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on Jun 23, 2009 in Biological Tips

Just Humming Along

Reprinted from the BT Journal, Issue 3, August 2002

Hummingbird © Moose PetersonWhile sitting at the breakfast nook at my aunts when I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old, I noticed this miniature nest just outside the window. As I ate my cereal, this tiniest of birds would buzz into the nest, feeding an even smaller mouth, gaping wide open. And then in a heartbeat the little bird would buzz away. I sat enthralled that morning while watching this small miracle of life! Later that same day as I played in the garden, I saw a flash of red that is still burned into my memory as it darted from flower to flower and then away, being chased by another flash of red. My love affair with hummingbirds goes back much further than my love affair with photography. But as you’ll see, these two passions most certainly did merge together!

Hummingbirds are a New World species so you will only find them in the Americas. There are approximately 18 species of hummingbirds in the US (depending on how you count them) with really only one dependable species “east” of the Mississippi and all the rest in the “west”. (Of course, these are birds with wings so they can show up wherever they choose!) They range as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and as far south as you might want to travel. They are a challenge that most Journal readers can enjoy!

“I’ve never photographed so difficult a subject before!” “How can something so small move so fast and be so hard to focus on?” “Even with all the images I threw away, I’ve never felt so satisfied before than with the images that turned out!” These are just a few of the comments from participants from my recent Arizona Bird Safari where we spent a lot of time, photographing hummingbirds. It’s a perfect example where, even when shooting with the newest of technologies, you must rely on good old basics to capture the image! Photographing hummingbirds to me means either photographing them at the nest or when they are feeding. Because of their biology/life style, there really is no middle ground. Let me share with you my love and fascination with what are properly called, the Jewels of the bird world!

Faster than the Shutter!

One of the “fun” things about photographing hummers is seeing all the blank images you manage to capture. You can literally fire off roll after roll of images only to capture empty space. If you’re shooting conventional, this stings because it’s money lost, but not so with digital. The point is that these little jewels fly so fast that you can literally focus on them, depress the shutter and when you view the image, they’re gone; you’ve captured nothing! This is truly the main problem we have in photographing hummingbirds, stopping them!

I’m sure if you’re like most you’ve looked at the photos before reading this piece. If so you should have a sense of how I prefer to photograph hummingbirds. I personally like to let their wings blur in my photos because that’s exactly how I see them, in action, a blur. I don’t like hummer shots where the wings are frozen in time. Capable of beating up to 70-75 beats per SECOND, I think it’s an injustice to the very essence of the hummingbird to freeze its wings. The techniques I’m going to describe pertain to not freezing the wing beats, but rather letting them blur so as to capture on film what it is to be a hummingbird.

Getting Them in Front of the Lens

This has got to be the biggest challenge, getting these little fellows to hold still in front of your lens! When attempting to photograph hummers, most photographers head out to the garden where they see them feeding and then try to ambush them. Following hummers about in a garden is real unproductive because they move not just because you move, but because other hummers chase them. While this is not the most productive of methods it’s on the right path!

I don’t know of any way of photographing hummers without the use of feeders. Where flower blossoms are the ultimate method, any given flower blossom has an average life of a week or less. That’s not very dependable for our purposes especially since part of that time the blossom is less than photogenic! Feeders are 24/7, 365 day food sources that hummers and you can depend on. This means that you need to start this whole process by hanging some feeders. (Please note the plural here in feeders!)

The first thing you need to determine is whether where you live (or where you want to photograph hummers) even has hummingbirds. There are many ways of doing this from contacting local Audubon chapters, bird feeding stores and the web just to mention a few. There are very few regions in North America that don’t have hummers at some time of the year. Some folks are very fortunate and have hummers all year round. Where we live, we have them for a very short 3-4 month period during the summer. In some regions you need to be sure to pull in your feeders so the hummers will migrate in the winter whereas in other regions you can leave them out all year.

