by focusing it and concentrating it to a narrow beam.  I would recommend practicing with this pre-shoot to ensure it will work for your style of shooting and the given advantages you will have (position in relation to the bird once it comes time to do the actual shoot).  If you do ont have a flash that this device is designed for there are not really too many other options to recommend, save increasing your cameras ISO as high as possible so as to result in the highest possible shutter speeds.  See the link below for details on the Better Beamer products:

http://bhpho.to/UNTSwb

These hints are a great help

Thanks for the tips.  Can't wait to give it a try!

Hummingbirds my favorite subject. ..

Great pics!

Searching flash phtog of Hummingbirds and found your site. Disappointed I have a family conflict this year, but will schedule your St. Louis macro workshop if you have it in 2015.

-- Eamonn