The Secret to Photographing Hummingbirds


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:

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.


I appreciate the intimate tidbits of information I didn't already know. I do a lot of hummingbird photography and I like to do artistic images. I am a lover of natural light so I try to set up areas to shoot where I get beautiful bokeh and light in the background. But, I have never even thought of the studio set up and adding sugar water in the flowers! Genius! I felt like a cheater using feeders, but I don't like them in the shot. This will help me get the ultimate shot I have been working towards. Thank you for sharing!

If im taking pictures for the masses i would include pictures of wing blur showing the animals in motion and the way you would actually see them in the wild.  If im taking pictures for identification purposes i would show the animals in tack point view and sharpness! I prefer teh identification of the animal which im particualr about!  In relation to hummingbirds there are a hundred to several hundred different types!  Especailly hard with  hummers is identifying the females!

dear JZ,i do a very interesting into bird photography,i got yr adress from which i did upload my photo and get the critique.Since few weeks ago i start to upload bird photography [actually i already strugling with this bird photography with thaousand failure sine few month ago] and i feel very happy to get your web which very interesting information.Pls keep me updated with yr info and sharing,hope i also may welcome you to visit Indonesia where i live in Central Jawa.A question,you arent inform me what lense are you suing in the whole is important ???





I'm sorry but I must disagree  with the author's comment that blurred wings are for snapshots but that the discerning pro insists on tack sharp wings. I disagree because hummingbirds are not soaring birds. They do not extend their wings to soar or glide. Their wings are in constant motion unless they are perched. I am reminded of subjects such as helicopters, prop planes, and  motorsports. Helicopters and prop planes look unatural and ready to fall out of the sky when their rotors and props are frozen due to a high shutter speed. The fastest F1, Indy, Grand Prix cars look static if they are shot with a shutter speed that is too high. We expect to see blurred rotors, props, and wheels because they convey the speed we expect these machines to possess. So why not the same when it comes to the one species of bird with the fastest wings?  A tack sharp head, eye(s), and throat, along with proper exposure, composition, and suitably blurred background and bokeh are the hallmarks of professional image.  

One other thing about freezing the wings, it requires a strobe/flash and I have seen first hand that the output from modern flash such as Canon 6600ex-rt, can be stressful for the bird. Many will tell you that the use of flash is harmless to birds. In terms of the immediate, they may be correct. However, I watched a perched hummingbird flinch with every burst of light from my flash, and it was set to 1/64th power. My suggestion from an ethics point of view is to keep the bird's wellbeing first on your list of priorities. The animal's welfare should always be first on your list of priorities, above the desire for that perfect photograph. For you it's a picture. For the animal, it's life and death. They need food, shelter, defense of predators, and to mate. Any stress we as photographers put on an animal makes it that much harder for the animal survive In the wild. Any signs of stress demonstrated by the animal should be a clear signal to stop photographing. If you can't respect this, go shoot planes, trains, or automobiles. 

I applaud your sensibilities; at 1/4000 on a sunny day, you can obtain wing freeze, if that's what you're after, for these tiny, fascinating creatures.



How does the under side of the bird look in your snatshoot.

The strobe does't bother the birds in any way. Blurred wings are not the way to go. I have been photographing hummingbirds for 40 years and have never seen any problem with the thousands of photographs taken with strobes.

This is a typical tree hugging comment from someone who knows nothing about hummingbirds or photography.

Dear Barry Mansell ",

People are "typical" when short-sighted, judgemental, insecure individuals (or groups) discounts observations, insights, facts, truths, etc. While one may disagree with another, it is something else to make snide remarks.  You are entitled to your opinion about whether or not
an intense burst of light is harmful to a living creature.  Did you notice that no one called you any names for expressing that opinion?

Have you ever seen white spots in your vision for several minutes after your picture was taken with a flash?  Do you know the long-term
effects of flash exposures to either humans or hummingbirds?

How long you've been taking pictures has nothing to do with JeffHargis' knowledge of photography or hummingbirds.  One's opinion of
what makes a good shot is not "wrong" just because it's different than yours.  Here's to JeffHargis' (and others) blurred wings, and to your
(and others) wings in sharp focus!

