While I have done a lot of bird photography, I only seriously 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.
Here are some tips for photographing hummingbirds…
1. 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.
2. Before you ever pick up your camera, write an essay about hummingbirds. Writing down some facts and observations about these little creatures 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.
3. Research where to shoot. 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.
4. Know when to go. Hummingbirds have very predictable migratory patterns. They are reliably in southern Arizona during the two weeks between late April and early May also in August.
5. Gear Part I (See the detailed list below)
You don’t need to have all sorts of props if you want to reliably photograph hummingbirds. But if you do have them, you will find it MUCH easier. Otherwise, you’ll need to rely on luck. At its most basic, 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, making it easier to get a bird in the target zone.
6. You should scout the area that you want to shoot in for a day 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.
7. Set up a painted or printed background on an easel about six feet from the feeder (See next paragraph) and on an angle that fills your frame. I create my backgrounds from pictures that I make of everyday patterns and colors, then tweak them in Photoshop, and then print them on paper, canvas or metal. The illustration below is my older setup. I tend to use metal prints now because they handle better and last longer and don’t curl up. They also don’t blow away in a light wind.
8. 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.
NOTE: I use an old MINOLTA Autometer 4F to measure my exposure. In-camera meters are so good now that this is probably no longer necessary. But being old school, I still do it this way. I guess out of habit.
9. Try to find open shade for your feeder/background setup. Hummingbirds tend not to like bright light and set the flashes up to evenly light the background.
10. Pre-focus on the feeder and then switch to manual focus so the AF doesn’t hunt when a bird flies into the scene.
11. Be patient. Very patient. This takes a real time commitment if you want to do it well. The hummingbirds won’t 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!
Photographing Hummingbirds – The Gear
Photographing hummingbirds is usually hard – but it doesn’t have to be. You need to understand hummingbird behavior and where and when to go looking for them, but after that – the right gear makes it much easier to succeed..
I’ll list my basic camera gear – you can shop for your brand’s equivalent if you prefer.
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III
Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
Olympus OM-D E-M1X or Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III
Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75-300mm f4.8-6.7 II (EFL 150-600mm)
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens (EFL 80-300mm)
Olympus FL-900R Electronic Flash x 4
Olympus FC-WR Wireless Radio Flash Commander
Olympus FR-WR Wireless Radiowave Flash Receiver X4
Induro CLT303L Stealth Carbon Fiber 3 Section Tripod
Promaster GH30C Professional Carbon Fiber Gimbal Head. (Optional but very helpful)
Induro BHL3S Ball Head
Platypod Ultra Plate
Manfrotto Snap Tilthead with Shoe Mount x 3
Manfrotto 237HD Heavy-Duty Flex Arm – for Super Clamp x 3
Manfrotto Dado Kit (3 Rods)
T-SIGN 66 Inches Reinforced Artist Easel
Promaster LS3 (N) Air Stand x3
Manfrotto Super Clamp with 2907 Reversible Short Stud
Wimberley Plamp 2 Articulating Arm
Think Tank Photo Production Manager 40 Rolling Lighting Case X2
MINOLTA Autometer 4F
Picture Methods has partnered with Hunt’s Photo & Video to bring you the best gear at a competitive price and backed by personal service. Call Alan Samiljan at 781-462-2383 or Noah Buchanan at 781.462.2356. If you cannot reach either one try Gary Farber at 781-462-2332. You will ALWAYS get the best prices if you call the store v. Using the web site. You can also email Noah at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Alan at email@example.com or Gary at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hunt’s has been around a long time and you can trust them. Make sure to mention that Scott Bourne sent you. That will get you the best deal.