How to Catch A Hummingbird
When spring and summer give us a mind-boggling number of potential photo subjects it’s sometimes difficult to narrow down the field and concentrate on a particular thing. If one of your interests is in capturing images of wild birds and would like to concentrate on hummingbirds either to add to your files or just figure out how to capture images you can be proud of, stay with me.
Digital cameras allow us a lot of flexibility when trying to capture fast-moving subjects. High speed flash has been the standard solution and still is for many subjects but with adjustable ISO settings it is now quite easy to get a shot that in the past required an elaborate set up. Finding an open shady place with room for multiple flashes, some on light stands; floral arrangements with a hummingbird feeder, a suitable background and possibly a commercial or at least homemade backdrop; as well as a spot for you and your camera with long lens on a tripod and perhaps in a blind can be difficult not to mention a little intimidating. Expensive comes to mind as well. Such a set up can yield excellent images. It’s hard to argue with the consistent lighting and framing that can result from all of this attention to detail. Let’s make this a little easier.
Using the sun as the primary light source, high ISO settings and fill flash we have had no difficulty in capturing great hummingbird images. This evolved out of a desire to be able to photograph multiple subjects quickly with no inhibition of spontaneity and to take advantage of the almost limitless sunny days here in the mountains of southern Colorado. So, how does this work?
Broad-tailed Hummingbird by Larry Kimball. Nikon D2X, focal length 500mm, f8 at 1/8000, ISO 1600
We have used both the Nikon 200-400 f4 (what a sweet lens this is, sometimes Barb lets me use it) and the Nikon 500 f4 lenses on either the Nikon D2x or D300 cameras. Both cameras work quite well with the nod going to the D300 for virtually noise free images at 1000 or even 1200 ISO. The D2x can’t match that but does pretty good up to ISO 640 and with noise reduction software we get great results up to ISO 1600. I like the 500 f4 for it’s great working distance (I usually set up about 16 to 18 feet from target), speed and magnification. Coupled with a 1.4 teleconverter, although not always necessary will give you tighter framing on the subject. A gimbal head or Wimberly Sidekick will make catching a bird in a good spot far easier. Using a large lens on a ball head is doable but is a lot harder to control. If you are serious about any kind of wildlife photography upgrading to a more usable lens mounting system is a must. The Sidekick is nice in that it’s light, portable and allows your tripod to be used for other lenses. Don’t despair if you don’t have a long lens, a reasonably fast 300mm will work but some kind of blind will be necessary because you will have to be closer to the birds.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird, by Larry Kimball. Nikon D2X, focal length 500mm, f8 at 1/2500, ISO 640
A garden area which contains many plants hummers use will greatly improve chances of good bird photos. We have a xeriscape garden of necessity (it’s dry here!) and we use container plants to add interesting blossoms that otherwise could not be grown in this area. Don’t forget the feeders that will keep them around the garden. This is the “studio”, it gives us a defined space in which to work and then it’s up to us to use the opportunities as they are presented. With the morning sun (afternoon light is good as well) at our back and a suitable flash mounted off camera we are now ready to go. In strong light a flash will be diminished so a flash extender is useful and is good to have in any case as it will give 2 to 3 additional stops of light. We have used the Better Beamer for a number of years. Using a flash that has a high-speed sync setting will allow the use of shutter speeds of at least 1/2000 of a second which will in many cases be sufficient to stop bird and wing motion, the faster the better. Faster will give you more opportunity to stop down and get more depth of field. A slightly blurred wing is sometimes even more pleasing to the eye because we see the birds that way in flight. If you live in a place with more cloud cover than sun you may not get the results we do, although some newer digital cameras have useful ISO settings that are much higher than those we now use. With camera capabilities improving at almost light speed, good noise reduction software is still a very good idea, Noiseware, Topaz DeNoise, Dfine are examples and there are many more. Experiment! I go from high ISO to low depending on what a given bird is doing, a perched hummer doesn’t need a lot of speed to get a good image and it certainly won’t require a high ISO.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird by Larry Kimball. Nikon D2X, focal length 500mm, f4 at 1/8000, ISO 640
Be prepared to spend some time refining your own methods as well as waiting for THE moment not to mention that you may get addicted to just watching these aerial acrobats go about their daily lives. That in my book makes it all worth while.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird by Larry Kimball. Nikon D300, focal length 500mm, f5.6 at 1/2000, ISO 1000