Hummingbirds are one of those incredible marvels of nature that seem to make everyone smile in wonder. These amazing flying jewels zip and dart around like god’s own miniature UFOs leaving a trail of excited and happy people behind them. Being a shutterbug, I had occasionally tried to photograph them over the years… but with less than impressive results. One spring day a hummer flew up to me while I was in the backyard, hovered 3 feet in front of my nose and took a good long look at me before she scooted off. Right then I decided that my next goal in photography would be to learn how to take a decent photo of these little marvels. It turned out to be more challenging than anticipated, but I’ve come up with a system that works for me. I’ll share what I’ve learned with you in this article.
First of all, there are two basic ways you can try to photograph hummingbirds.
The first method is to get a chair, set it up near a Hummingbird feeder or flowering plant, put on a long telephoto lens on your camera and go for it. This is how I started out and it can get nice results, especially if you like to shoot perched birds (this link will take you to great article that has tips on how to use this system).
However, if you want to shoot hummingbirds in flight, then it is difficult to get full frame, well exposed, perfectly focused shots this way. Not impossible, but my success rate was pretty pathetic…which motivated me to develop the system described below.
My 6 step system for photographing hummingbirds in flight:
STEP 1: Come to America 🙂
First of all, you have to be where the Hummingbirds are. If you are in Europe, Asia, Africa, or Australia, then sorry, but you are out of luck. Hummingbirds are only found in the Western Hemisphere. Their range extends from Alaska to the tip of Chile during the summer but they do migrate to warmer locations during winter.
Central America is ‘ground-zero’ for hummingbird photography. Some countries, like Costa Rica have over 50 species of hummers. The further from Central America you travel, the fewer species you will find.
But the good news is that if you live nearly anywhere in the western hemisphere, hummers are probably nearby. Even if you live in an urban area and have never seen a hummingbird near your home, I’ll bet you can attract them with a tad of effort.
STEP 2: Invite the Hummingbirds to your party (Make them come to you!)
You can grab your camera, put on your hat and hike around gardens looking for hummingbirds…but I’ve found that it is a lot more productive to set out a feeder and simply let them come to you.
There are dozens of feeders available and the article attached to this link provides an excellent recap of features you should look for in a feeder as well as what type of nectar you will want to have. You can also plant hummingbird attracting flowers in your yard…but if you really just want to take photos, a feeder will likely bring in all the hummers you need. My favorite feeder is inexpensive, easy to clean and its low silhouette doesn’t block the birds when photographing.
An important note: Keep the feeder clean and replace the nectar every few days! You also need to wash the feeder at least a couple times per week (more often if it is in direct sun). The nectar can breed bacteria quickly and if it does, the hummers will know and they will avoid your feeder like the plague. Seriously…you can waste a lot of time watching a feeder that hummers have no interest in because they know the nectar is spoiled. Also, once you mix up a batch of sugar water, use it within a couple of weeks…even if refrigerated, it can go bad that quickly (I learned this one the hard way).
STEP 3: Get the right Equipment
There is no way around it…to take world class hummingbird photos, you have to have the right tools. Fortunately, some of the stuff is cheap and there’s a good chance that you already have some of the more expensive items.
This is the one area where most folks will have to shell out some money because the most important equipment for killer hummingbird shots are your flashes (yes, plural). Two flashes are really the absolute minimum for good shots and three flashes will allow you to take best-in-class photos. Some folks use as many as eight flashes, but there are diminishing returns once you get past three.
So, why so many flashes?
- Two distinguishing hummingbird characteristics are that they are small and they are fast. If you shoot without flash, you can compensate for one or the other of these characteristics, but rarely for both.
- Unless you are satisfied with shots that show the wings as a total blur, you are going to need exposures that are between 1/1000 sec to 1/10,000 of a sec (yes…that is one ten thousandth of a second!). The problem is that if you set your shutter speed that high, you will have to open your lens aperture up wide…which unfortunately will minimize your depth of field (DOF) resulting in most of the hummer being out of focus.
- On the other hand, if you reduce your aperture (to increase your DOF and keep the whole bird in focus), you will have to reduce your shutter speed to the point that the wings will seem to nearly disappear, which isn’t an attractive look to many folks.
