How to Photograph Hummingbirds

This could be a subject to take up an entire book, as there are many different techniques, along with opinions, as to what the best way to photograph hummingbirds may be.  For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on my two personal favorites that are both easy to manage and produce spectacular results.

Hummingbird in Costa Rica 5

Using flash

Using a flash when photographing hummingbirds is my preferred method, as it allows something unique that you can’t get with sans-flash photos…that slight “stop” in the wings so that you see a bit of their outline and shape.  Simply setting your camera on auto and using flash will produce a photo somewhat like the one below.

Hummingbird in Costa Rica 1

It’s a perfect freeze-frame, where the hummingbird is still in the air with excellent definition in all facets of the subject.  The complete outline of the wings is shown with very little blur, if any at all.  This is a great shot to take, but there is something that I’ll recommend to improve this slightly.  What you’ll want to do is to slow your camera’s shutter speed down just a little so that you don’t actually freeze all the motion.  For instance, if you want to freeze motion, you’re looking at a shutter speed of 1/500 and above.  Realistically, 1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second is more like it for a hummingbird.

By slowing your shutter down to 1/200 of a second, you are allowing a bit of blur to be in your photo such that you see the vigorous motion of the wings, as in the below example.

Hummingbird in Costa Rica 2

Depending on your settings and “luck of the draw” when it comes to the exact moment that you take the photo, you may get wings to be in different positions and also different degrees of definition.  Thus, it’s great fun to just shoot, shoot, shoot away – every photo will be unique!  You can also toy around your shutter speed to produce more or less blur (try 1/100 vs. 1/300).  A faster shutter speed will yield less blur and more definition, and a slower shutter speed will produce more blur and less definition.

The magic of the flash comes in as it puts a bit more emphasis on the position of the wings at the exact moment when the flash is fired.  However, since hummingbird wings are moving so so fast, during that 1/200th of a second, they are still moving quite a bit.  Thus, you get to have your cake and eat it too – you get the definition of the wings to allow the animal to take shape, but also show the motion to highlight its fascinating behavior.  In the end, you get a great depiction of the animal both from an artistic perspective, but also an accurate one as well!

Without flash

If you don’t have a flash with you, or you prefer to not use one while photographing wildlife, you are still able to get fantastic shots.  The first thing you have to think about is whether you want to try and get a fully crisp shot of the wings perfectly still in the air, or like the photos in the above section, with some blur.  I, personally, like the “motion” in the photo that you can get with slower shutter speeds.

Hummingbird in Costa Rica 3

Now, when I say slower shutter speeds, you’re still photographing fast by normal standards…the photo above was shot at f/2.8 and 1/320 of a second.  However, since you’re dealing with extremely fast motion, this is still slow enough to produce the slight blur in the wings.  But, you can instantly see the difference between this and the photo with flash.  Here, the wings are more or less entirely blurred – a uniform appearance.

Hummingbird in Costa Rica 4

As the final scenario – what if you want to freeze motion AND avoid using a flash.  Well, then you wait until the hummingbird lands!  There is indeed a chance of photographing a moving hummingbird with a shutter speed of 1/2000 in natural light, but it needs to be very very bright outside.  Or, you need to shoot at a disparagingly high ISO (not ideal for quality photography).  Since hummingbirds generally prefer dimly lit rain forests and cloud forests of Central and South America, your chances of blazingly bright sunlight shining onto these critters is pretty slim to none.  But, there is something very rewarding about waiting for that perfect, if rare, moment when hummingbirds do land.

As I mentioned initially, this topic is one that really could be expanded by an order of magnitude.  And surely new techniques will come, along with new posts on this topic in the future.  However, I hope you enjoy the food for thought here and are able to get some photos of hummingbirds you’re truly happy with.

Go forth and give it a shot,