Executive Summary: Photographing hummingbirds is incredibly hard!
The hummingbird is the only bird in the world that can fly backwards. That in and of itself makes me like them. While I’ve photographed many birds, this is my first serious attempt at hummingbird photography. So prior to this expedition to Arizona, I did what I always do. I studied. The more you know about your subject, the more likely you are to be successful at making great images.
I had a lot to learn about hummingbirds and it so far has helped me get some nice starting shots.
Here are some random hummingbird facts. Hummingbirds flap their wings in a figure-8 pattern. They can flap their wings more than 50 times per second. They can’t walk because their feet are too small. Because of their fast metabolism, hummingbirds must feed approximately every 10 minutes. They can take in nourishment thanks to a fast tongue that licks 13 times a second.
Hummingbirds have great memories. They can remember where they fed years ago, and their movements help to pollenate flowers. (This particular fact is of great importance to photographers, because setting up feeders in advance of your shoot is key to bringing in enough birds to improve your chances.)
Their communication is almost exclusively by display, although they do make some sounds and have a number of unmusical calls. They get their name from the humming sound their fast-beating wings make.
Now did all this knowledge help me get great hummingbird shots? Not exactly. It sure got me in the game, but there’s much more to it. There’s a lot of skill (which requires practice and experience I don’t have) mixed in with a little luck – required to get great hummingbird shots. I got a few shots I am proud of but man oh man this is hard stuff.
I broke my trip down into two phases and stayed at two different lodges in the canyon. In this post, I’ll sum up what I learned in phase one of the trip. In tomorrow’s post I’ll conclude.
Thanks to Borrowlenses.com I had seven Canon flashes to work with but my main setup required between four and five. I used a series of stands and clamps to hold the flashes and backgrounds in place. Using paper backgrounds makes it much easier to position the flash so that you get a clean shot of the bird. Natural backgrounds are almost impossible to work with unless you’re just incredibly lucky.
Hummingbirds are remarkably tame, but they do like routines and have some of the same needs as all birds, including cover, perch and food source. In order to get my shots I positioned myself so that I would be able to provide all three. I also made sure that I worked in the shade. This made me and the birds more comfortable.
The place was Madera Canyon Arizona. South of Tucson and just 80 miles or so from the Mexican border, this is known as hummingbird central. The high hills and temperate climate attract the hummingbirds to this area. I saw as many as seven different species over a week’s time. Depending on the time of year (late April, early May is best) you may see more or less. I was able to photograph four or five different species.
Using feeders containing the water/sugar solution that hummingbirds eat – (they also eat insects) it was fairly easy to draw the birds in. But it is best to take a day or two to set the feeders up before trying to photograph hummingbirds. In fact, a week would be better. That way they get used to the feeders and are more comfortable coming into the area.
On phase one of the trip I stayed at Chuparosa Inn. It’s a lovely little bed and breakfast. I’m not a B&B kind of guy but the owners were friendly and they had minimal WI-FI and lots of birds. The problem at this place was actually too many birds – and that was because there were too many feeders. I am sure that bird watchers would consider this place a paradise, but as far as photography goes, it’s tough. I had poor luck there because the birds had too many feeders to choose from.
So lesson one. Set up multiple feeders in the general area you want to shoot in over a few days time and gradually withdraw them one at a time so there are only one or two left. This increases your chances of getting a bird to come to YOUR feeder – you know – the one you’ve carefully lit with a bunch of flashes!
The time spent during phase one of the trip was almost all educational. Translated – that’s when I made most of my mistakes. I did figure out what I was doing wrong but I didn’t get any shots at the feeders during this phase that I love. I did get some perched shots and one shot of a hummingbird on the nest.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll go into more detail about my setup and how the images were made.