- You want the hummer to ‘sparkle.’ Hummingbirds get their ‘jewel-like” quality from the iridescence in their feathers. If you use only a single source of light, then the iridescent effect can appear flat or irregular. For an in-depth review of this topic you can see this link, otherwise, just trust me that a second flash will put your hummer photos into a whole new category.
If your flashes are all pointed directly at the hummer, you will notice that your photos look like they were taken at night (see photo to the right). It actually looks pretty neat but if you want photos that look like they were taken during the day, you will need at least one more flash specifically to illuminate the background.
How should I set up my flashes?
This aspect of hummingbird photography can get very technical and frankly, there are multiple systems and techniques you can use to successfully illuminate your photo. I’ve tried most of them and I’m going to tell you the system I use. It is relatively inexpensive, it is simple and it works.
- More than likely, your DSLR’s pop-up flash (or an external flash mounted to your camera’s hot shoe) can be set up so it will wirelessly and automatically trigger your other, off-camera flashes (the flash on the camera is called the ‘master’ (Canon) or the ‘commander’ (Nikon) and the other flashes are called ‘slaves’). I have a Nikon and this system works flawlessly (I’m going to assume that the similar systems used by other major manufacturers are also effective).
- It seems every camera/flash combo is different, so I’d suggest you do a quick google search (or, God-forbid, read your manual:) to see how to set up your particular system. If you own a Nikon system, take a look at this article by Ken Rockwell which clearly explains how to use a Commander/Slave set-up.
- Important Point: If your camera’s pop-up flash isn’t able to be used as a ‘commander’ you will have to buy a separate flash for that purpose.
- NOT ALL EXTERNAL FLASHES HAVE THE ABILITY TO BE A COMMANDER…so you need to confirm this before you buy one.
- A money saving hint: Your ‘slave’ flashes do not have to be top-of-the-line models made by the same company that made your camera. I picked up my slaves second hand on eBay.
- High Speed Sync Mode
- Another thing you are going to want to do is set up your camera on auto high speed flash sync. This is because most cameras are limited to a max sync flash speed of 1/250 (which is way too slow for most hummer shots). By using the high speed flash sync mode, you will be able to use much faster shutter speeds. Personally, I found this topic very confusing until I read a great blog by Darrell Young. This link will take you to this insightful article.
- To be honest, mastering High Speed Sync was the single most frustrating technical issue I had. I seemed that sometimes I could get the Commander/Slave system to work, but then I couldn’t take shots faster than 1/320th. Other times, it was just the opposite! It wasn’t until I read this article by John Adkins, that I understood the problem. Here is the solution (for Nikon anyway)
- On the back of your Nikon, hit the
- Mode button, then arrow down to the
- Custom Setting Menu then arrow down to and select
- e Bracketing/flash then scroll down to and select
- e3 Flash control for built-in Flash then scroll down and select
- Commander Mode the under the
- Built-in flash, change the output mode to “–” then
- Change the Mode under Group A to “TTL”
- Your speedlights will also need to be set on Group A
- Finally, change Channel to “3” and set your speedlights to channel “3” also.
- Change the Mode under Group A to “TTL”
- After I did this, I had no more problems.
- On the back of your Nikon, hit the
Flash stands will allow you to precisely position your speedlites/strobes. I got a couple of these inexpensive stands from Amazon for less than $30 each that get the job done just fine. Just make sure that your stand will allow you to get the flash at least 6 feet off the ground and have wide, stable bases..
Wireless Remote Shutter Release
For me personally, a wireless shutter release is the second most important piece of equipment for taking quality hummingbird shots. The use of a wireless remote allows you to set your camera up very close to the feeder and trigger the shutter from far enough away that small movements on your part won’t scare the hummers
Initially I used a remote shutter unit that connected to my camera with a cable, but my cable was only 3 feet long, so I still needed to stay pretty close to the camera. That meant I had to sit perfectly still or shoot hummers from a blind. You might be able to find a remote with a long cord but trust me, a wireless shutter release for photographing hummers is a godsend. Most of them are cheap (Amazon has a couple units for less than 20 bucks that fit many cameras).
