Given their extraordinary speed and maneuverability as well as their small size, flying hummingbirds are challenging to photograph. A high shutter speed is needed to get a good shot with minimal motion blur. But you also need ample light to keep your ISO low enough to avoid too much noise in your shot.
But what if you want to photograph hummingbirds in low light as was my situation? Even though Allen’s Hummingbirds are in my yard year-round, I couldn’t get good shots of them because my backyard has many shade trees. I needed a method to freeze the motion of these speedsters in low light without creating a shot with too much noise.
So I turned to off camera flashes. With multiple flashes, the flash stops the motion not the shutter speed. Moreover, by using multiple flashes, the ISO could be kept in the range from 100 – 400 hundred which would keep the noise down.
Therefore, an outdoor hummingbird studio set up with multiple flashes was a perfect solution for my backyard hummingbird photography. And ample shade turned out to be a bonus because shade is a necessity in reducing the natural light when using multiple flashes.
I’m writing this blog to share what I’ve learned about creating a backyard hummingbird studio because I'm now hooked on high speed multiple flash photography for hummingbirds. In this blog I'll describe the equipment I use and explain how to shoot and process these flying jewels with high speed flash photography. My methods are not the only ones; I'm writing this as a starting point for you to get inspiration.
A Backyard Hummingbird Studio
A backyard hummingbird studio has the following elements:
Hummingbirds in a Shady Setting
The more you learn about your subject, the easier it is to anticipate its behavior and capture expressive images. And hummingbirds are truly fascinating as they have unique characteristics.
No bird can more precisely control the change in their directional movement in mid-air as precisely as a hummingbird. These tiny flying gems are the only true hoverers who can remain in place as long as they wish. Unlike other birds who “wind hover” by flying into the wind at a speed equal to the wind, hummingbirds use their strength to hover. When hovering, they move their wings in a shallow figure-eight pattern (with the “eight” lying on its side). 30% of a hummingbird's weight consists of flight muscles – the most powerful muscles per unit mass of any vertebrate.
By means of their mobile shoulder joints and flight muscles, they generate lift on both the backward and forward strokes giving them the unique ability to fly backwards and even upside down!
They are the smallest flying vertebrate. Allen’s Hummingbirds, who frequent my backyard, are just 9 cm or 3.75 inches weighing 2 grams or 0.1 ounces. As a point of reference, a penny weighs 2.5 grams.
Hummingbirds beat their wings incredibly fast – from 20 to 80 beats per second. They fly an average of 25-30 miles per hour and dive up to 60 miles per hour.
To support the rapid beating of their wings, hummingbirds must expend a lot of energy. They have the highest metabolism in the animal kingdom. To meet their energy demands, they feed every 10 – 15 minutes eating small soft bugs for protein, lapping up nectar from flowers, or drinking sugar water from feeders.
Hummingbirds are very smart: a hummingbird’s brain is 4.2% of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom. They can remember every flower they have been to and how long it will take a flower to refill.
This need for continual nourishment makes them very protective of their food sources. They will perch high near flowers or feeders and pursue other hummingbirds. Male hummingbirds, especially Allen Hummingbirds which live in my backyard, are very aggressive and will chase off competitors from the yard. Even though hummingbirds will fight using their bills as weapons and will bump chests mid-air, they are rarely injured during fights.
Despite their needing to feed a lot, hummingbirds spend most of their life perching. They like to perch on very small branches or wires up high so they can observe other hummingbirds entering their territory. Their feet are very small and weak, so they never walk – they must fly from place to place.
Hummingbirds bathe several times a day. You can get wonderful shots of them in garden fountains or playing in the sprinklers.
If you don’t already have hummingbirds in your yard, you will need to attract them. They are drawn to the color red and tubular types of flowers. Grow flowers that appeal to hummingbirds such as Chinese Lantern, Aloe Vera, Columbine, Bottlebrush, Fuchsia, Honeysuckle, Pride of Madeira, or Sage. Put up several feeders and filled with sugar water. The recipe is easy – one part sugar to four parts water.
Once you have a yard with hummingbirds, you then need to find a spot in the shade for your studio. When you fire multiple flashes, shade is needed to overpower the surrounding light so the flash, not the shutter speed, controls the motion. If you have too much ambient light, your shot may have wing ghosting which is multiple images of the same wing.
The more shade you have, the easier it is to block natural light. With very little ambient light, quick and simultaneous flashes can freeze the motion of the wings of the hummingbird in flight.