Once you know about the general time the hummers are in your area, you need to get the feeders and have them out. Since filling feeders is a weekly matter, I look for feeders that are easy to clean and extremely well made. My current preference is the BEST-1 Feeders. (We have the 32oz models even though we only put in two cups of sugar water at a time.) These feeders are real easy to clean and fill, which makes the chore just that much more pleasant to do. You fill the feeder with plain old sugar water at a ratio of 4 to 1, 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. You don’t need any food coloring, as this has been shown to cause little growths to occur on the hummers’ bills, which can be fatal. With a filled feeder in hand, next you need to put it out.

This believe it or not is kind of tricky. There are a few criteria you need to consider when putting out your feeder. First is a place that will attract the hummers. This must include places for the hummers to perch nearby and keep an eye on the feeder as well as feel safe. Keep in mind that the more feeders you have out, the more hummers you’ll have. As a general rule, each feeder will typically have one male that dominates and defends the feeder. This male will often change but there tends to be just the one, pain in the butt that tries to drive off all the other hummers! While this is the theory, it doesn’t work all that well.

When you have more than one feeder, you’ll have more than one dominant male. In our case, we have 3 feeders, two relatively close to each other and the third at an opposite corner of the house. These three feeders have 3 dominant males that are constantly trying to fend away another dozen male and female hummers. We have a total of about 15 hummers and while the dominant male is off chasing one hummer, two others will come in to feed. That’s why I say that more feeders are better. It brings in more hummers, which naturally increases your odds of getting the shot!

The other consideration for placement of the feeder is photographic. There are two main photo ops we’re working towards, flight shots and feeding shots. Both of these require that we consider the backgrounds of our photographs. You will more than likely move your feeders more than once in your effort of finding the best locale to hang it. What you’re going to need to do is watch the feeder to determine the hummers’ flight path and activity levels. These will vary by time of year and time of day. With this variance is added different light on the background, which is why you’ll probably move your feeders about.

You’re looking for a background that is dim to dark as well as green. You don’t want a pitch black background but it needs to be dark enough to make the subject pop while not lowering your shutter speed below 1/60 (I’ll explain why momentarily). A very common background is a potted plant that you can move into place when you’re shooting. In many situations this can be the easiest solution. If you have the space, then finding shadows that naturally occur at the time of day when you’ll most likely be shooting is desired.

One trap many photographers fall into is setting up feeders with busy backgrounds. Since we’re shooting in the backyard, which is full of shrubs, plants and forbs, brown branches, twigs and leaves abound. It’s so easy to not “see” these photo killers until you get the images back on the light table (either real or virtual). You must force yourself to see the background, all the bad as well as good to be successful. This must include plants with drops on them from the sprinklers, which create specular highlights. These bright spots caused by the water drops in the background can kill a great photo. These little details plus a hundred others are what you must run through your mind’s eye when you place your feeder.

The last thing to keep in mind in this hanging process is what our photographic goal happens to be. We’re not working towards photographing the hummers at the feeder, but rather when they’re coming into the feeder to feed or to a flower we place near the feeder. The feeder serves just as a way of getting the hummers to one place the vast majority of the time on a regular basis.

(One side note: At one of my feeders, which is quite a distance from any type of perch, I literally attached a perch to the side of the office. This is where the dominant male can perch and watch “his” feeder. This just makes the hummers come more often to the feeder in a predictable manner so I can photograph them.)

Hummingbird photography is probably the one and only time I would tell photographers they need patience. You need to have patience in waiting for your feeder to become busy. You need at least two if not three hummers using your feeder to really be productive. You can shoot with just one hummer, but you’ll have a lot of down time between feedings, which can get real old and hard in fleeting light. You also need to be patient with yourself and your photography. No matter how proficient you might think you are technically or photographically, you will find like the participants on my AZ bird safari that hummingbirds are the hardest subjects to photograph.

Hummingbird Flight Photography

Ah. this is when the fun begins! I guess we should start with lens selection. The biggest variable here that you need to get a handle on for yourself is working distance. Working distance affects both your image size and flash output.

