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Photographing Hummingbirds

Photographing Hummingbirds - Ted Byrne shares his tips on photographing Hummingbirds.

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Animals / Wildlife

Images and words by Ted Byrne.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the USA for business. Of course, I always carry a minimal DSLR kit with me when I travel - you just never know what you’re going to encounter. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to have a hummingbird garden about 100 metres from my hotel door. I’ve always wanted, but never had the opportunity, to photograph these fascinating creatures that seem to live in a world all to their own. I’m happy to be able to share my first experience shooting hummingbirds in this article.

Hummingbird on a green background
Anticipation is everything (1/4000s, f/2.8, 200mm, ISO 250).
Gear and technique
If you’ve got a DSLR with high-performing autofocus it will definitely come in handy. I used my Nikon D90 in single-point autofocus mode, using the centre sensor. This way I simply concentrated on getting the bird in the centre of the frame and locking on. The only lens I used was a fast Nikon f/2.8 70-200mm VR. Aiming for the fastest shutter speed possible, I shot wide open at f/2.8 for all the flight shots in Aperture mode. As well, the large aperture also helps to throw the background out of focus as much as possible. The light was quite good so most shots were at 1/2000s or higher and easily enabled freezing of the birds’ body in flight for most shots. What’s amazing is that the blur is still evident in the wings even at these speeds. You may be interested in knowing that even higher shutter speeds won’t really help “freeze” the wings, but a proper flash set-up will.

I didn’t bother turning off VR, but it doesn’t help you anyway at these shutter speeds. I did have a monopod with me and had some success using it. However, I found my best images came from the fully hand-held shots as I had a little more freedom in my movement.

Hummingbird near some flowers Homogeneous background can effectively isolate the subject.
Including flowers adds a more natural touch (1/1250s, f/2.8, 200mm, ISO 200). A homogeneous background can effectively isolate the subject (1/2000s, f/3.5, 200mm, ISO 200).

Well, as you would expect, you can simply forget about sneaking up on these guys. Even at a distance of about 20-30 metres, any moderate movement gets their attention. And I’m not talking about walking obviously towards them - even slowly raising the camera from your side at a s-l-o-w pace will likely get them to break from feeding, look at you, and frustratingly fly away. Indeed, to say they are a wary bunch is as obvious as stating that it snows at the North Pole. I learned pretty quickly that I was definitely going to have to get myself fairly close to shoot, even with my 70-200mm zoom (effectively 105-300mm on my D90). Additionally, I found that simply being close was not going to suffice. I immediately realised that I had to get myself in a fairly good position and be patient. It is extremely helpful to anticipate and frame the area into which the birds will likely fly and (hopefully) hover for a second or two. Furthermore, don’t forget about your background as it can make or break your shot. A tack-sharp image of the hummingbird may be wasted on overcharged background and a poorly constructed composition.
Hummingbird sat on a branch
Even when they are not in flight hummingbirds can be a gratifying subject. (1/500s, f/9, 200mm, ISO 500).

I first started by lingering near the nectar feeders that are filled almost daily. Although including flowers would undoubtedly lead to a nicer, more natural composition, the reality is that they tend to go to the easy meal first, meaning the plastic feeders. Besides, I needed to refine and practice my technique. After about 30 minutes of shooting, I managed to get a dozen images with which I was pleased and moved on to the nearly flowers. I generally find it important to shoot at the same vertical level of birds whenever possible, so for the flower images I spent most of the time either kneeling or sitting down with my finger ready on the shutter.

In general, I was very pleased with my first hummingbird series and can’t wait for another opportunity to photograph these marvels of nature. If you travel, be sure to do even a little research. Even in metropolitan areas, there are often botanical gardens and accessible city parks that can turn out to be excellent places to find these striking creatures.

More images can be seen from this series on Ted Byrne's website. All photos taken near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Images and words by Ted Byrne.

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