Photographing Hummingbirds

Where I live in northern Virginia I see a lot of wildlife “in the wild”. In late spring/early summer I see lots of birds, owls and butterflies right in my yard. Outside of my office window I have a Mimosa tree and it really attracts the various winged creatures. I’m not what I would consider a wildlife photographer but I do enjoy taking pictures of animals. This year I’ve been seeing lots of hummingbirds so I thought I’d try my luck at getting some hummingbird shots. I learned quickly that this kind of photography is a huge challenge and with this blog entry I’ll talk a bit about how I got my shots and the camera settings I used.

The first thing I knew I needed was a lot of light and a super high shutter speed. This was a great time to break out my High Speed Sync (HSS) capable flashes and my longest lens.

I started by picking a place where I could photography my hummingbirds without scaring them away. As luck would have it I have a Mimosa tree located just outside of my office window. The bright reddish purple color of the mimosa tree buds seem to really attract the hummingbirds. Luckily it’s located close enough to my office for me to point my camera through an open window without scaring the hummingbirds away.

Because I wanted a super high shutter speed and the stopping power of flash I used three high speed sync capable flashes. Two were set to slave mode and one was set to be my master (or triggering flash). All three flashes were set to maximum power (in manual mode). I mounted the master flash to my camera and the two slave flashes were mounted to the open window with LumoPro clip clamps. Here’s a look at how the slave flashes were mounted:

how I mounted my flashes

With my flashes mounted I proceeded to get my camera settings locked in. I put the camera into manual mode and set my ISO to 400, my shutter speed to 1/3000 of a second and my aperture to f5.6. My first test shots were a little dark so I dropped my shutter speed to 1/2000th of a second. At the lower shutter speed things were really looking good. Now that the camera was set it was time to wait for some hummingbirds to visit.

Before I get to the final shots I should mention that high speed sync is an incredible (hot-shoe mount) flash feature that lets you achieve shutter speeds far higher than you can normally use. I don’t want to go into a long technical description of high speed sync but I will share the short version.

Usually you need to be at to 1/250th of a second or slower to avoid having dark areas in the final image. This is because DSLR cameras use a curtain style shutter that passes in front of the sensor to achieve the correct exposure. The mirror flips out of the way and the curtain opens in front of the sensor (exposing the sensor) from top to bottom then closes from top to bottom. This type of shutter is what limits your flash sync speed to 1/250th or lower. High speed sync overcomes the problem by emitting a series of super fast bursts of flash to evenly illuminate the scene while the shutter curtain passes in front of the camera sensor. It’s totally cool but in order to work it has considerably less light output. That’s why I use multiple flashes (to increase the total light output during the series of flash bursts). By using two or three high speed sync flashes I’m able to use high shutter speeds in outdoor daylight but control the look with my flashes.

Now Back to the Fun Part

Waiting for the hummingbirds to fly up takes a lot of patience. Because I’m not using a feeder the hummingbirds are exploring the entire tree (and not just where I’m pointing my flashes). Eventually the hummingbirds do show up but the next challenge is getting your camera to focus on the little guys.

Hummingbirds are small and super fast. So fast that my auto-focus was really having a hard time locking in on them. Because I wanted the background to be out of focus (to help emphasize the hummingbirds) I waited until the hummingbirds were in a very specific place. If I had my focus locked on a hummingbird and it suddenly moved my camera would re-focus on the distant background (and my hummingbird ended up completely blurry). Here’s what my shots looked like when I was locked in on a hummingbird but it moved off of my focus reticle:

If you look just above and to the left of the center of the above image you can see the hummingbird that moved and caused my camera to re-focus on the background.

To solve this problem I started focusing on the flowers (which don’t move) and pressed the shutter release button when the hummingbirds got close to my in-focus flower.

With flash settings locked in, my camera setting where they needed to be and my focus technique figured out it was time to wait for some hummingbirds to fly up to my target flowers.

I managed to capture two or three shots that I really liked and a whole lot of average shots. This kind of photography is a huge challenge and I quickly learned that a few more flashes and a hummingbird feeder sure would have helped me out today.

Here’s a few of the hummingbird shots  I captured that I really  liked.

And that’s how I captured my hummingbird shots. Successfully capturing hummingbird shots is a challenge (especially in the wild) but it is possible. It just takes a few flashes and a whole lot of patience.

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