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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 .
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.