Little and Fast
I’ve heard that photographing Hummingbirds is one of the hardest things to do. I disagree. I find them predictable and friendly. The first thing you want to do when photographing hummingbirds is decide where you want to camp out. One might think that photographing hummingbirds in the wild natural environment is best but I think the very best location is in your own backyard. If you are determined to go out in the wild consider the following. Look for an area where hawks are plentiful. The reason, hawks prey on medium and small birds that prey on hummingbird eggs. In that environment the smallest tend to flourish. I often visit a local botanical garden that is close to our mountain foothills and in the past couple of years has been overrun by Coopers Hawks. Sure enough there are thousands of Hummingbirds in the area.
It is easy to attract the birds into your own yard, all you need to do is put out a feeder and maybe plant some foliage that attracts the birds and you will have some regular visitors before long. They are creatures of habit so once established, the routine of the birds will include frequent stops to your feeder. If you happen to acquire a “Bully” bird that chases off all the others set out a second feeder in another location and you will be ok. Here are a couple other tips for shooting Hummingbirds in your backyard.
- Light the scene – Many professional photographers will use as many as 5 flash units to light the scene where the birds are expected to be. I have never used more than 2 and actually prefer to use just one as fill light. Whatever method you decide on it is almost mandatory to use some sort of flash. It will help freeze the movement and bring out the colors.
- Use a long lens – Yes Virginia you need a long lens to get those amazing photographs with the background all blurred out. I use my Tamron 200-500 at 500mm (effective focal length 750mm) at minimum focus distance, but I have also seen great images made with 300mm and 70-200mm lenses with tele-converters attached. I will be working with my 300mm 2.8 in the coming months and will report how well that works.
- Shutter speed – Using an incredibly fast shutter speed is not necessary. The best way (if that’s what you want) to completely freeze movement is through lighting the scene with several flashes. For me, I like to show motion to the flight so I will typically use a shutter speed of 200 t0 500 . Often I will just set the shutter to 250, that works pretty well and has the added benefit of a normal sync with the flashes. That will save a lot of power and give you faster recycle time.
- Use your feeders – Don’t just try to make every image an “in flight” shot. Interesting and colorful feeders make for interesting and colorful images too so don’t be afraid to include shots of the birds feeding. Typically hummingbirds will approach the feeder, hover for a moment checking for safety, feed for a moment or two, and then take off like a bullet. Your best opportunity is to catch the fly in because the fly out is next to impossible,
- Background, background, background – Even though the usual goal is to have a completely blurred out background it is still so very important. One great thing to do is place colorful flowers (live or artificial) about 10-15 feet behind the feeder. In the photos above I was using just the grape-vine in my backyard on a fence about 10 yards behind the feeder. Often I will place flowers between the two for extra color (below). I like the background to be rather bright usually in full sunlight, the feeder is in a generally shaded area with streaks of sunlight running through it.
- Change up your focus – No matter what you do there are going to be lots of improperly focused images, that is just the way it is. You should also, depending on the behavior of the birds that day, experiment with auto and manual focus. If the birds are hanging around auto focus may work just fine and give pinpoint accuracy. If they are acting skittish and decide to do the hit and run routine you would be better off to pre-focus on an area and wait for the birds to come to it.
Those are the highlights of things that have helped me get better images. The real key is a lot of practice. In the coming Summer months I will be doing about 8 hummingbird photography sessions with both the 300 and 500mm focal lengths and multiple flashes. I hope to report back in the Fall with some stellar images.