Lens Working Distance

When it comes to image size, each of us will have a personal preference on just how large we want the hummer to be in the frame. A good rule of thumb requires you to use your thumb. Your thumb is the average size of a hummer so by focusing on someone’s thumb (unless you have really long arms), you can predetermine how physically close you need to be to the hummer to get the image size you desire. If you have problems getting the image size you want, you have a couple of options.

The first option is a totally different lens. I personally have two options I prefer, depending on the feeder location, the 600f4AFS w/TC-14e 1.4x or 300f4AFS. Both of these lenses offer me the angle of view as well as the minimum focusing distance I like for my style of shooting. You could also think of them in this way. I use the 300f4AFS in situations where the hummer and I have some sort of rapport so getting close physically and shooting is not a problem. The 600f4/1.4 combo is for those situations where I don’t have that rapport with the hummers. It could also be because I have a dominant male who is driving us all nuts and preventing hummers from coming in with ease. You might have noticed both of these lenses are AFS and assumed that fast autofocus is a critical part of hummingbird photography. As I’ll explain momentarily, we turn the AF off and fast manual focus is essential to photographing hummers. While AFS lenses are not required, they do help in being able to focus close.

The next option for image size is using a teleconverter. There is a plus and a minus to using teleconverters for image size. The plus in my book is the increase in image size with either the 1.4x or 2x. The other plus is the limiting factor it has on DoF (BTJ Vol.V, Issue 2). The minus side is the light loss and when shooting with flash, it can be a biggie! Of course, if you’re shooting conventional and you want to increase image size, you can always switch to digital, which will get you a 1.5x larger image size with no light loss : )

The last option is getting closer and using extension tubes. Extension tubes change the optical formula by increasing the lens’ air gap and therefore permitting you to get physically closer to your subject and focus on it. An example of this is the 600f4AFS focuses down to nearly 20 feet and with 18mm extension it focuses down to nearly 18 feet. Those two feet can make a world of difference and since you experience no light loss with extension tubes, they have no adverse affect on the flash’s output. The other option is to buy the AFSII or newer Canon IS lenses, which focus closer right out of the box.

Flash Working Distance

The very basic elements of flash exposure is, flash to subject distance. The closer the flash is to a subject, the more “powerful” its output is for our needs. For example, with the SB-80DX shooting at ISO 200, at 10 feet you’re at f and at 20 feet you’re at f/. This is a dramatic difference! It’s important you keep in mind even though I haven’t talked about it yet, we’re using our basic flashes for this style of hummingbird photography and not some giant bank of 600 w units. The combination of the flashes’ physical distance from the subject as well as the f/stop in use determines the “speed” of the flash. The proper term is Flash Duration, this being the duration of time the flash is actually lit. This range can be anywhere from 1/2000 to 1/22000sec! This is the reason we depend upon flash and not ambient light exposure for hummingbird photography. The speed of the flash blows away the speed of our cameras to stop the motion we’re working on stopping.

The vast majority of the time we’re using two or more flash units, which some think increases the light output and therefore the total power of the flashes. It doesn’t work quite that way, as we’re not using multiple flash units for more power, but more coverage as I’ll explain in a moment. Right now my favorite flash combination is two SB-80DX units. Instead of going into how to make the settings on the flash work here, refer to What’s Up with Multiple Flash in this issue.

Equipment Setup

The biggest obstacle in equipment setup is the flash, so I’m going to start there. I typically like shooting with a minimum of two flash units (which is a challenge with digital). One flash is the main and the others are slaves. The main flash is the one that is attached either directly or by a cord to the camera’s hot shoe. The slaves are the flashes, which are not connected to the camera’s hot shoe. It’s the positioning of the flashes that we need to talk about.

The positioning of the main flash for me is pretty much carved in stone. I always set the main directly over the lens. The reason for this is I want the shadow created by the main flash to always fall behind the subject and not be seen. If you draw a line from the flash to the subject and then continue that line beyond the subject, you’ll understand why the positioning of the main flash is so important. This main flash is also our main light, in a sense replacing the sun. It’s what is actually lighting the subject, bringing light to our subject.