I’ve taken most of my hummingbird photos while comfortably seated in my air-conditioned office about 15 feet from the feeder. Usually I just glance thru my window every couple of minutes to see if a hummer is visiting (who says you can’t do two things at once?). This sure beats hiding in a cramped blind in the Florida heat fighting off mosquitoes!
One of my biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments was realising that you don’t need a telephoto lens to take great hummingbird shots. If you have a $10K 600mm 2.8 lens, then by all means, use it. However hummers quickly grow tolerant of tripods and cameras placed close to the feeder.
Ideally, you want a lens that is fast, sharp and can focus close to the camera. My best shots have been taken with a 105mm Nikon Micro lens…which is fast (f2.8), insanely sharp and can focus at subjects within a couple feet. However, I’ve also used much cheaper ‘prosumer’ lenses and gotten fine results. The bottom line is that the ability to shoot very close to hummingbirds means that you can get pro quality results without pro quality glass.
A huge challenge is depth of field (DOF). Hummers are only about 3 inches long, so we aren’t talking about a huge amount of space…but you might be surprised how shallow your depth of field is, even when using your smallest aperture. For example, the DOF for my 105mm is only about 3 inches deep when set up 30″ away with the aperture set at f25! Since most hummers are only a few inches long, keeping the whole bird in focus takes some practice.
Important Tip: You can waste a LOT of time taking photos that have only part of the hummer focused unless you take the time to figure out your DOF ahead of time. If you don’t have a DOF calculator, there are a couple great ones available for your smartphone. The app I use cost $2 and is easy to operate and understand.
Some folks photograph hummers hand-held. God bless them…those folks must have incredible patience. But for me, hand-held hummingbird photography is often frustrating and unproductive.
Mounting your camera on a tripod will dramatically increase your percentage of great photos:
1) You will able to pre-calculate your DOF and prefocus your lens on the EXACT spot where the bird will be. Which means that many/most of your shots will be perfectly focused and the entire hummer will be sharp.
2) You can set up your camera very close to the hummers. This will allow you avoid cropping. In other words, you will maximize your resolution and sharpness by using nearly all of your sensor.
3) Hummers, are usually not very tolerant of movement close to their feeder. Even the slight movement of lifting your camera a couple inches while you are seated ten feet away will often scare them off. However, if your camera is on a tripod and you are using a remote shutter release, they won’t see any motion.
As long as your camera has a ‘hot shoe” or has a pop-up flash that can serve as a commander, then you should be good to go. Nearly any high quality DSLR should work.
You will want to set up a backdrop behind your feeder to avoid the ‘night-time’ look I mentioned before. I use a piece of posterboard that I painted a nice sky blue. You can also try spray-painting hazy patterns that imitate an attractive bokeh in the background of your shot.
Your backdrop won’t have to be very large. For my current set-up, a 24″ x 12″ backdrop completely fills up the background in my photos. Yours will likely need a somewhat different size depending on your camera/lens combo.
Shots of hummers flying with nothing else in the frame start looking kind of stark, so I like to include some flowers in the same plane of focus as the hummer. Use local plants, especially ones the hummers feed on if possible. If you don’t have some in your yard you can cut, just pick up some at your local nursery or home improvement store.
STEP 4: Set the Stage.
Basically, you are going to set up an outdoor photo studio in which you control all aspects of the photograph.
Hummingbirds really don’t care where you put the feeder, they will find it and flock to it. So, find a location that is perfect for YOU.
- I like to put my feeder on the porch, that way my camera won’t get wet when it rains (happens a lot here during Florida summers).
- Put the feeder in a shady location. This way the food won’t spoil quickly and and it will ensure that you control the light (with your flashes)
- Attach cut flowers (I particularly like orchids) to the feeder so they will appear in the photo.
- You can also put potted plants and/or flowers on a stand slightly behind the feeder out of the prefocus area…they will be a bit blurry which will add a nice sense of depth.
- Put masking tape over all the feeding holes except the one you want the birds to use. This ensures that when they come to feed, they will do so at exactly the location you want them to (more about this later).
- Next modify your feeder by removing the ‘foot rests’ in front of the hole you left open (this way you get shots of hummers flying, not standing on the plastic foot rests.)
