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How To Photograph Hummingbirds By Scott Bourne (Updated 2017)

INTRODUCTION

While I have done a lot of bird photography, I only started photographing hummingbirds in 2012. I think my expertise with other avian species gave me a leg-up when it comes to making great hummingbird shots but it’s still incredibly hard. Photographing hummingbirds is a task that will try your patience, but if you can hang in there, the rewards are pretty amazing.

KNOW YOUR SUBJECT

Read about how hummingbirds live. Understand the difference in the species and their migratory patterns. Go out with a pair of binoculars and study their flight and perch patterns. Study other photographers who have successfully made hummingbird images. Look at their photos to see what you like and don’t like about their approach. The more you know about these tiny creatures, the "luckier" you'll be when you're trying to photograph them.

BECOME A WRITER

Before you ever pick up your camera, write an essay about hummingbirds. Writing down some facts and observations about these little birds will help you be more prepared in the field when you have a camera in your hand. For instance did you know that hummingbirds are the only bird in the world that can fly backwards? They can flap their wings 50 times a second. They have to feed every 10 minutes.

Make sure there's sugar-water in your feeders, because these birds need lots to eat...

DO YOUR RESEARCH

With all birds and wildlife it’s best to know where the subject will be so you can be there too. In North America, my favorite place to make hummingbird photos is Madera Canyon Arizona. South of Tucson and just 80 miles or so from the Mexican border, this is known as hummingbird central. The high hills and temperate climate attract the hummingbirds to this area.

Know EXactly where to go

You should scout the area that you want to shoot in for a day or two and make sure there are plenty of birds. Then set up your feeder (sans background, stands, etc) for a few days - or even a week before you start to make images. Giving the birds a chance to get familiar with the feeder will improve the odds of getting birds to come in quickly.

Know when To Go

Hummingbirds have very predictable migratory patterns. They can reliably be found in southern Arizona during the few weeks between late April and early May. You will see hummingbirds in this area pretty much year-round, but migration offers the best chance for a wide variety of species.

Using local vegetation to disguise the feeder makes your photos more realistic.

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.

Shooting Tips

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.

Patience Really Is A Virtue

Be patient. Very patient. Very, very patient. The photo below is typical of my first attempts. Out of focus, bird turned from the camera, etc.

This takes a real time commitment if you want to do it well. You have to try, try, try and try again. When you do get lucky enough to see a bird, you have to hope it flies to the feeder and stays in your field of view long enough to press the shutter.

Hummingbirds don’t ever stay still for long and they don’t care whether or not you get a great shot, so it’s all up to you. Expect to fail more than you succeed but when you do succeed, it will be sweet!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Bourne is President of US Operations at Skylum Software (Formerly Macphun,) an Olympus Visionary and a professional wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He was one of the founders of This Week In Photo, founded Photofocus.com and is co-founder of the Photo Podcast Network.

Scott is a regular contributor to several photography related blogs and podcasts and his photography has appeared in more than 200 books and magazines. He is a trainer at both ThinkTapLearn and lynda.com, and is the author of 11 photography books.

Scott is available to speak to your birding group, photography group and for both private and small group bird photography workshops. For more information on engaging Scott as a speaker or workshop leader, or for image licensing and print information, e-mail scott@scottbourne.com.

Credits:

Copyright Scott Bourne 2017 - All Rights Reserved - scottbourne.com - scottbourne.photography.

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