The second flash has only one real job for me and that’s to light up the throat or gorget of the hummer. This is where I tend to lose folks because we start taking about physics. To light up the bright colors of the gorget we work with a principle that’s an everyday staple of commercial photography: Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection. What this means is, in order for the film to see the gorget, the light must be positioned so the angle of the flash to the subject equals the angle from the subject to the film plane. This is not a simple matter!

The positioning of our second flash is determined by this angle. Its position is dictated by where our subject happens to be, which is determined by where we have set up our feeders. In order to get to the point where you can set up your flash you have to have everything else in place plus one more thing. Positioning the second flash so you can light up the gorget, you have to know where your subject is going to be, which means you need to watch the flight path your subject uses to come into the feeder.

A technique you can use to help make the light spread out more and help light the gorget is to use a xxx. This miniature light box spreads out the light. In a perfect world, you’d have two “second” flash units with light boxes side by side. This creates a huge light surface to light up the gorget.

Can you be successful with just one flash and no light box? You bet, but you just have to be really smart in the placement of that second flash. The key is the position of the flash in relation to the subject to the lens. This can be enhanced or hindered by the positioning of the lens. Your equipment setup then is really all based on my favorite element of photography, light.

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The Equipment Itself

My personal favorite way of shooting hummers is with the 300f4AFS, D1H and 2 SB-80DX flashes. The 300f4 is my favorite lens because I can focus so close with it. Its minimum focusing distance of five feet in conjunction with its focal length is an incredible tool. Even better is if I need a larger subject size in the frame, I can add a TC14e 1.4x and easily continue shooting.

I do use the 600f4AFS w/TC-14e 1.4x at times but this is not my preferred tool. The working distance between the flash and subject is too great, which means my flash duration is shorter so the flash’s ability to freeze the subject is less (plus increased recycle time).

The D1H is my favorite simply because of its five+ frames per second.

The SB-80DX is not my favorite but it’s the best available at the moment. You’ll need to read, What’s up with Flash in this issue to understand better how to take advantage of this tool.

One thing I should mention as being important is the tripod head. You need to have a stable platform to shoot from as well as the ability to pan with the hummers. I personally like the Gitzo 1377.

Photographing Hummers

Photographing hummingbirds is the most challenging wildlife photography around. After accomplishing all of the above, your final challenge comes when you’re behind the lens! The first thing that must be done is the assemblage of the gear at the feeder.

The first thing I recommend folks do is set up the lens to photograph the hummer. You set up to either photograph them as they fly to the feeder to feed or the flowers to feed. What’s the difference? The biggest difference is the background and focus point.

The background for the flight shots, those shots taken of the hummer coming to the feeder, is more predictable because you know where the hummer will be when you take the photo. With this knowledge, you can set up accordingly to have the best possible background. The background if at all possible should be some shade of green, light to dark. If one is not easily attainable then I recommend you bring in a potted shrub and place that in the background. Don’t forget light, that’s a very important aspect of the background selection as well!

You’re probably asking yourself, “How do we know which side of the feeder the hummer will come to in order to control the background?” You’ll know this because you’re going to place small pieces of tape over a couple of the feeder holes so the hummers must come to just the holes you want them to. Tricky hey?! Of course, you don’t want to overdue the tape and you want to be selective which holes get covered. But in this way you can predetermine where the hummers fly into and control the background.

What about the flowers? Where and how do they come in? My preferred method of photographing hummers at flowers is simply by placing hummingbird plants right next to the feeder. You can go on the internet or check with your local nursery about which native flowering plants work best to feed hummers in your area. Some of you might have picked up on the word native. I personally like photographing hummers at native plants only. It’s really very simple to do and the final results are quite spectacular. Controlling the background when photographing plants can be accomplished to some degree. (We’re not using flower blossoms cut from the plant, but those growing and still attached to the plant.)

