Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Typical Hummingbird Set Up

Hummingbird Photography

Photographing perched hummingbirds is one thing but photographing them flying is another story altogether. So I need a really, really fast shutter camera or shutter speed for photographing hummingbirds in flight. Right? No. Actually what you need is a really, really fast flash or better yet several flashes.

The best flashes for hummingbird photography are hotshoe flashes that have a manual setting that allows the power of the flash to be reduced to 1/16th power or less. Hotshoe flashes have the unique ability to shorten their flash duration as the power is lowered down. Most hotshoe flashes on 1/16th power have a flash duration of 1/5,000 of a second or faster. Studio flashes won’t work as well for hummingbirds in flight because they don’t work this way and the flash duration is too long to be effectively used for hummingbirds.

I use a Canon EOS camera so I stayed with that line when I purchased my flashes from KEH Camera. I purchased some Canon 540 EZ flashes. These flashes can be manually dialed down to 1/128th of a second though I set mine at 1/16th power.. There is a trade off however. In reducing the power of the flash you also reduce its effective range. At such a low power the flashes need to be placed under two feet or less from the hummingbird.

I use six flashes that are all placed less than two feet from the feeder spout. Two at 45 degree angles on the background. One flash above the subject and one below. The other two flashes are at 45 degree angles above and to the sides of the subject. They are aimed at a point about seven inches away from the feeder to catch the hummingbird when it backs up to take a break from feeding. A typical set up uses flowers placed close to or in front of the hummingbirds feeder spout. Often times I will also include flowers just behind the feeder as well.

I do my hummingbird photography in the shade. My yard has a lot of sun so I use an instant shade pop up that is 8 feet square. That way all of light is coming from my flashes and I’m not hindered much by ambient light. It’s also a pleasant place to photograph on a hot sunny day.

I mount all the flashes on light stands and old tripods and I trigger them using a wireless flash triggering system. There are a wide variety of triggering systems out there. I use Ishoot Snipers and they work really well.I purchased them from for a very reasonable cost.

Backgrounds of a wide variety and colors can be used. I place mine about four feet behind the feeder. Some photographers use a blow up of out of focus flowers as a backdrop. What ever you use make sure it is large enough to cover your area behind the feeder. My personal preference is an olive green backdrop made of painted Masonite hardboard.

Exposure is dependent upon the flashes and your cameras sync speed. Typically I use a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second at Fstops ranging from of F13 to F18. I prefer stopping down to keep the hummingbird in focus.

For focusing I manually prefocus on the tip of the hummingbird feeder with my camera on a tripod. Then I turn the camera so that it is pointed to an area with the feeder spout just out of the frame. The camera position is about six feet away from the feeder.

For lenses I use one of two telephotos. I use a Canon 100 to 300 IS or a Canon 100-400 IS. When using the 100-400 I use Kenko extension tubes so I can have a closer focusing distance.

To do hummingbird photography having a hummingbird feeder is critical. I put mine up in early spring filled with a mixture of plain white sugar mixed at a ratio of one part sugar to four parts tap water. I have about eight hummingbird feeders in my backyard. (You don’t need eight. One will do) When I photograph hummingbirds I take all of the down except for three of them under my shaded pop up. I use a single spout feeder to photograph. A multi spout feeder can be used. Just block off all the feeder spouts except one with tape.

With hummingbirds it is a bit of a waiting game. If you don’t use a blind you must sit as motionless as possible with your fingers on the shutter release. Wait for the hummingbird to begin feeding a few times before you start blasting away with the flashes. Start off slow and eventually they will get used to the flash. Usually the best time to click the shutter is when they back off from the feeder to rest a bit. Most hummingbirds do this. They will move forward and feed and then back off four to eight inches or so and hover there for several seconds before moving forward to feed again.
So put some gear together and go out and have some fun.
Happy Humming and God bless,