- When I’m not photographing, I leave my feeder hanging by the supplied hook . However, when it is time to photograph, I place the feeder on a piece of PCV and remove the hook (see Diagram 3). This way there is nothing over the feeder that will be in the photo except the hummer and any flowers that I might be using as props.
- One last thing, if you have multiple feeders, take down all of them except the one you are actually photographing. Why give your models any reason to go anywhere else?
- A sneaky trick: Put the stem of a flower of your choice in the feeding hole you left open and then put a bit of nectar into the flower with an eyedropper or a syringe. Since the hummers will become conditioned to come to that particular feeding hole, the next time they come back, they usually adapt quickly and try the flower. Now you will be able to get killer shots of a hummer feeding from a flower, rather than from your feeder.
Positioning of your flashes is one of most critical decisions you will make. Trial and error is the key, but my preference is to set up two flashes about 45 degrees from one another with one flash shooting up at the hummer and the other shooting down. I also set these two flashes so that neither one of them is pointing directly at the posterboard background …this will prevent them from throwing shadows from the bird or flower props onto the posterboard (See diagram 1).
The flashes need to be CLOSE to the feeder. I often set them up within two feet of the feeder. This is necessary because as you increase your shutter speed, the amount of illumination in your shots will be progressively reduced.
Some hummingbird species (like the Ruby-Thoated I often photograph) have white underbellies so I typically use a diffuser on the flash shooting from below the bird…this helps soften the flash so the highlights don’t get ‘blown-out.’ However, I usually don’t use a diffuser on the flash that is shooting down..this helps make the iridescent feathers on top of the hummer ‘sparkle.’
The third flash will be positioned close to the posterboard shooting from the side. By placing the flash off to the side, the backboard will be more illuminated on one side than the other…I find this to be an attractive look since it simulates the effect of the ‘sun’ brightening part of the ‘sky.’ However, if this isn’t appealing to you, adding another flash on the other side of your backdrop will even out illumination (but now you are up to 4 flashes!)
You want to position the posterboard far enough behind the feeder so that it is completely out-of-focus, but not so far that it is too dark in your photograph. I typically set it about 30″ behind the feeder but your distance will depend on your lens and the aperture you select.
- I position my camera tripod at about a 90 degree angle from the flashes (see diagram 1).
- Shoot in Raw, not jpeg. Often I have to underexpose my shots because of the combination of a fast shutter but small aperture. Shooting in Raw will allow you to boost the exposure in postprocessing.
- Switch off the Vibration Reduction
- Turn off the autofocus.
- Select Manual Mode on the camera
- Prefocus. In the diagrams in this blog, I use the spot where the hummer usually ‘hovers’ after taking a sip but you can also select the feeding hole.
- I just hold my hand in the exact spot I want to photograph the hummer and manually focus on it using Live View.
- If you want to learn more about using your camera’s Live View function, this article by Ian Plant is a great start.
- Play with your ISO to find the lowest setting you can use and still be able to increase the exposure in post production without excessive noise. With my current Nikon full frame camera, I use an ISO 2oo or so.
- Set your aperture to the setting you selected after reviewing your DOF (see Lens section above)
- Set your camera speed. I can tell you that even at 1/5000 of a second, you will still see movement in the wings (you need nearly 1/10,000 of a second to totally freeze those little wings). However, I actually like to see some wing blur, so I usually select either 1/3200 or 1/4000.
- If you camera has one of those little pre-focus or ‘red-eye’ lamps that illuminate the subject, turn it off.
STEP 4: Trial Shots
I am always anxious to start shooting in the morning…especially if hummers are already stopping by while I am setting up. But I’ve learned that it pays to take your time in the morning and take trial shots after you set up to make sure that everything is perfect. I review the first trial shot for focus, evenness of flash coverage, how my flower ‘props’ look in the frame and then make adjustments and shoot again. I continue until I can get an absolutely perfect photo. Then I go and get my coffee, sit in my chair, put my thumb on the remote shuttle release and wait for the party to start!
STEP 5: Party Time!