One way to attract hummers to particular blossoms and therefore, controlling the background, requires a little sugar water. With an eyedropper, you very carefully place a couple drops of sugar water into the blossoms of those you want to photograph the hummer. You have to put the sugar water in very delicately and realize that it will kill the blossom. A blossom with sugar water in it will last normally 5-6 hours at best, after which time it starts to droop and look sad. While this provides limited control on the position of the hummer it does give you some, which is better than none.

With knowledge of where the hummer is going to fly in, you can place your secondary flashes. You’re going to place them with the intent of strictly lighting the gorget. To accomplish this you need to set the flashes off to the side, either right or left of the lens and main flash. You decide which side based on where the hummer is flying in (and there may be an equipment restriction as well). The key is to place the flash so it’s lighting up the gorget. This is easier to accomplish for the flight shots than the feeding shots at the flowers. This is because the hummers going to the flowers will almost never use the same flight path twice so predicting where they will fly to light it is a challenge.

You have two options for positioning the secondary flashes, the Wimberley Macro Arm (featured in BTJ Vol. VII, Issue 2) or the Bogen Magic Arm. These units can easily and quickly position a flash. The Wimberley actually attaches right to the lens, which is really slick because it permits you to move the lens to follow the subject while always having the flashes in the same constant position you desire. The Magic Arm doesn’t have this same flexibility but you will find that with certain feeder setups and time, you can make it work perfectly for your needs.

The next thing you need to decide before actually firing off the shutter is the DoF you desire and require. In this process, you also need to take shutter speed and flash speed into consideration.

What is the appropriate DoF for a hummingbird? My own personal preference is f/8 which at 5+ feet provides enough DoF for focus from mid way on the bill to just past the back of the head (focusing on the eye of course). This aperture also reduces the amount of flash output required for an exposure, which makes the flashes fire and recycle faster (compared to f/11 or f/16). The best way for you to determine what is best for you is to simply photograph your thumb. I would measure back from the tip one inch, draw a black dot (to represent the eye), focus on it and shoot.

In this process you must keep a constant eye on your shutter speed! One real problem we need to be concerned with is ghosting. Ghosting is caused when photographing a moving subject at too slow a shutter speed with flash. What occurs is that during a slow exposure, the flash first fires, freezing the subject and then in the subsequent exposure time while the shutter is still open, an ambient light exposure occurs where the subject moves. You freeze the movement of the hummer and at the same time it moves during the rest of the exposure, creating a “ghost” of itself. We want this for the wing beat but not for the rest of the hummer’s body.

What can you do to prevent ghosting? I highly recommend that until you get really into hummer photography you stay away from shutter speeds below 1/250. Once you get the hang of it and the movement of the hummers I recommend not going slower than 1/60. Now these are just suggestions because you’ll notice in one of the images accompanying this piece, the shutter speed was 1/30. In that image, you’ll notice the wings are incredibly blurred, which is what I was after.

The last really big “trick” to making hummer images work comes to focusing. This is one sport where manual focusing is the only way to succeed! To successfully photograph hummers, you must manually focus but to increase your odds, you need to prefocus. Prefocusing means you focus on a point, some point, so the lens is already focused at the approximate distance you expect to find the subject. In this case, I personally recommend focusing on the back side of the feeder. Hummers tend to approach the feeder from the back (from the camera’s point of view) and then once at the feeder, decide which “flower” to feed from. (Keep in mind that some of the “flowers” have tape on them.)

What about the real flowers you have around the feeder? Where do you focus? This is not as easy to predetermine a focus point since you can’t tape off any of the blossoms. You should know which ones you put the sugar water into so I recommend you prefocus on those. The problem is the hummers can fly into and hover about the plant in any direction without any real predictability. This is the problem, the challenge that I enjoy.

After all of this, you’re down to just actually taking the photo. I have some thoughts here for you, but they are personal elements to the photo I think about. The first and foremost is composition, which I think of as horizontal and vertical elements. The vast majority of the time, I photograph hummers while shooting vertically. This is because I like to take the action of feeding and make is a diagonal in the frame. This brings action to the still subject, fills the frame to the max while providing enough room to capture the full wing beat. This means I’m as close to the hummers as I can be.

