Wildlife Photography Tips 17 - Shoot Your Plan - Hummingbirds in Flight

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird

I was so waiting for this Spring. I was aching to get out and shoot the emerging wildlife. Of course, I wait, and wait, and wait. Then, all of a sudden, there are too many things to do at once. Flying subjects were going to be my primary focus this year, and of course, scenic trips to the desert and the high Sierra kept popping up. But at last, an opportunity popped up that I couldn’t just pass on.

Two years ago I was out geocaching with my wife in the nearby foothills. As we were driving along the country roads I noticed a house with some hummingbird feeders hanging from the front porch. Further inquiry produce permission for me to return to their house and shoot some images. Zoom the clock forward and I was now planning a shoot to capture hummers in flight. I often read posts and comments from individuals about how difficult hummingbirds are to get a photo of. Yes, they are fast and dart about a lot, but there are methods to simplify the photographic capture process.

I have two methods of capturing birds at targeted locations – that being primarily feeders and nests - in the case of hummingbirds, the feeder. The first method consists of using available light for shooting. The most problematic issue I glean from people is “they are too fast for me to focus on”. This is true, but I ask them why are you trying to focus on the bird? Or worse, why are you trying to autofocus on the hummer as it darts in and out from the feeder? Shocked by the question, in their minds, they have by now figured out that I haven’t a clue about photography. Their reply will be something like “Maybe I would like the image to be sharp?”

My next question gets them thinking differently – outside the box, envelope, etc. “If you are trying to swat flies, do you swing your flyswatter at them in the air or wait for them to land first?” Of course they wait for them to land. It’s the same thing with targeting hummers, only they pause in flight at locations for brief periods of time. That is where you swat them with your exposures from the camera.

Position yourself at eye level to the feeder and perpendicular to the flight path of the approaching or departing bird (see below). If you are perpendicular to the path, you have just increased your chances of a focused shot ten-fold. If the feeder has multiple feeding ports, tape off all but the one that you want to use for the target. If you don’t have much time, go away and come back later. Observing the birds will gather more information for you than just spraying many exposures in hopes of results.

Now that you have an idea of where to birds will be, the next bird that arrives you can focus on both the feeder and the bird, providing enough frame to contain both the bird(as it backs away momentarily) and the feeder. Now you can begin your shooting. Try to use a fairly high fstop – I try to use 8 if possible. If it is in the sunlight you will also have higher shutter speeds to help slow the wings down. And I say slow the wings down because I think having a bit of motion in the image adds enjoyment in viewing to the dynamic effect of high speed targets.

The second method is using a triggering devise to set off the camera. This is what most pros are using now. It helps increase the number of “keeper” shots/shooting. In this scenario you will use the same technique for focusing as you did in the natural light, but you will use the aid of a triggering device to actually take the exposure. In the photo(below) you can see the flash heads, camera, and in this case, the laser trigger. The beam is vertical because I have pre-focused on a particular distance from the camera with the camera. I usually use a piece of paper to focus. I suspend the paper until it is in the beam track. I focus on the spot where the beam is on the paper. That will be where the bird is when the shot is triggered. And then I wait for the birds to come to the feeder. They will be apprehensive when the flash first goes off, but they get use to it very quickly. I will also turn the camera and flash off intermittently when I first begin. That way they are not anticipating the flash because it doesn’t always flash.

As you can see in the photo, I have three flash heads. These are inexpensive manual flash heads that have a built-in slave. I use the pop-up flash on my camera set on manual and at 128th power. This setting assures me that the flash from the camera will only trigger the slaves and will not be the exposure light source.

Three helpful hints:

1. The laser targets the spot the bird will pass through. Study the approach and place the laser accordingly.

2. Pull back a bit to include the “pause point” as well as the feeder.

3. Use the shortest focal length you can and not be so close as to distract the incoming bird. I use a 105mm.

Either way you choose to capture these magnificent birds, it is always easier to plan an attack and stick to your plan. Chasing birds around can yield some results, but a planned attack will most certainly increase the numbers of images to choose from.

Happy shooting.

Anna's Hummingbird at Bottle Brush Flower

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