Photographing perched hummingbirds is one thing, but photographing them flying is another. You may think that you need a special camera or a super fast shutter speed for photographing hummingbirds in flight. But while you do need a faster shutter speed, the key is actually having a fast flash, or better yet, several flash units.
The best type of flash for hummingbird photography is an external flash unit, a flash that has a foot to be mounted on your cameras hot shoe, on an off-camera shoe cord, or on a stand. These flash units are typically called Speedlites (Canon) or Speedlights (Nikon). Choose one that allows for manual settings, where the power of the flash can be reduced to 1/16th power or less. Speedlites have the unique ability to shorten their flash duration as the power is turned down. Most Speedlites on 1/16th power have a flash duration of 1/5,000 of a second or faster. Studio flashes won’t work as well for hummingbirds in flight because they don’t work the same way and the flash duration is too long to be effectively used for these fast, little birds.
I use a Canon EOS camera so I stayed with that line when I purchased my flashes from KEH Camera. I went with some Canon 430 EZ flashes, which can be manually dialed down to 1/128th of a second, although I set mine at 1/16th power. There is a trade-off however. In reducing the power of the flash, you also reduce its effective range. At such a low power, the flash needs to be placed under two feet away or less from the hummingbird.
Typically for this set up I use six flashes that are all placed less than two feet from the feeder spout. Two at 45 degree angles on the background. One flash above the subject, and one below. The other two flashes are at 45 degree angles above and to the sides of the subject. They are aimed at a point about seven inches away from the feeder to catch the hummingbird when it backs up to take a break from feeding. I mount all the flashes on light stands and old tripods and trigger them using a wireless flash triggering system.
I do my hummingbird photography in the shade. My yard has a lot of sun so I use an instant shade pop-up that is 8 feet square. That way, all of the light is coming from my flashes and I’m not hindered much by ambient light. It’s also a pleasant place to photograph on a hot sunny day. A typical set up also uses flowers placed close to, or in front of, the hummingbird feeder spout. Often times I will also include flowers just behind the feeder as well.
While you can shoot this type of image using a natural surrounding background, you can also bring in your own. My personal preference is an olive green backdrop made of painted Masonite hardboard, that I place about four feet behind the feeder. Whatever you choose to use, make sure that it is large enough to cover your area behind the feeder.
Exposure varies depending on your ambient lighting, on the flashes you're using, and on your cameras sync speed. Typically I use a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second, at an aperture ranging from of f13 to f18. I prefer stopping down to keep the hummingbird in focus.
For focusing, I manually pre-focus on the tip of the hummingbird feeder with my camera on a tripod. Then I turn the camera so that it is pointed to an area with the feeder spout just out of the frame. The camera position is about six feet away from the feeder.
As far as lenses go, I use one of two telephotos. I use a Canon 100 to 300 IS or a Canon 100-400 IS. When using the 100-400 I use extension tubes so that I can have a closer focusing distance.
To do hummingbird photography having a hummingbird feeder is critical. I put mine up in early spring filled with a mixture of plain white sugar mixed at a ratio of one part sugar, to four parts tap water.
With hummingbirds, it is a bit of a waiting game. If you don’t use a blind you must sit as motionless as possible with your fingers on the shutter release, or consider using a remote. Wait for the hummingbird to begin feeding a few times before you start blasting away with the flashes. Start off slow and eventually they will get used to the flash. Usually the best time to click the shutter is when they back off from the feeder to rest a bit. They will move forward and feed and then back off about four to eight inches and hover there for several seconds before moving forward to feed again.
If you're into hummingbirds or are just up for the challenge, this is a great photographic exercise. So put some gear together and go out and have some fun!
Bio: Chris Hansen is a stock photographer in California. He loves shooting with his Digital Canon camera, a Pentax 6x7, and an old wooden 4x5 field camera. Hansen is a proud member of PhotoMission, a Christian photography group that serves to further spread the word through photography. His images have been featured on the covers of Mule Deer Magazine, California Hunter, and used in Big Game Adventures, Whitetail Bowhunter, and North American Hunter.
all photos © J. Chris Hansen