If you have hummingbirds around your garden, you should set yourself a project to photograph them. It’s surprisingly easy. In fact, hummingbirds may be the easiest of all birds to photograph. Interested? Read on…
Maybe you don’t have hummingbirds around, but are they in your neighbourhood? Check with the gardener in your neighbourhood. There’s always someone on the block who spends a little more time planting colourful flowers – they’ll know if there are ‘hummers’ around. If there are, you’re in luck!
It’s too late in the season to plant hummingbird-friendly flowers (do that next year!), so start by setting up a hummingbird feeder. They are inexpensive and easy to maintain. We bought ours at Wild Birds Unlimited who have very helpful information about attracting hummers’ and looking after your feeder. As far as nectar goes, you can buy the commercial nectar, but really a 1:4 sugar-to-water mixture is fine (even Audubon recommends it). That’s 1 cup refined white sugar in 4 cups of tap water. The water does not need to be boiled or boiling as sugar dissolves in room temperature water. Mix it up and store it in the fridge because you want to change it every few days, especially when it’s hot out. And remember – do not use food colouring! It is not necessary and could be harmful.
You’ll need to find a way to suspend your hummingbird feeder. At my parents’ cottage, dad simply screwed a cup hook to the underside of the deck railing and the hummers’ come by the whole time we are out there. We can’t do that in our back garden, so we purchased a ‘shepherd’s hook’ from Wild Birds Unlimited to hang our feeder. Note: WBU also offers a window feeder.
With your hummingbird feeder hung, all you need now is a bit of patience as there’s no guarantee they’ll come. In past years, we’ve had great success, but this year not so much. We saw hummers at our flowers early in the summer, so put out the feeder and we’ve not seen them since. Go figure! So, why am I telling you this discouraging news? Well, it’s important to be reminded that nature can be fickle!
While waiting for the hummers to show up, you can be getting your gear ready. You can shoot hummers with just about any lens of 200mm or longer. That would mean something longer than the average “kit” lens that may have come with your DSLR (typically a 14-42mm, 18-55mm, 16-80mm, or 24-120mm). If you’re shooting 4/3s then you’ll need at least a 100mm; 140mm or longer for APS and 200mm or longer for full-frame. You may have success with a point-and-shoot with longer lens, but the problem then becomes shutter delay – the delay between pushing the shutter release and the camera activating the shutter. With more professional ‘bridge’ cameras (Sony RX-10iii and iv or the Panasonic FX1000 or 2500), you will not have that problem. This is the time to test things out to ensure they work for you.
Hummingbirds will tolerate you getting fairly close (2 to 3 metres, sometimes closer) as long as you are not moving. I typically sit in a deck chair to photograph them, but they don’t like me raising the camera to my eye. Either I set the camera up on a tripod or I hand hold my rig with my arm resting on the armrest of the chair.
Don’t try to fill the frame with the hummingbird as that will give you less tolerance for catching quick movements. What I’ve found is that hummingbirds will often pause and hover just off the feeder before going in to sip. Often they will rest on the feeder while drinking, then back off, hover and go. I try to capture them when they are hovering, I pre-focus on the “rest” or on the edge of the feeder.
I also carefully watch where in the frame the hummingbird is typically positioned then set my focus point for that location. There is less ‘hunting’ so focus is acquired instantly. Note: I also use back focus, having set the focussing to the AE-L/AF-L button where my thumb is, pre-focussing then shooting. This can be tricky without the hummingbird there, but consider the first few visits to the feeder as chances to set focus as the hummers are very predictable in how they return to the feeding port. Photos look more natural without the feeder, though you may want a few with the feeder to show your friends.
Some may deem this to be unacceptable, but one trick is to cover the ports with cling film except for the port you want the hummingbird to feed at. This will allow for many more successful shooting opportunities in the same amount of time.
If you are photographing hummers at flowers, then you’re patience quota will need to be raised considerably as you will never know which flower the hummer will go to next. This will mean fairly rapid re-framing and focussing each time a hummingbird comes by.
Typically, hummingbirds will visit your feeder quite regularly – possibly every 5 to 10 minutes. Early in the season they are feeding their young. Once the young fledge, you will have both adults and juveniles at the feeder. So, over the space of an hour, you should have plenty of opportunities to capture that ideal pose. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t work out the first time. Analyse what you did capture and make adjustments. Were you too close? Too far? Did you have difficulties focussing? Composing? Was your shutter speed too slow or did you not have enough depth of field?
As is always the case with photography, there is a technical side, which is often at odds with what we want. With my set-up, I aim to have a shutter speed of 1/250 to 1/500 at, ideally, f/11, with an ISO no higher than 400 on the APS camera and 800 on the full-frame, to avoid too much ‘grain’ from pixels. 1/250 to 1/500 freezes the body of a hovering hummer, but gives the wings some motion; f/11 provides the necessary depth of field for this kind of magnification (f/16 would be even better). A smaller aperture of f/22 soften the image due to defraction and make the background too busy.
Setting exposure may take a few trial-and-error shots, particularly if the bird is sunlit with a darker background. Check for blinking highlights and the histogram then use exposure compensation to reduce those highlights.
What about flash? Yes, by all means try it. I have used flash, but find the birds look unrealistically static. There is also the difficulty of balancing the exposure of the flashlit hummer with the background. There are many photos of hummingbirds with a black backgrounds, but they look unrealistic and lack depth.
The few times I have used flash, I’ve set my exposure using the background then applied –1 exposure compensation to mute it. Then I’ve set up the flash also with a –1 setting to tone down the highlights. BUT – the lighting considerations are different in each case and your rig will differ from mine, so I encourage you to experiment. The other recommendation is to get the flash off-camera to provide some directional side lighting, something that I am not an expert on, so I will defer to photographers like Nate Chappell.
At times, you will see aerial acrobatics and aerial ‘dogfights’ between competing males. This is not unusual and can be quite exciting to watch. Good luck photographing it, though Nate Chappell has had some great successes. Check out his photos.
So, give it try! If you’re successful, add a comment below and email me photo to add to this post. You could also ‘Buy Me a Coffee‘ using this link or the handy Ko-Fi link to the right.