One thing I can pretty much promise: hummingbird photography never gets old. After more than 600,000 images, I am still enchanted, challenged, excited, and, at times, disappointed. I learn something about myself, my techniques, my gear, and even the birds, every single time I shoot.
Hummingbirds are wonderful to photograph for many reasons. They are inherently beautiful subjects that require flattering lighting and good fieldcraft. They are widespread across the Americas and will test the reflexes and reaction time of any photographer. Furthermore, they lend themselves to many different photographic techniques—close-up, telephoto, high-speed, low-speed, video, remote-controlled, even time-lapse.
I tend to specialize in photographing hummingbirds in flight, utilizing somewhat exotic apparatus and advanced techniques. I am a naturalist and an electronic engineer—a nerdy problem-solver who loves technical challenges. While I do often use customized gear, I have also spent thousands of hours making images with just a modicum of equipment, much of it consumer-level. It’s fun, and the resultant images can be exquisite. Give it a try and I think you'll find that too.
Observation and Preparation are Everything
Before you set about trying to capture images of hummingbirds, spend a lot of time simply observing them. Knowing your subject is one of a bird photographer’s main assets; I promise this will be productive use of your time. Erect a feeder (or 10), and plant a lot of hummingbird-friendly flowers. (You can find them for your area using Audubon’s native plants database.) Create some nice perches near the feeders where the birds will roost.
As you watch them, note the birds’ patterns of behavior so you can predict what they might do when you start to photograph them. Hummingbirds tend to be quite routine in their habits—especially where they perch. Follow them around with binoculars; you will discover their favorite hangouts and whether those hangouts are amenable to good light and composition. If you don’t disturb their routine, you can use it to your advantage. Hummingbirds are fast and fearless. They quickly become accustomed to the presence of gear like a tripod and camera and ignore it—in fact, they often perch (and poop!) on it.
At various times during the season, their plumage will be at its prime, and both males and females will exhibit ferocious territorialism. Peak season is late March through August in terms of numbers, and March sees the males in their best condition. They are beautiful and nasty. I have images of hummingbirds that have been impaled by the beaks of others. (Seriously.) Multiple feeders spread out at least 15 feet apart will reduce the occurrence of feeder “owners” or “bullies.”
Experiment with Perched Birds
The best way to learn hummingbird photography is by photographing perched birds. Practice on birds at a feeder, experimenting with the camera-to-subject distance, framing, exposure, and even behavior. Take that experience and follow them to where they perch near the feeder. These images can be much more visually interesting.
If you have an entry-level SLR with a kit lens, you can still get great close-up shots of hummingbirds—all you need is a wireless remote control for your camera. I’ve found cheap, Chinese wireless remotes to be incredibly useful, specifically those that use AA or AAA batteries. Be sure you get a model that is compatible with the remote socket of your camera. Gradually (over a few hours) set your gear up near a favored perch and use the remote to fire the camera from some distance—perhaps even sitting in your house while you drink a beer.
It is amazing how quickly hummingbirds become accustomed to the presence of a camera and tripod. It took about three days to set up the tripod, then the camera, then the lens in the image above. In the end, the hummingbird would completely ignore the sound of the camera taking numerous images. As you can see, with the subject this close the depth of field is very small, so getting his eyes sharp took many shots, as he would perch at different locations along the pole.
Obsess Over the Lighting
Photography is all about light. With hummingbirds, it is no different. My two main concerns are the subject's welfare and light—everything else is secondary. Open shade is ideal for photographing hummingbirds for two reasons: There are no harsh shadows and no specular highlights, or bright spots of light.
If you Google hummingbird images, you’ll find a million of them with blown-out specular highlights. Why? Iridescence. Most hummingbird feathers exhibit metallic characteristics dependent upon the angle of the feather to the observer. (It has nothing to do with the angle of incident light!) Anything metallic will produce specular highlights if lit with a small or hard light source. So soft light is essential to creating aesthetic images of hummingbirds, whether sunlight or flash. This cannot be over emphasized, and I spend the majority of my setup time dealing with how to create the highest quality of light I can.
If you do opt for flash, striving for soft light becomes even more important. Most people use Speedlites of some type to freeze motion and/or to provide fill or even key light. Speedlites are tiny sources of light, so they produce harsh shadows and specular highlights. Soften them with small softboxes or diffusion of some kind. This simple step will make your images stand out from the others.
Opt for High-Quality Gear
Long glass always helps, so aim to get what you can afford. Long focal length lenses provide greater isolation from the background, so the photographer can be further from the subject. This lends itself to excellent action-photography practice. Fast AutoFocus (AF) is not too important for perched birds, however it becomes so as you migrate from perched to in-flight shots. The better the AF performance, the more keepers. AF is one of the few areas where more expensive cameras will produce markedly better results than cheaper ones. The tracking capability of the Canon 1Dx Mk II is simply phenomenal. I have discussed this with Canon technical folks, and they agree that hummingbirds provide probably the greatest test for an autofocus system—they are small, fast, erratic, and entirely unpredictable.
Pay Attention to Ethics
I share the mindset of the truly great bird photographers, such as Tom Mangelson, Melissa Groo, Melyssa St. Michael, and Tin Man Lee, who will never, ever compromise or impact their subjects in the pursuit of a good image. The welfare of birds is fundamental to their approach, and photographs are secondary. I have heard of photographers netting hummingbirds, letting them loose in white-walled studios, in cages, and even bedrooms. This rarely ends well for the bird. While hummingbirds are fearless, they are also fragile due to their high metabolic rate. They are susceptible to stress and exhaustion. For me, the fun is the challenge of doing my photography in a way that has no impact on the birds at all. None. I am not interested in coercing or cajoling my subjects just for an image.
Some might argue that setting up feeders impacts hummingbirds’ behavior, however hummers have become so accustomed to feeders that they have adapted to detect them and use them. It is important to know that hummingbirds do not become dependent upon feeders—sure, they make feeding a little more convenient, but hummers will cover several square miles looking for flowers with nectar and insects, no matter how many feeders are around. I like to keep my sugar solution at around 20 percent (1 part sugar, 4 parts water by volume) as flower nectar tends to be closer to 24-25 percent. This keeps the flowers preferential.
Feeding hummingbirds mandates some responsibility. Sugar water degenerates quickly, promoting both bacterial growth and the harboring of harmful diseases. Cleanliness is paramount, so change the water at least weekly in cooler weather and every three days when it is hot. In the summer, it is rare for any of my feeders to last more than two days before the birds have drunk them dry.
Photographing hummingbirds is challenging. Start slow and easy (perched, via remote photography) and then progress. Understand your subjects and your techniques—then you will see that your images are already differentiated from most others. Keep lighting soft, and practice, practice, practice.
Roy Dunn has been a wildlife photographer for 30 years, specializing in high-speed flash and macro photography. His hummingbird and high-speed work have been exhibited across the United States.