Your proximity or movement is another consideration for the location of your outdoor studio. Some hummingbirds are more skittish than others. Allen’s Hummingbirds, the ones that frequent my backyard, do not like movement, so I needed a place where I could easily hide. My kitchen turned out to be the perfect place.
I could use my kitchen as a blind and shoot through the kitchen window onto the shaded patio. When I darkened my kitchen as much as I could, turned off all the lights and covered the windows, the Allen’s Hummingbirds had more difficulty seeing me or my camera through the window. My window is low, so I could shoot seated behind the kitchen table, which obscures most of my body. To hide the movement of my hands, I could throw a cloth over the barrel of my lens.
Not only do hummingbirds dislike movement, they also do not like the clicking sound of the camera. I think it’s because it sounds similar to the sound of another hummingbird. Shutting all the windows and doors other than the window I’m shooting through helped to muffle the sound of my camera.
A Camera, Lens, and Tripod
Most any 35 mm digital SLR camera will work for high speed flash photography. Just make sure to use a camera that is compatible with your wireless triggers. The camera I use is a Canon 1D Mark IV.
I shoot hummingbirds in my backyard for long periods of time with a heavy lens, so I find hand holding too tiring for my outdoor studio. Therefore, I use a tripod. Most any reasonable tripod will be suffice as long as its strong enough to hold the camera and lens. Vibration of the tripod legs shouldn’t be a problem because of the short flash durations. I use a Gitzo Carbon Fiber Tripod which is very stable and versatile for the heavy lens I use.
Because hummingbirds move so fast, you need to be able to track them quickly. Gimbal tripod heads allow rapid and smooth adjustments of the lens in any direction. Any gimbal-style tripod head should be fine. I use a Wimberley II Gimbal Head.
Many hummingbirds, especially juveniles, are accepting and tolerate of people photographing them from a close range. But I find that most hummingbirds are not as trusting. I use two lenses for hummingbird photography: the 400 mm 5.6 lens for handheld shots and the 500 mm 4.0 for tripods. Both give enough distance from the hummingbird not to frighten it by your proximity. And both of these lenses are prime lenses, which are sharper than zoom lenses.
I usually couple a 36mm Kenko Extension Tube with my lenses. Extension tubes enable the lens to focus closer than its normal set minimum focusing distance. By adding an extension tube, I can fill a significant part of the frame with the world’s tiniest birds while also capturing its fine feather details.
Multiple flashes with a Way to Trigger Them
I already owned a Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash and I chose to add 430EX II Speedlites. They are compatible with my camera and the Phottix Odin Flash Trigger. They have fast recycle time and are dependable. I am now using six flashes in all.
Most any light stand will do. I use the Westcott 8-Feet Lightweight Stands – one for each flash unit. You can use fewer if you attach more than one flash to a light stand.
I put spring clamps on some of the light stands and use the clamp’s built-in ballhead to position the flash exactly where I want it. I use the Manfrotto Justin Spring Clamp with Flash Shoe. Its ballhead allows directional placement of a flash in a multitude of configurations. It’s also strong enough to easily support large, heavy flashes like the 580EX II and it’s great for mounting multiple flashes on a single light stand.
Wireless Triggers and Receivers
I use the Phottix Odin wireless TTL flash trigger system that operates via radio frequency. I mount a Phottix Odin Flash Transmitter Control Unit on my camera and mount each flash on a Phottix Odin Receiver. The Phottix Odin wireless triggers and receivers are simple to use and work at a great distance without requiring line of sight.
Batteries and Chargers
AA batteries are required for the transmitter, receiver, and flashes. I use rechargeable batteries. You need six batteries for each flash/receiver unit and two for the transmitter. I put in fresh batteries when I recharge my old ones. If you have several 12 bay chargers, you can charge all of the batteries at once.
Artificial Background, Flowers, and Feeder
One of the best ways to eliminate distracting elements in the background is to create an artificial background. It’s easy to do. Just photograph some flowers out of focus, add a Gaussian blur in Photoshop, and then make some prints.
Because the largest paper I could fit in the printer was 13 x 19 inches that was the size I printed. The size of this background is small, which in turn necessitates precise positioning in the set up. A background 18 x 24 inches or larger would have been better so I would have had more wiggle room with the placement behind the hummingbird.
I only had glossy paper when I made my prints. Matte paper would have been better than glossy because it’s not as reflective. When I use one of these glossy prints, I have to reposition my flashes on the background because sometimes I get glare which creates hot spots. Both the small size as well as the glossy paper makes it take more time for me to set up my background.