- Hummers have a predictable pattern when dining at your server…Zip In…Slurp…Back Away…Hover…Repeat. Once you know this pattern, you simply wait for them to fly into the spot you prefocused on and trip the shutter.
- Take the feeder down at night and don’t set it back out until you are ready to photograph the next morning. The hummers will know when the food is back and you will likely get a rush of activity. In addition, the first feedings in the morning will be long. This first rush in the morning is my most productive time for photography.
- Don’t photograph your hummingbird the first time it hits your feeder. This way they get a taste of the nectar before you surprise them with the flash. They may not like the flash, but once they have a taste of that nectar, they will probably put up with it without taking off.
- As I mentioned hummers don’t like sudden movements, so even if you are a good distance away, move slowly.
STEP 6: Postproduction
Once I import my shots into Photoshop, I open them in the RAW format and use the following workflow:
- Adjust exposure. Don’t be surprised that the raw, unprocessed images may look quite dark. That is due to the high shutter speed, low ISO and small aperture. So the first thing I have to do is increase the exposure (sometimes by nearly 4 stops)
- Adjust the shadow slider as needed
- Tweak sharpness and luminance to reduce noise
- If the background is still too dark, I will put the targeted adjustment cursor on the background and adjust the luminance slider up. This will lighten the ‘sky’ but not colors in the bird or the flower props (unless they are the same color as your background).
Once I’ve completed the Raw adjustments, I save the file and reopen in regular Photoshop, then:
- If there is residual noise in the background of the shot, I cut out the hummingbird and put it on it’s own layer. I then use the noise filter to clean-up the background layer. You can also add some Gaussian blur to the background.
- I often change the color of the white orchids attached to my feeder to a subtle hue. Select a hue that contrasts and compliments the color of the sky and the hummer (like in the photo below).
Although this article is a lot longer than your average blog, it certainly isn’t an exhaustive review of the subject…that would take a full book! Actually, my goal was pretty modest: I simply hoped to inspire you to give hummingbird photography a try and explain the basic techniques that would give you a good, solid start. With a bit of practice and patience you will soon be showing your friends photos that will amaze them.
As your hummingbird photography skills improve and you learn techniques and tips that are not covered in this article, please share your learnings with me by noting them in the comments section at the end of this article (I reserve the right to get better!)
Thanks…now get out there and photograph some hummers!
PS: A note about the photos you see on this blog:
Unfortunately, I have to reduce the resolution of my photos by 80% when I insert them in this blog. If you would like to see them in their full glory and resolution, check out my Flickr Hummingbird album.
PSS: If you want to see great hand-held shots:
Checkout these photos by Dan Ripplinger. You will be impressed!
PSSS: Hummingbird Trivia (Source: Wikipedia, etc.)
- Hummers get their name because of the humming sound created by their beating wings, which sometimes sounds like bees or other insects.
- Hummers can fly at speeds exceeding 15 m/s (54 km/h; 34 mph);
- Hummers are the fastest animal on the planet (if you measure speed in body lengths per second).
- Hummers are the only group of birds with the ability to fly backwards
- Hummers have the largest brain, proportionate to their size, of any animal.
- Hummers in flight have the highest metabolism of all animals (excepting insects), a necessity in order to support the rapid beating of their wings. Their heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute.
- Hummers hover in mid-air by rapidly flapping their wings 12–80 times per second (depending on the species).
- Hummers consume more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they must visit hundreds of flowers daily.
- Hummers are continuously hours away from starving to death, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight.
- Hummers are capable of slowing down their metabolism at night or any other time food is not readily available. They enter a hibernation-like state known as torpor.
- When the nights get colder, their body temperature can drop significantly which slows down their heart and breathing rate, thus burning much less energy overnight. As the day heats back up, the hummingbird’s body temperature will come back up and they resume their normal activity
- Hummers are among the smallest of birds, most species measuring in the 7.5–13 cm (3–5 in) range. Indeed, the smallest extant bird species is a hummingbird, the 5-cm Bee Hummingbird.
- Individuals from some species of hummingbirds weigh less than a penny
- A group of hummingbirds is called a “choir.”
Hummingbird Photo tips
Hummingbird Photography: A 6 Step Guide with Photo Tips