I shoot horizontals when I want more room to make up for not knowing exactly where the hummers are going to stop. Composition when shooting horizontals is a little more difficult because you have more space not being used by the hummers in the frame that you must use with other elements that support the story in the photo while not detracting from the hummer. When shooting hummers in plants, this is easier because you can rely on the blossoms to take up space otherwise not filled by the hummer.

Whether you’re shooting horizontals or verticals, one thing you must look out for are stray branches. Stray branches are the little dead twigs in plants that show up in the worst places at the worst times in your photograph. These typically tan twigs are incredibly distracting to the eye because of their color and linear lines. Many folks don’t see these distracting elements because they are so small, but when compared to the size of a hummer, they are gigantic. This also goes for dead leaves and blossoms. These must be gardened out carefully, using scissors to remove them rather than just trying to break them off.

You’ll find that focusing on a flying hummer is a major challenge once you’ve gotten through all the rest of this. Their constant movement, jabbing in and out of a blossom, moving to avoid harassing male hummers, finding new blossoms to feed from, all will challenge your focusing ability. It’s KEY that you do not get frustrated with your results, as it takes time to get the great images! This is very difficult wildlife photography despite the fact so many aspects of it are seemingly so controlled. Just the focusing can get to you as images come out, out of focus. You then mix in the flash and making it work to light up the gorget. And we can’t forget just the process of getting the hummers in front of the lens in the first place.

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Photographing Nesting Hummers

Photographing nesting hummers is a little easier than photographing hummers at feeders. With nesting hummers, you always know where to find them for that brief period. Some would rather not photograph nesting hummers as it’s the drab female that’s at the nest. The males mate with as many females as they can find and then have nothing to do with nesting duties. Even so, I find photographing nesting hummers quite enjoyable.

Finding a hummingbird nest is no easy task. The nest of a hummer is not much bigger than a fifty cent piece in diameter and perhaps an inch tall. Constructed of plant down and spider webs (so the nest can expand with the growing chicks and still hold its shape), they naturally blend in with their surroundings. Hummingbirds are kind of funny when it comes to approachability. With some, you can’t get within miles of the nest before they dart off while others you can literally pet their backs. You want to avoid the first kind and find lots of the second!

Photographing a nesting hummer is much like photographing any nesting bird. There are a couple of things though I want to point out that make photographing nesting hummers unique.

Placement of the flash is important because some females despite what the books say have gorgets. While not full blown blazes of color like their male counterparts, the female gorget is still worth lighting. You can use the exact same concept for nest lighting as for feeder lighting just keeping in mind the safety of the nest in the process.

Photographing hummer nests requires a real vigilance on the shutter speed. Since nests are typically in shadowy places, slow shutter speeds are the norm. This can bring on ghosting so you’ll find yourself constantly forsaking DoF to prevent ghosting.

Lastly, patience! Hummers tend to want you to be very still when they are flying into the nest. I always feel they’re playing some sort of game with me by making me hold perfectly still and if I don’t, they won’t come in right away. When I mean hold still, I’m talking feet, toes, hands, head, everything! And don’t be surprised if they buzz you or the AF illuminators on your flash! This is common so expect it so you don’t make some gesture that scares off the hummers. With these few things, you are set to have the time of your life as you witness the incredible transformation of a hatchling hummer. They go from looking like bugs to gorgeous adults in a matter of weeks!

Photographing hummers is the most rewarding wildlife photography you’ll ever experience, once you capture that great image! Getting to that point is not a quick process. Like all great things in life, time and effort pay off in the big rewards and nothing is truer than in photographing hummers. To get to that reward, you need to start now and constantly work on this challenge in order to make it all come together in that great image. Once you get started and the images start appearing on your light table, you’ll find yourself incredibly happy as you hum along!

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