I use a music stand to hold my artificial background, so I don’t need to add a backing. But if you clamp your background to a light stand, you will need to make it rigid by taping or gluing them to foam board or a thin piece of plywood.
There are many other options for making a background:
You might want to add more depth to your background by adding flowering plants in front of the artificial background. Position the plants at a distance from the feeder so that it will create a pleasing bokeh.
Flowers and hummingbirds are a beautiful combination. Add flowers to your hummingbird shots to create more interest. Hummingbirds prefer tubular types of flowers. If you don’t have any tubular flowers in your garden, I find Alstroemeria from the supermarket are inexpensive, readily available, and large enough to hide a tube feeder.
I like to use Flower Pot One Tube Hummingbird Feeder because I can hide the tube with flowers. I attach the tube to a Wimberley PP-200 Plamp II which is clamped to a small table. I use a second Plamp to hold the flowers. The Plamp makes it possible to adjust the position or angle of the feeder tube as well as the flower. Flowers can also be taped to the tube.
Set-up Procedure and Processing
Insert charged batteries into the camera, transmitter, receivers, and flashes.
With the camera off, attach the Odin transmitter to the hot shoe of your camera and lock with the locking mechanism. Turn on the transmitter and then turn on the camera. Set the transmitter to TTL, Manual, 1/32 power, Channel 1
Turn off the flashes and the Phottix Odin receivers. Attach each receiver to the top of the flash stands or to the Justin Spring Clamps/flash stand combinations. Attach each flash to the shoe on top of each of the Odin receivers and lock with the locking mechanisms. Set each Odin receiver to channel 1 and assign each receiver to group A.
Turn on each receiver and then turn on each flash. Using the back of the flashes, set each flash to manual mode with 1/32 power.
Your Phottix Odin has a button to test if all of your flashes are firing.
Take down all other feeders in your yard other than the one you will be photographing.
I use a small table for my feeder and flowers. Attach the clamp end of a Plamp to the table and have the other end hold the wire of the Flower Pot One Tube Hummingbird Feeder. Using a second Plamp, attach the clamp end to the table and insert a flower in the other end. You could also hide the test tube feeder with a flower taped to it. Arrange the test tube feeder and flower so that the flower hides the test tube.
I have not yet perfected a method for hiding the test tube feeder with flowers and sometimes have to clone out a portion of the feeder in Photoshop.
Put the artificial background 3 – 6 feet behind the feeder. If you are using a small background, you can use one flash. A larger background will need two flashes for even lighting. If you are using one flash, position the flash about two feet away from the artificial background aimed at the middle. Or, if you are using two flashes, position them on either side of the background and aim each so each covers 2/3 of the background.
I sometimes use a stuffed hummingbird to pre-focus and check the placement of the flashes. The hummingbird I use was purchased Touch of Nature on Amazon. I use a Pamp to hold the it in place.
Four or more flashes will give good lighting and stop motion. Place one overhead and behind the bird. Place two more in front on the level of the target area for the bird and camera at approximately 45 degrees from each side at about 18 inches from the hummingbird. Have one flash in front of and lower than the feeder. Aim it toward at the gorget.
To adjust the amount of light coming from the flashes, move the light stands closer or further away from the target.
Use autofocus and set your lens’ limit-range switch to the near-range setting so you can acquire focus quickly. Use back button focus and front button trigger; single shot, AI SERVO (continual tracking), and single center focusing.
Shoot manually. My preferred aperture is f/22, however you can shoot as wide as f/16.
Remember that the flash stops motion not the shutter speed, so I set my shutter speed at 1/160. You want to freeze the wings and a faster flash speed, like a faster shutter speed, will freeze motion better. Wing blur means that ambient light is present, the flash is not set fast enough, or that it is not synchronized. I set the flash speed at 1/32 to freeze wing motion.
To avoid noise, shoot as low as you can preferably below 400.
I usually set my ISO at 200. I use the ISO as well as the f/stop for exposure control. If the shot is still too bright, I move the flash further away or closer, if the shot is too dark.
Shoot in Camera Raw and make adjustments in Lightroom or Photoshop. Remove all but one of the multiple highlights in the eye by using the spot removal tool in Lightroom or the clone stamp or patch tool in Photoshop. Also remove any part of the feeder that is showing by using similar techniques.
I hope you found this blog useful for your hummingbird high speed photography. Like me, you may become hooked especially when you see the fine definition you get in your photographs.
I greatly appreciate all of the people who take the time to comment. Thank you!
All the best ~ Patricia