Try to celebrate the differences that make the world go round instead of dictating your standards to the competition. I wish I had the talent,
equipment, means, and time to take great shots of hummingbirds.  I admire anyone else who does, including you.

I need help.  I have a cannon 5d and a 70-200 lense.  Desperate to get a great picture of hummingbird.  When I put it in manual mode I have ISO at 800, aperature 2.8 and when I set the shutter to 1/8000 is immediatly goes to 1/200.  Why won't it stay at 1/8000?  Do I even need to say I'm a beginner!  Any help would be appreciated.  I do have an external flash.

Take you flash unit/controller out of the hot shoe unless you want to do a flash shot. Your focus is going to need to be right on as you have a very tight DOF at 2.5.


On Canon cameras if you have a flash unit in the hotshoe it needs to be set to High Speed Sync (HSS) or else the camera will force the shutter speed to the sync speed of the camera (1/200). This is a "safety" feature, as the flash won't show up in the picture if the shutter speed is higher than 1/200. If your flash offers High Speed Sync you can turn that on and then the shutter speed will hold at the higher number. 


you need to set your flash to hss(High Speed

shutter) then from there you can set you shutter to any speed you want as long your camera can accepted. My surgery to set your exposure to f.5.6 to f.8 for sharper image

and don't forget to freeze the birds wings is the flash output not the highest shutter speed. Take a guideline by pro. photograolike Jim Zuckerman in his article.

hood and happy shooting 


Are you an ornithologist? Where did you study? Maybe you're a climatologist and geologist? Can we have your expert opinion on climate change as well?

Some of my favorite published photos of bird and hummingbirds do NOT freeze the wings. In fact, I own several of the best professional texts on Hummingbirds and many of the most pleasing photos show the wings in a blur to convey the amazing motion.

Freezing subjects is not always the best artistic choice for everyone. 40 years of shooting and you have not learned this?

I also prefer tack sharp wings. Great article thank you for your time!

I think the artical was showing everyone how to get tack free wings on the hummingbirds.  Another artical waoud show everyone how to get the blur that some prefer!  Just different tastes!

Looks like I'm a year late jumping into this discussion but I disagree with your opinion.  Many photos are NOT technically perfect, and not all technically photos are GOOD.  The best photos have something different about them, and being ultra-technical is NOT the way to achieve that difference that makes YOUR photo stand out above everyone else's.  You could have 100 photographers all adhering to the proper settings based on known technology.  Most likely you'll have 100 IDENTICAL PHOTOGRAPHS, none better nor worse than the other.  100 Identical Photos are BLAH and boring.  Even if it's an error that makes something the slightest bit different, THAT'S the photo people will remember, not the other 99.  Artistic photography is individualism, different from all others. 

Learn to think OUTSIDE of the BOX.  Good Luck.  I'd personally rather create a million photos that bring joy and wonderment to the viewer, than a single photo that earned the comment, "Technically Correct". 

I agree with your comment about the blurred wings and body being tack sharp.  When I showed some recent "Photographs" (not snapshots) one with blurred wings and one with frozen it was clear from the responses the blurrred wings were more impressive.  I think having both feature are more interesting and less static. 
Your comment about the birds welfare is for the birds.  The animal kingdom is brutal.  Aminals muder and rape each other every day.  The flash is not impacting them at all.  I would expect you feel for the dogs at the pound and trutle eggs too.  There are much bigger things to worry about say maybe human eggs they are not protected by federal law like the turtle or bird eggs.  Your list of priorities may need to be eveluated.  Good luck!  

Bravo! Thank you for making the points about the ethics of bird/animal photography. No photograph is worth stressing out/endangering the life of a bird or animal. Too many people out there don't think about their impact on their "subjects" ... or simply don't care about that impact. They're the same people who aren't concerned with animal welfare, and would bait in order to get that shot they're after. We need more people like you!

Well said, Jeff! Although I am just reading your comment now (3 years later) I can't agree you more!

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

Hummingbirds my favorite subject. ..

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

Hello 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:

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.



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:

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