Some of the most beautiful photos that I’ve taken have been of Hummingbirds in flight. Hummingbirds not only have brilliant iridescent colors, but they are also attracted to the nectar of lovely flowers. This combination, Hummingbirds and flowers, makes for one gorgeous shot.
Many people use flash photography to capture Hummingbirds; however, I like to travel light with little equipment. I also prefer to handhold my camera for flight shots. I can track the Hummingbird more easily and even quickly move to a nearby location which I can do if I don’t have to pick up and move a tripod. So this blog will describe how I take photographs of Hummingbirds in the wild without the use of a flash.
Know your Subject:
Hummingbirds migrate and are more abundant during certain times of the year. They also are attracted to certain flowers. Lists of these flowers are found on the Internet. Research which flowers attract Hummingbirds and go to places that have those flowers when they are blooming and Hummingbirds are around. In Southern California, for example, Huntington Beach Central Park is known for its Hummingbirds in spring when the Pride of Madeira is blooming. The Los Angeles Arboretum also gets a large population of Hummers when the Salvia and the Aloe are blooming.
Photographers flock to both of these public gardens when Hummingbirds are migrating. But you can also find these small hovering birds in less crowded spots such as pocket parks where the same types of flowers grow. I prefer these smaller areas for I often have them to myself.
I use a Canon 1D Mark iv to take my Hummingbird shots. When a Hummingbird is near, I can take many as 10 frames per second. Other photographers prefer taking one shot in an effort not to scare the Hummingbirds. They really do not like the sound of the click of the camera.
My preferred lens for these wee ones is a Canon 400mm 5.6 prime lens. It’s very sharp and I can stand at a good distance from the Hummer and still get a close-up. The 400 is light enough for me to maneuver quickly and for long periods of time.
Once you are proficient in taking shots with a telephoto lens, you might want to add an extension tube so you can get really close. I sometimes add a 36 mm Kenko extension tube. Kenko tubes are less expensive than the Canon tubes and are just as effective.
Extension tubes don't magnify the telephoto end of your lens, like a teleconverter would. Extension tubes just allow you to get closer to the Hummingbird. In other words, you can fill the more of the frame with this tiny bird while still achieving focus. Image quality is retained and only a bit of light is lost. As long as you’re using tubes with full electronic contacts, another advantage is no slowdown in Autofocus. If you want more full-frame shots, use an extension tube.
In a previous blog post, I discussed my camera settings for birds in flight. These same settings hold true for smaller birds in flight such as Hummingbirds. I shoot in Camera RAW using Autofocus and Manual exposure. I expose for the bird, not the background.
Aperture: I leave my camera with my 400mm lens at its largest aperture, which is 5.6.
ISO: I want to greatest shutter speed I can have without creating too much noise. Springtime in Southern California is often overcast with white skies and moisture in the air, so I need to use a high ISO. It’s usually 1000, but I will venture to 1250, 1600 or even higher if need be.
Shutter Speed: My preferred shutter speed is 2500 and higher to freeze the wings. However, if the day is dark, then I will reduce my shutter speed to 1000.
Once I have arrived at a location where Hummingbirds feed, I place myself in the best lighting position and try to hide from the birds as best I can. That usually means standing or sitting very still in the shadows. A Walkstool, a lightweight, folding stool, is great stable seat for this downtime. If there is a bush or tree nearby, I will use it as a hide. I patiently wait and enjoy my surroundings. I have pre-focused where I think the bird will be and then when the Hummer is in a good position for a shot, I aim at the center of the bird and blast away. It’s easy to get an in focus shot when the Hummingbird is feeding, but it’s very difficult if they are flying to or from the flower.
Because I shoot in camera RAW, I need to adjust my settings in Lightroom or Photoshop. I use Neat Image for Noise Reduction. I often make two Layers, one for the background and one for the bird, masking out the background. I will apply more noise reduction to the background than the bird, where I want to bring out the detail. In fact, i usually use Tonal Contrast from Nik to bring out even more detail in the bird.
With practice you can get wonderful shots of these tiny flying jewels.
All the best ~ Patricia
Here is my gallery of Hummingbirds. I have even more to add - it's a work in progress. I hope you enjoy the shots!