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Tips For Photographing Hummingbirds

Getting a good photograph of a hummingbird in flight is one item that is commonly found among the “Must Take Photos” list of most photographers. However those beautiful little birds with their iridescent colours and incredible flying powers are not a very easy subject to photograph. Hummingbirds are master flyers, they are the only birds who can fly backwards, and they also fly sideways and upside down. In fact they could easily teach the best fighter pilot in the world a lesson or two in flight. Let us discuss how we could horn our photographic skills to capture great images of these little flying creatures.

Know your Subject

how to photograph hummingbirds
Photo By Danny Perez

A good understanding about your subject is essential for all genre of photography and hummingbird photography is no exception. Refer some books, search the net or consult an expert and collect as much information about your birds as possible, it helps to be informed about the following points.
  1. Which are the species of humming birds to be found in your area?
  2. What is their average size?
  3. Which is the best time of the year to find them?
  4. Details about their habitats, diet, feeding habits etc.
  5. If possible familiarize yourselves to their calls.
humingbird photography
Photo By Danny Perez

Getting to know your subjects better will help you get much better shots of your birds. Humming birds are generally very small but even among them some species are tiny about 2 inches or so. Having an idea about their size will help you choose lenses. Find out which is the best season to shoot, they are most active during certain months, learn about their habitats so you know where to look for humming birds, learn about their diet and feeding habits also being able to recognize them by the sounds they make will help you locate them easily.

Photo By Yannick Turbe

Camera Settings for Photographing Hummingbirds

  1. Use a telephoto zoom lens
  2. If your camera or lens has an image stabilization function, enable it
  3. Use wide apertures
  4. Use fast shutter speeds
  5. Use continuous shooting mode to take many frames in short bursts
  6. Use continuous focusing mode
  7. Use only the centre focusing point to focus
  8. If your lens has a focus limit function then it is best to enable it
  9. Focus on the birds eyes
hummingbird in flight
Photo By Rick Leche

Humming birds are fast moving creatures, and that is what makes them a tough subject to photograph. So in order to capture great photos of them you need to fine tune both your equipment and your shooting style for maximum effectiveness. First of all hummingbirds are very shy and wary of humans so if you approach too near to them they will take off. So having a good telephoto lens helps to take good photos of birds without startling them.

Although setting up your camera on a tripod will help reduce camera shake, I personally recommend hand-holding the camera as it will allow easy tracking, and composition. Also since you are shooting at very high shutter speeds the chances of camera shake creeping in to your pictures is relatively low.

hummingbird photography tips
Photo By Eric Begin

You might want to use wide apertures; in fact you should only use an aperture that provides just enough depth of field to have your subject in focus. Using wide apertures helps you gain shutter speeds. Coming to shutter speed you will need comparatively very high shutter speed >1/800 or more to effectively freeze the action of the humming birds wings. If you are not able to get enough shutter speed by using wide apertures you should try increasing your ISO to get to the desired shutter speed.

Put your camera into continuous shooting mode and take pictures in bursts, it helps to avoid camera shake and increase the chances of you getting perfectly sharp pictures. Also use the continuous focusing mode with only the centre auto focus point enabled, point your camera at the bird position it at the centre of your frame and you could easily attain focus. Limiting your focal range on the lens (if your lens has this option) will help to focus faster. Remember as with photographing any other living creature, if the eyes are not sharp then the picture is worthless, so have your bird’s eyes perfectly in focus.

Photo By Danny Perez

Tips for Photographing Hummingbirds

  1. Learn about the birds behaviours
  2. Anticipate the birds next move
  3. Choose your shooting location carefully
  4. Use a Hide to get close
  5. Be patient
  6. Limit your movements
  7. Take lots of pictures
  8. Use flash

Learning about the birds’ behaviour patterns will help you anticipate its next move and react accordingly; it will highly increase your chances of getting great shots.

photographing hummingbirds in flight
Photo By Danny Perez

 For example - Sip, back up, hover and then repeat the whole process again is the usual pattern that humming birds keep repeating at feeder, so now you know what is going to happen next it gives you time to prepare for your shot.

Also you know that humming birds could be attracted by setting up feeders and this allows you a whole lot more control over your shooting location, choice of background and lighting. When selecting a shooting location do it carefully, watch out for elements in the foreground and background and your convenience, distance from the feeder etc.

When photographing hummingbirds you should learn to be patient, most birds will fly off when you first approach them, but if you wait patiently for some time, they will realize that you are no threat to them and will eventually return. Do not make sudden movements that could startle the birds. If you are not able to get near the birds without disturbing them, then consider setting up a hide on location so that you could hide your movements from the birds and shoot comfortably.

tips for photographing hummingbirds
Photo By Matt Knoth

With fast moving subject the keeping rate, (ration of good shots to bad shots) will be lower than your average, factor this in and shoot lots of frames. Camera shake, focus shift, composition, etc all could easily ruin a shot. Using external flash units slaved to your camera is a great method to light your shots. You could either use flash in combination with ambient light which is kind of difficult to achieve in hummingbird photography, or you could use flash units as your only light sources giving your much more control over the shot.

Practice makes perfect and it is truer in case of photographing fast moving subjects such as hummingbirds so keep practising and you will soon get the hang of it.

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