These little peanut shell sized birds arrive to the Teton valley around the first of June. Some can still be heard and seen until late in August. Each year, I set up my equipment and background in an attempt to capture the little creatures in flight. Hummingbirds inhabit much of the valley during the summer. They move from plant to plant in search of nectar so it can be difficult to capture them in a camera out in the field. They come to a feeder without hesitation. After all, they get plenty of sugar water and don’t have to work hard to get it. It’s relatively easy to capture a hummingbird coming to a feeder, but the challenge is to capture them feeding at a flower.
Back when I first started trying to photograph the little flying marvels, I spent a lot of time on the Internet trying to gather information on the best types of flowers, the best feeders, and the technical aspects of capturing them in a digital camera. At about the same time I took a class at the local Art Center on photography and Photoshop. The instructor, Dave Ryan, helped me understand the basics. His advice saved me a lot of time and energy, sending me essentially in the direction I needed to be going.
Hummingbird’s wings flap at an incredible pace—roughly 40-80 per second depending on the species. Even in good light, most daylight shots of a hummingbird will show blurred wings. Some people suggest that’s the way you see them, and that’s the way you should photograph them. I get it. I like some of both the blurred wings and some of the frozen wings. And, it is possible to get a little of both in one shot. To be honest, I like the challenge of freezing their wings. In fact, the technical challenge keeps me trying again and again—year after year. Most people initially think the concept of freezing the wings is to shoot with a super fast shutter speed. The same people might be perplexed to find out many of the frozen winged images were shot at speeds as low as 1/60th of a second or even slower! I’ll explain that in a minute.
In our little corner of Wyoming, we get maybe four different species of hummingbirds. They are: Broad-tailed, Calliope, Rufus, and Black-chinned hummingbirds. From my experience, Black-chinned are the least common, followed by Rufus, and then about an equal mix of Calliope and Broad-tailed. I’m sure there are biologist who’ve done studies on such things here in the Teton Valley, but these are my unscientific observations. I’ve only ever seen a couple of Black-chinned hummingbirds in about eight years of trying to photograph them.
To reliably freeze the wings, I find it necessary to control the scene. There are certainly a lot of moving parts, but there are some aspects you can control. I set up in front of my house and photograph them out the dining room window. Dave Ryan shot out his office window—mainly in the mornings since his window faced West. He had sync cables and splitters running to all of his strobes. But, remember, that was quite a few years ago! The connectivity is much easier now. Most everything for both Canon and Nikon shooters are now either infrared or radio frequency controlled, eliminating all of the sync cables.
Each year, I drive a few stakes in the ground in front of my dining room, then mount a backdrop made out of a 1″x3″ frame with fabric stretched and stapled over it. I’ve been to the local fabric store numerous times looking for good, non-descript fabric patterns for the backgrounds. The current background is about 3’x6′ in size. Along with the background, I add a few 2″x2″ strips that serve as a make shift roof support. A tarp is stretched over the 2x2s and held down with C-clamps. A feeder can be hung from the roof, plus plants can be placed below for the hummingbirds to find and feed upon.
Early in the summer, I set up a couple of Perky Pet feeders in locations close to where I want to photograph later in the season. I don’t move them all summer. The hummers find the feeders and come back regularly. In some parts of the valley, such as Red Top Meadows, North Gros Ventre Butte and along the Snake River, hummingbirds feed in large numbers. For some, there are so many birds they have to take turns to feed. I’ve never had that kind of bird habit. Instead, most of us get one bird that claims the feeder and protects with unexpected passion. They feed, but then spend the rest of their time watching for intruders. By intruders, I am talking about other hummingbirds. Other birds like sparrows or chickadees are not a problem…just other hummers.
Over the years, my equipment has changed, so my technique has changed with it. Originally, I set up two tripods and two cameras. Each one was set up and focused on one spot, controlled with hand-held remote triggers. One Nikon D-300 had a 70-200mm lens and the other had a 200-400 mm lens. The whole idea was to tempt a hummingbird to a specific feeder and a specific feeding location. That might mean putting tape over the other feeding holes, or plugging feeding holes with match sticks. In many cases, a hummingbird will enter a feeder straight on, feed on some sugar water, and then back straight up, pause in the air, and then go back in to feed. All I had to do is pre-focus on the flower. Sometimes, they’d back out and move either towards me or away from me and those images would be out of focus. Still, with enough birds and enough chances, I’d get my share of keepers.
In the spring of 2012, I bought a Nikon D4 and I used it for hummers that summer. The autofocus on that body is so fast, I changed my method for capturing the feeding hummingbirds. I found it now possible to set up with only one camera and manually point at any bird at any feeding location within my field of view. Instead of sync cables, I have been using a Nikon SU-800 to control all of the remote strobes. The SU-800 controller and strobes work with “line-of-sight” infrared technology. In recent years, I added Radio Poppers so I can move the strobes to places out of the line-of-sight of the controller. In the spring of 2013, I added a Nikon 800 body and used it this year.
The D4 can autofocus and shoot at 10 frames per second while the D800 can focus and shoot at roughly four frames per second. However, shooting with strobes negates all advantages of fast frame rates. Refresh rates on the strobes are roughly 2.3 seconds if it uses the full flash power, so speed isn’t the issue. For hummingbirds, I seldom shoot faster than 1 second intervals. So, in 2013, I used a Nikon D800 body on a Nikon 200-400 mm lens. It has amazing resolution and extremely fast focusing. The 200-400 mm lens can focus at any part of the zoom range at just less than five feet, making it a great option. Many of my shots are at roughly 300 mm, especially if I am trying to include a little of the flowers. With a 36 megapixel camera body, I have a lot of post production crop elbow room, including the option to do a vertical crop on an image I captured in the horizontal orientation.
