A Guide to Photographing Hummingbirds
Hummingbirds are beautiful. And they are fast. If you hope to photograph them you will want to plan for it, not just rely on luck. Here’s how I approach capturing images of hummingbirds.
Feeders: I have two bird feeders which means up to 8 to 10+ birds can be at these feeders at any given time. Each feeder is on a shepherd hook so I can move them around as needed. The feeder is between me and the supportive rod of the hook. I watch and focus my efforts on one feeder at a time. The other feeder is not far away, just in case. The second feeder is nice because it attracts a larger number of birds but also helps to show them I’m not there to threaten them because I am basically ignoring that feeder.
Light and backgrounds: Lots of light is needed because the birds are fast, some parts are dark, and they look best against a pleasing background. The morning sun is great for me because it lights up my sunflowers, which to date is my favorite background. Although that’s subject to change. One side of the feeder will have better light then the other so I make sure my pleasing background is on the best lit side. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother with a terrible background because removing it in processing is not worth the effort. If I sit in a chair and shoot up at the right angle the tree leaves create a lovely backdrop mixed with sky.
Patience and knowledge: Learn and watch the behavior of the Hummingbirds. Knowing what species you’re dealing with may also be helpful. I have the Ruby-Throated Hummers. Some of the birds in my area (Missouri) will hover nicely while others are not so trusting. Some birds will sit on the opposite side of the feeder and peek around to see what I’m doing. I start early in the summer sitting or standing about 8-9 feet away from the feeder. They start out weary of the camera and lens at first but grew more trusting with time over the course of the summer. Now I stand as close as my lens will allow, which is about 6’ away and they buzz around me, my tripod and my big lens. It’s harder to focus closer because my movements have to be small, tight and fast @400mm. Patience is required. Many times I can go out and have a wonderful shot in 10 minutes, in part because they are so used to me. I have the feeders about 12 feet away from the background of sunflowers. You can see from my yard setup picture that my sunflowers are starting to go downhill fast. But there is still enough color in them to get great shots.
Gear and settings:
Camera, lenses, equipment: My camera body is the Canon 7D, and my preferred lens is the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS USM. I use a nice and solid tripod/head. You do not have to use a lens with as much reach as mine but it does help.
Speed rules: I want a shutter speed of least 1/3200 so I’ll adjust my ISO (which is normally high enough to create noise that I have to remove in post processing) and aperture accordingly. I take a test shot, look at my histogram but that’s not always accurate because the bird is so small. I shoot in manual because I can change aperture and shutter speeds on the fly in case something else comes along. While I can do 8 fps on the 7D I don’t necessarily have to go that fast. I shoot manual, spot metering, on Al Servo. My lens has an image stabilizer which I have turned OFF because it is on a tripod. In shoot in RAW and I do have a fast memory card.
Focus: First focus on the feeder. Once a bird starts buzzing around and hopefully darts in to take a drink I’m ready to quickly refocus on the bird and hope it goes into hover/drink/hover mode. If it does go into the hover drink pattern I take the time to make sure focus is accurate while it’s in one spot long enough and snap away when it hovers away from the feeder. Keep in mind I do throw out a lot of pictures that are not in focus. My exposures are not always accurate but I do periodically check my results. Yet sometimes I don’t bother processing nice pictures because I already have enough great ones from that day. I can’t let myself get distracted because once I’m distracted I will realize how many great shots I’ve missed.
An example: At 100mm, I would concentrate on the two birds on the right. Bring my focus on the bird closest to me and take my shot. That’s not to say I won’t try for the ones on the left but if I do I will have to change my exposure because the light will be a little different.
Warning – It is an addiction.
My husband calls the hummingbirds my $10.00 a day junkies. It isn’t that expensive to feed them (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) but with the number of birds I have feeding I use about 1 cup of sugar in my mixture each day keeping up with them. I will leave food out for them long after they are gone because we might have stragglers looking for a way south or ones that live here and lingered a little longer than the others.
In addition to the food, I have Sunflowers, Canna’s, and Hibiscus. I plan to add a Honeysuckle, a Crab-tree and Trumpet Vines in future gardening plans. It’s best to put in flowers that are native to your area.
Perhaps I should have mentioned this at the beginning of the article but be warned, Hummingbird photography can be addictive!