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The rules for photographing normal birds largely don't apply to hummingbirds. You're unlikely to be able to predict or keep up with their flight path, especially with autofocus. Additionally, the wings move so fast that traditional shutters only capture them well at max speed with bright light.

What are some techniques to overcome the focus and wing-freeze issues?

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Do you want to catch the hummingsbirds alone or with scenery? Do you have something like a bird feeder to make them stay? –  Max Ried Jun 12 '11 at 20:16
    
@bot47 - I have a feeder and some flowers that they come to. Typically I'd try to shoot them in front of the flowers (petunias). –  rfusca Jun 12 '11 at 20:19
    
I'd like answers that would include how to get them NOT in front of something though, its so rare to see them mid flight. –  rfusca Jun 12 '11 at 20:25
    
I'm interested too... I've had two of them (different colouring), in the last week, buzz me while I've been sitting on my porch! –  John Cavan Jun 12 '11 at 22:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Disclaimer: This is second hand information, so YMMV.

While I was guiding a tour in Ecuador, I met a photographer who spent almost 10 years chasing hummingbirds for a book. We spent an hour or so talking about how to photograph them. Here are the basics:

  • They are too fast to freeze with a high-speed shutter.
  • Use flash with an ultra-fast discharge speed. He said around 1/20,000s.
  • He said using the flash on lower power increases the discharge speed.
  • Shoot continuously as fast as possible.
  • Manual focus on where you want them to be. Usually an interesting flower or branch.
  • They can be moved by hand while in their sleeping state. They are very delicate, avoid nets to catch them.
  • Move them to a tent with a sweet flower as bait and studio lighting setup. Take a few shots and let them go. They need to eat every few minutes apparently.
  • Learn about the flowers they like to know where they'll be and how to bait them.
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He's right about the flash on low power; 1/20,000s is about in line with a typical flash on minimum power. But there's an immediate problem with that unless you're photographing hummingbirds at night..... –  mattdm Jun 12 '11 at 20:39
    
Amazing, "Hummingbirds are continuously hours away from starving to death, and are able to store just enough energy to survive overnight." hummingbirds.net/hainsworth.html –  RedGrittyBrick Jun 12 '11 at 20:41
    
In case it matters, he was using a Nikon ring-flash. I assume flashes can reduce power by emitting less light or emitting it for less long (which is what you want) but I am not sure it is documented with each model. –  Itai Jun 12 '11 at 22:56
    
@Itai - I asked this already knowing much of this but seeing what else was out there. There's two minor additions two your answer. In addition to manual focus - if your camera supports focus trapping, you can use a remote and multiple shot mode to fire repeatedly only when the subject is in focus. You can even leave it setup and then come back. The other thing is to use multiple flash units at low power. –  rfusca Jun 12 '11 at 23:05
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FWIW, the Audubon Society recommends not using red dye. –  mattdm Jun 13 '11 at 15:14

Hummingbirds perch and rest: capture them then.

Hummingbird

(f/6.3, 1/125 sec., ISO 800)


To evaluate the possibility of capturing the birds in flight without a flash, I invite viewers to decide for themselves whether the wings have been adequately frozen in this picture (f/5.6, 1/3200 sec, ISO 800).

Flying hummingbird

In response to a comment, @rfusca has suggested this answer be amplified to point out that exposure duration is not the only determinant of blurriness in motion. The apparent motion of a subject (like a hummingbird's wing) depends on how its velocity is projected onto the sensor. The component of the motion towards and away from the sensor contributes little to the blurring. Moreover, in complex and repetitive motion, like a wingbeat, there often are times when the velocity is relatively small. For example, the first image below was obtained at 1/4000 second and the second image, taken just three seconds later, was obtained at 1/2500 second: almost twice the duration. Yet the second is tack sharp compared to the first for two reasons: (i) almost all its motion is towards the sensor (or away from it--I can't tell which) and (ii) the wing is at a low-speed part of its cycle.

Blurred wing

sharp wing

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1/3200 is less than half the max shutter speed of some of the newer DSLRs - so a picture at 1/8000 sec, ISO 2000 may be acceptable...I don't know. –  rfusca Jun 13 '11 at 16:00
    
@rf There's no definite answer, because the ability to freeze the wings depends on where in the wingbeat cycle you make the image and on your angle to the wing. This picture is an average case: the wing has just started its downbeat, so it's relatively slow, but we're looking from the side, where its apparent motion is greatest. I have a photo of the same bird at 1/2500 that perfectly freezes the wing because the angle is directly behind and the wing is at the very beginning of the cycle. One lesson from this is to take lots of pictures; good ones are a matter of luck and persistence. –  whuber Jun 13 '11 at 16:03
    
There is also a factor of 8X in speed between the slowest and fastest hummingbirds. –  Itai Jun 13 '11 at 16:25
    
@whubber - Good point about the angle of view, may want to amend your answer. –  rfusca Jun 13 '11 at 16:27
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@Itai - so target the fat ones? ;) –  rfusca Jun 13 '11 at 16:28

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