Would you like a coffee with those hummingbirds?

It’s not often I get to enjoy a cup of coffee or a good book while photographing. Usually I’m on the trail or in the canoe swatting at mosquitoes or horseflies. But, today, rather than being in the field, I’m on the deck at the family cottage watching hummingbirds.

For some years now, our neighbour and my parents have put up hummingbird feeders for the summer. We’ve enjoyed watching their antics as they zip back and forth across the lawns, twittering away at each other. At times,it becomes violent as males defend their territories. It’s amazing how a hummingbird can fly almost silently, like a librarian humming a tune under their breath so as not to disturb their patrons. Then, they spot a rival male, and turn up the volume of their flight to sound intimidatingly ferocious. We’ve watched them swoop in on another male, straight down from above and actually make contact with him, driving him downwards. Imagine! Hummingbirds! It’s been interesting to watch the juvenile hummingbirds these last few days. They are much more tolerant of us and will come to the feeder when we are sitting too close for the adults. Ahhh, the cockiness of youth, throwing caution the wind!

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)So, as I was sitting reading the other day, enjoying the afternoon sun, I realized how perfectly lit the hummingbirds were as the visited the feeder. This got me thinking photography. Now, I’m not much of a wildlife photographer; I’m more of an opportunist. The photos I’ve made this year of “our” local heron and osprey were the result of canoeing in the evening with my wife Laurie. Rather than being a determined effort, we happened to be in the right place at the right time, stealthily approached and photographed. This is true of all of my wildlife photographs. One gets lucky over the years, and with enough years, accumulates a few good photographs.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)I realized early on I didn’t have the patience of the professional wildlife photographers. Their determination of watching wildlife for days before choosing a location for a blind, then spending days setting up the blind so as not to spook their subject, then sitting for hours, even days, in the blind to get that perfect photograph. Nope, not for me. Robert McCaw once related his story of waiting days in a blind through all kinds of weather until he finally captured the photograph of Golden Eagles. I have a lot of respect for photographers like him.

Me, I need to have my mind occupied with something more than watching wildlife or I’d fall asleep! I can spend hours reading a book or tweaking photos or building a website, but not sitting in a blind. So, back to the deck on a summer afternoon…

With the lighting so good, I took a closer look and noticed two other important factors working in my favour:

  1.  The hummingbirds would often hover a few centimetres away from the feeder before and, sometimes after, feeding. To me, this is important because I didn’t want a photo of the hummingbird on the feeder, but rather off-feeder hovering.
  2. The cedars behind the feeder are a good 5m away and in shade, providing an ideal, soft, green background to the birds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird II (Archilochus colubris)A few minutes later I was set up. The 300mm was on the tripod with camera attached. I added the polarizer, which did a beautiful job reducing glare on the feathers, and set the Exposure Compensation to –2 as the background, which filled all of the frame, was significantly darker than the lit hummingbird. The –2 was an estimate which proved to be correct. I decided against using spot metering as the hummingbird wouldn’t necessarily be in the centre of the frame.

I pre-focussed on the plastic “rest” where the birds would alight to feed. It seemed to be in about the same plane as the hummingbird would be as it hovered in front of the feeder. I was about 2-1/2m away, close enough to get a shot with enough pixels to keep it sharp (I would definitely need to crop – the beauty of 36mp!), but far enough not to spook the adults.

The one setting that would have helped me right away, but being an inexperienced wildlifer only thought of later, was switching the AF mode from single-point to 3D-tracking. (I should have thought of it from my sports photography, but I had stopped using it as it would sometimes pick up other players nearby, rather than the main subject.) What an improvement! Once focussed on the bird, the AF point followed it around keeping amazing focus.

After my first twenty minutes of sitting, I had a series of photos. Not using the 3D-tracking yet, meant that all were blurry except for the last two, which were bang on. Success, at least for the juvenile who has not yet developed the ruby throat of the males. The next day was less successful. Perhaps it was because as I was waiting for the hummers (they appear about every 15 to 20 minutes) I was reading a book. But really, I just couldn’t keep the focus on the bird moving in and out of such a narrow depth-of-field. That’s when I remembered the 3D focus.

My third afternoon out was much more successful. The male’s ruby throat was showing nicely and the 3D focus was great – not perfect, but definitely better than not using it. Exposure worked out to be near-perfect so only mild tweaking was needed. All tolled, I spent about three hours waiting and another hour or so importing and processing. Each frame required capping to about 3000×2000 pixels – plenty large enough for most uses. Maybe I could get into making wildlife photographs….Naaa – I still prefer landscapes and the odd wildlife photograph.

4 comments

  1. Cathy says:

    Ahhhh … that’s a lovely hummingbird — gorgeous colours! And the photos of him/her flying are amazing. I hope I see one soon, myself. I haven’t seen any this year in my garden.

  2. Bob says:

    Great story and photos Terry. I’ve been watching the ruby-throats in my backyard the past couple of weeks with great interest, partially because I know they’ll be heading south in mid- to late September.

    Bob

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