Gear Part I
You need to have all sorts of props if you want to photograph hummingbirds. You’ll need a hummingbird feeder (It’s best to use the kind of feeder that doesn’t offer a perch. This increases the chances of getting shots of the birds in flight.) You’ll need an abundance of c-clamps, articulating arms, light stands and dows to hold your backgrounds, and some natural flowers and other materials to use to hide the feeder.
You may want to set up multiple feeders at first to draw in lots of birds, and then whittle that down to one so there is only one place they can come for food. This makes it easier to get a bird in the target zone.
Gear Part II
I made these hummingbird photos in this story back when I shot Canon. The cameras I used aren't that important because almost any camera with a lens in the 70-200mm range will do the trick as long as it has good autofocus, a frame rate of eight or 10 FPS, and can work with external flashes. For these images I used a Canon 5D MK III and a Canon 1DX. I used a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens, Canon Extender EF 1.4X III, and a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM Lens. (NOTE: I now shoot exclusively with Olympus cameras and hope to go back to Madera Canyon soon to try this with my new Olympus gear.)
I used a sturdy carbon fibre tripod with a gimbal head for these shots. Now that I use Olympus I am not sure I would require the gimbal or even the tripod. A monopod might work. You’ll also need flashes. I tried the top-of-the line Canon flashes but, for this very specific task, I found the Quantum Q-flashes with Quantum battery packs to be more suited to the task. Whichever flashes you use, you’ll need lots of them, (four seems about right with the Quantums and at least four or maybe six with the Canons) and battery packs charged and ready to go. I also like using a handheld meter to get precise exposure set. I set it for the area closest to the feeder plus 1/3 stop. (I like to make sure I expose to the right to capture all the detail.)
Feeder Placement & Camera setup are Important
Place the feeder so it’s about six feet away from the background. (This isn’t crucial but it can help.) Set your camera up on the tripod/gimbal mount. Set your exposure, and set your shutter speed at the fastest it can be and still sync with the flash - for most cameras this will be anywhere from 1/60th to 1/250th of a second.) Set your ISO to the lowest it can go and deliver you the shutter speed/aperture combo you want. I shot most of these images at f/16 because the lens was as close to the feeder as it could be and still achieve autofocus. This is important to note because, at that short distance the depth-of-field was quite thin.
Try to find open shade for your feeder/background setup. Hummingbirds tend not to like bright light. Also set the flashes up to evenly light the background and the bird will be exposed properly - just like magic. Do not try to meter the bird. It's a waste of time and will throw you off. Lastly, pre-focus on the feeder and then switch to manual focus so the AF doesn’t hunt when a bird flies into the scene.