To photograph these fast birds, timing is everything. Hummingbirds are famous for how quickly their wings move: they can hover in mid-air and accelerate rapidly to reach speeds of 54 km / h. Shooting these quick birds can be a bit of a challenge. Out of every 100 photos only about 15 succeed. Despite how difficult it can be, it is possible to take beautiful hummingbirds pictures.
The hummingbird has always been an important bird for the populations of South and Central America. The Mayans and the Aztecs have always considered it a deity by representing it on paintings and sculptures. For example, Huitzilopochtli, also written Uitzilopochtli (“hummingbird of the south” or “he who comes from the south”), according to Aztec mythology was the god of war and the sun, protector of the city of Tenochtitlán, on which ashes stands today City of Mexico. The Mayans considered these birds sacred creatures that possessed healing powers. Specifically, the feathers were considered magical. An ancient legend tells that when you see a hummingbird, someone from afar sends wishes and love.
To understand how to photograph hummingbirds, you need to have some more information about them, their behavior and the environment in which they live, as well as a good command of photographic techniques.
How Fast Are Hummingbirds?
Hummingbirds are among the smallest and most peculiar birds in the world. They are present only in the Americas from Chile to Alaska and their weight varies between 2.5 and 6.5 grams while the length ranges from 6 to 12 cm. What makes these birds unique is the incredible speed with which they flap their wings; up to 80 times per second! This allows them to remain still in the air in order to comfortably feed on the nectar present in the flowers without leaning on and damaging them. Not only that, their method of flapping their wings also allows them to fly backwards, making them truly unique!
These birds are so small that they need to be fed all the time. In order to rest at night, having no reserves of fat, they fall into a state of sleep similar to hibernation. This technique allows hummingbirds to save energy during sleep, but also in times when food can be scarce. Hummingbirds are usually solitary and defend their territory with extreme aggression. They perform stunts to demonstrate land control during breeding seasons and as a way to protect food sources. They feed almost exclusively on flower nectar, but also on some insects.
How To Photograph Hummingbirds?
In order to attract these birds, the habit of placing feeders outside the houses is widespread throughout the American continent. These feeders are containers of liquids with holes suitable for holding a mixture of water and sugar that hummingbirds are greedy for.
During a photographic workshop, special shooting sets are usually prepared, with flowers placed in the most favorable positions by means of articulated supports (such as Manfrotto’s “magic clamp”), fixed to the branches or legs of a tripod. In this way the shooting opportunities are increased and excellent results are guaranteed without a long waits. When the set is ready, the flowers are sprinkled with sugar water, triggering a frenzied coming and going of hummingbirds of different species.
Typically you work with the camera on a tripod and with focal lengths of 300-400 mm, using automatic focus or preventive focusing on the pistil on which the sugared water is poured. By carefully observing the behavior of the birds, it is possible to identify the natural perches on which the birds stop, waiting to reach the flower to feed on the nectar. In this way, beautiful still images can be created that enhance the detail and colors of the plumage.
To take good shots, however, you need to choose a uniform and natural background and a good lighting that doesn’t have too much contrast. You absolutely must avoid direct sunlight. The lighting we suggest is a diffused natural one: the uncovered shadow of a cloudy or rainy sky creates an enveloping and soft atmosphere, which enhances the colors and details of the subjects. Theoretically, even on a sunny day it is possible to place the roost or the flower in a shaded area, but there is a risk that the background is still illuminated in patches by the sun’s rays.
How To Photograph Hummingbirds Without Flash?
Shooting without flash, creates difficulty in that you need to give up the very fast shutter speeds of the flash light. Using your flash can allow you to perfectly block the movement of the wings (the flash can reach 1 / 30,000 of a sec.).
Choosing not to use the flash and wanting to prioritize image quality (no APS provides clean files at such a high sensitivity), you can always take advantage of the moments when the flight is “static”. The hummingbird is known for its ability to seemingly stand still in the air and even fly backwards. A shutter speed of 1/250 can be enough to ensure sufficient sharpness on the head and capture some movement of the wings to give dynamism to the scene.
How To Photograph Hummingbirds With A Flash?
However, if you want to freeze the movement perfectly, the use of the flash is essential, The use of a shutter speed that is not too quick (1/250 sec.), guarantees a certain contribution of the ambient light, preventing the background from sinking into total darkness. The rapidity of the flash on the other side makes it possible to block the rapid movement of the wings.
Shooting in mixed light situations and with relatively slow times, creates the risk of generating the so-called “ghost images” where the very fast flash blocks the wings. While they continue in their movement, they are only partially registered by the sensor during exposure due to the contribution of natural lighting.
In today’s guide we tried to understand what the best settings are when photographing hummingbirds. As with all nature photography, ideal results require more than just good technique. A fundamental component is, in fact, a good knowledge of the bird you are going to photograph, so that you can bring home a good photo, but above all to respect their habits of life and their spaces.