Normally, I set up at least three strobes for my scene. Occasionally, I add an extra one to fill in. A six foot area can be a bit wide for only three strobes. Most males have iridescent feathers under their chin, so it takes one strobe mounted below and shining up. This strobe can also light up the background. Two other strobes are placed at the sides and shine into the scene at about 45° or less. The strobes are mounted onto light stands or are mounted using Justin clamps. I take off the screen at the dining room window for a few weeks, then make room in the dining room for my tripod and a chair. The SU-800, mounted in the hot shoe of the camera, controls all of the strobes and I can adjust the output of each from the camera. The hummers are amazingly tolerant of all of the activity as long as the feeder’s location doesn’t change.
I’m at the point I can finally define the actual shooting here! The camera was set to manual mode. By setting up a consistent scene consisting of a covered area, a backdrop, and flowers and feeder, I just needed to do a few test shots to dial in the exposure. Aperture came first. I like to set it at roughly F/8 or even F/11. This gives me some reasonable depth of field, yet lets the background go slightly blurry when focused at close to the minimum distance for my lens. Moving the backdrop back a little helped this year. ISO was set to 320 and sometimes ISO400. On a D4 or D800, that introduces essentially no noise at all. The shutter speed was set to 1/60th to 1/125th of a second based on a few of the other variables above. Most of the time, the ambient exposure was a stop or so underexposed, then light was introduced with the strobes. In other words, most of my scene was captured via the light from the strobes and not really from the length of time the shutter was open.
This chart from the Nikon site defines the output and duration.
Flash Duration: 1/6700 sec. to 1/1000 sec.
1/840 sec. @ 1/1 (full) output
1/1100 sec. @ 1/2 outut
1/2300 sec. @ 1/4 outut
1/4880 sec. @ 1/8 output
1/9100 sec. @ 1/16 output
1/19000 sec. @ 1/32 output
1/28800 sec. @ 1/64 output
The strobe below the flowers was usually set to around 1/64th output in manual on the strobe itself. I only needed to throw out some light to light the iridescent gorget, so it didn’t need to be a powerful flash. The two side strobes were set at roughly 1/32 output. With the SU-800 controller, I could easily control all of the strobes from the back of the camera. The zoom on the side strobes were set to around 105 mm to help focus light into certain areas. Unlike the duration settings, the zoom settings had to be done manually at the strobe itself. This year, I used one Nikon SB-910, two Nikon SB-800, and one Nikon SB-600 strobes. SB-600 units work fine with the Creative Lighting System. Both SB-910 and SB-800 strobes can be used as on camera controllers, a feature lacking on a SB-600.
At 1/32nd output on the side strobes, I was shooting at 1/19000 second. That froze the little hummers wings! Once everything was set, I didn’t have to change much the rest of the day.
My camera was set up in the dining room. I used a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod, an Arca-Swiss Z-1 ballhead, and a Wimberly Sidekick. That’s the same setup I use out in the field. I turned the camera to Continuous Focus, then set it to 9 points and moved the focus point to about where I hoped the hummingbird might move into. Once the hummer showed up, all I had to do was try to get the focus point on the bird and hope the autofocus would do its job. Keeping up with a hummingbird moving from flower to flower isn’t too easy, but I eventually got my share of them. The D800 did a great job of focusing. It is impossible to anticipate the wing position of the wings. Sometimes, they will be stopped at the forward reach, back reach, or somewhere in between.
Most of my shots this year were of the same female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. She defended her area with the spirit of a lion—even though she was not much bigger than a peanut shell.
If you want to try photographing hummers, get a few feeders, fill them with 4 parts water and one part sugar and place them where you can see them. At least a few will find the feeders. They like trumpet shaped flowers and many of those can be quite colorful. One of my favorites is Crocosmia or Lucifer’s Tongue. One of the local nurseries brings them in each year. Fuschia and Bee Balm attract them, too. The hummers will often feed for a while, then fly to a nearby branch to digest their meal and watch for intruders. Normally, I add a small perch into my shooting area and leave it there until I have enough perched images for the year, then replace it with some sort of flower.
Each year, I tell myself I need to set up for hummingbirds, then for some reason neglect to start until it is almost too late. While there are still a few stragglers in and around the yard until late in August, it seems each year the bulk of them are gone by August 10th. At that point, I take everything down, and start looking for bison in the rut and maybe moose in velvet. My wife gets the dining room back and the cycle continues.
Lastly, the setup above has been working for me. It is possible to slow the duration of the strobe and begin to introduce some more natural looking blur, but that’s always a subjective decision. Other people might be using a variation of “High Speed Sync” to capture hummingbirds as a way of getting around the normal 1/250th of a second maximum flash sync speed.
If you are interested, here’s a list of gear I mentioned above with links to B&H Photo and Video.
Nikon D4 Body
Nikon D800 Body
Nikon 200-400 VR Lens
Nikon SU-800 Controller
Nikon SB-910 Strobe
Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod
Arca-Swiss Z-1 Ballhead
Manfrotto Justin Clamp
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