Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

Before I get into my setups I thought I’d mention the species I photographed in Arizona. I got lots of broad-billed hummingbirds. I happen to think they are the prettiest of the North American species. There were also lots of black-chinned hummingbirds. The most skittish, and the hardest to find and photograph were the magnificent hummingbirds. They are really shy. I also got some blue throat hummingbirds. Down low in the canyon I got costas hummingbird.

Using your hand to gauge exposure is often the best way to make sure you are holding the highlights and have an exposure that’s even with the background.

In order to photograph these birds you’ll need to set up native plants and feeders in the area. It’s best to use the kind of feeder that doesn’t offer a perch. This increases the chances of getting shots of the birds in flight. You can use native flowers to disguise the perch.

Photo Courtesy of Robert O’Toole

You’ll need an abundance of c-clamps, articulating arms, light stands and dows to hold your backgrounds. A tripod with a gimbal head works best for me. You’ll also need flashes.

Don’t laugh – this was our practice bird. We used him to set up our lights and test exposure.

In case you’re wondering, the flashes don’t usually bother the birds one bit as long as you don’t overdo it. Also, it’s best to completely avoid using flash on hummingbirds that are sitting on a nest. This can overheat the bird. They run very close to the edge at all times so any extra heat can be damaging. For most birds, as in almost every other species, flash is NEVER a problem. But with hummingbirds, it’s more troublesome if they are nesting and a few species are spooked by the flash. So don’t overdo it.

Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

I made sure the flashes evenly lit the background. The camera is set to manual mode and the ISO is set according to conditions. Usually ISO 200 in sun – 400 in shade. The shutter speed should be set to the highest the camera allows when using flash. Usually 1/125 to 1/250 of a second. Consult your camera manual to find out which shutter speed your camera uses. Then stop down the aperture to somewhere between f/19 and f/22. Since I was pre-focusing on the edge of the feeder I needed lots of depth of field. After that, it’s like all other bird photography. Hurry up and wait. In Arizona you might see one bird an hour or hundreds. Unfortunately, they don’t come just because you want them to.

I have also been able to get the birds using autofocus on the 5d MK III. This is remarkable to me because I’ve never been able to get AF to work on something this small and fast.

A handheld light meter also comes in hand when setting the flash exposure.

It seems best to work with the background backlit. That way you can establish a shady place to sit and for the birds to perch. The males in particular don’t seem to like to come out into the sun since that makes them easier to spot. I used backgrounds ranging from poster board purchased at a local art store to painted backgrounds. It doesn’t really matter as long as it isn’t distracting.

Here’s a typical setup with our background and feeder.

On the second phase of the trip I switched to Quantum Q-flashes with Quantum battery packs. These worked MUCH better than the Canon flashes. They are larger light sources since they come with built in reflector cans and are therefor more forgiving. They are also more powerful, recycle faster and just seem to throw off a prettier quality of light. In most of the successful setups I only needed three flashes – occasionally I used four of the Quantums. They are more expensive than the Canon flashes but more versatile and I enjoyed them so much I’m going to use them in the future.

The overall setup…

Most of this boils down to patience. You have to be VERY patient – sometimes waiting an hour to see a bird. You have to be ready at all times and you have to be still and quiet. Most of the interns I’ve worked with can’t meet those criteria :) When the hummingbirds come in, you literally have a few seconds to get the shot. And you don’t get many second chances.

Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons

I was severely tasked during this shoot. I had no trouble getting the perched or nested birds, although this was more challenging than usual since these critters are so small. With perched and nesting birds, I used natural light. But the flight photography was really difficult and in my case, required multiple flashes. I have to try this again and again in order to get really good at it. But it was fun, and I did get some images I am proud of.

If you’re looking for a challenge, go find some hummingbirds. Bring your camera, lots of light and lots of patience and good luck.

I hope you enjoy the pictures and want to encourage you to give this a try yourself if you have any interest.


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