Sunday, July 22, 2012

How to photograph hummingbirds

Kate Lynch self-portrait with Costa's hummingbird-2008
If I had a dollar every time someone admired one of my photographs, then said "what a great camera you have," I would be a very rich photographer. Of course, camera equipment that does what you want it to is important. You have to have good tools and you have to know how to use those tools.

Equally important is knowing how to see and then composing what you see in a rectangular format that the camera sees. And, very often, what we see is not what the camera sees because we have the ability to mentally edit that scene. That's why we're often surprised when we photograph a mountain but don't notice the electrical tower on the left side, that's also out of focus.

These days, I have happier surprises like finding mama eagle's face right below her youngster landing after her first flight. I didn't see her face when I photographed the scene because I was tracking the baby as she flew.

So here are my tips for photographing hummingbirds or pretty much any kind of bird. First, of course, I need to assume you know how to use your camera and have a basic understanding of how a camera responds to light.

Male Anna's hummingbird-Jan. 19, 2012
If you build it, they will come

I couldn't resist using that line from Field of Dreams but it's true. The more reasons hummingbirds have to come to you, the more opportunities you'll have to photograph them.  I have two hummingbird feeders on my front porch that I keep clean (VERY important! You can kill hummingbirds with moldy feeders) and filled year-round. On the west coast and many parts of Arizona, Anna's hummingbirds are year-round residents. The feeders don't keep them here. We have a mild marine climate with flowers that bloom in all seasons and bugs (insects make up 20-50 percent of a hummer's diet). See Feed the Hummers for tips.

My front porch, back patio, and the yard right below my kitchen window are all planted with hummingbird favorites blooming in three seasons: cape fuchsia (Phygelius), true fuchsia, salvia, weigela, columbine, petunia, lantana, crocosmia, and red hot poker. I even moved my tropical hibiscus to the front porch. Unfortunately the plant isn't very happy with our cool summer, so has only bloomed a couple of times. 

Front porch in June includes weigela, cape fuchsia, columbine, petunia.
Planting outside windows gives you a build-in "bird blind." Although hummingbirds get used to people and will come quite close, I find that most birds are suspicious and often threatened by long black lenses that make clicking sounds. To get the best shots, I keep my distance with a long lens 20 feet or more away, or disguised somehow. A car makes a fabulous bird blind, although my neighbors think I'm doing surveillance when I sit in my car with a camera. 

Let there be light

I can't stress enough the importance of good lighting. At the same time, some of my best shots of hummers have been at dusk. That's where a versatile camera comes in handy. In March a few years ago, I spotted a male rufous hummingbird grooming himself on a planter on my front porch. I photographed him through the window at 6:15 p.m. at 1600 ISO with a 200mm lens. The settings were f5 at 1/30 second. 

"Roar!" Male rufous hummingbird-March 28, 2009
So how do you get the shot of a hummingbird with little or no wing movement? Bright sunlight or flash. A hummingbird's wings move at 40-60 beats per second. So part of capturing the wings is shutter speed, although many photographers believe flash is the only way.

That said, I rarely use a flash with bird photography because I think it's disturbing to most birds unless during the day. 

Here are a couple of examples of how the shutter speed can freeze the wing action. Most of the time I actually prefer wings in motion. I also love to photograph hummers sitting or preening. Some of my favorite photographs are of a female rufous bathing in my lawn sprinkler. She even moved when I moved the sprinkler. 

The crocosmia flowers outside my kitchen window have perfect light in the morning. But the hummingbirds can also see me inside the kitchen with my big honkin' lens they don't like. Recently I've switched to the 75mm lens, which is less obtrusive and more forgiving. With longer lenses, it's very easy to have the hummingbird just slightly out of focus, while the rest of the image is crystal sharp.

The images below were all photographed with a 75mm lens at 640 ISO f5.

Photographed at 7:35 a.m. 1/200 second
Mid-morning offers the strongest lighting. The last of these is a photograph from 2009 at the same time of day (about 10 a.m.) in July but at a much higher shutter speed.

Photographed at 9:55 a.m. 1/800 second

Photographed July 18, 2009 at 10:10 a.m. ISO 500 f4.5, 1/4000 second
Look in all four corners of the frame

A lot of times, you have a second or two to react and shoot when a hummingbird comes into view. Sometimes you can crop or edit out undesirable elements in a photograph later. It's always best, though, (and more efficient) to make sure there is nothing distracting from your subject. Here's are some examples. In the first image, there's clearly a distracting car on the street beyond the hummingbird and flowers. In the second image, now that you know there's a car in the background, you'll recognize the background that's blurred out features a wheel. This image is also an example of how selective focusing can leave the hummingbird slightly out of focus, while the flowers in the foreground are very sharp. After I shot these, I went outside and moved the car and pruned the branch that's obscuring the hummingbird.

 W-A-I-T for it

You have to be patient when you're photographing wildlife, especially quick little birds like hummers. I don't know how you spend your weekend mornings, but mine are often spent with a coffee cup nearby and me near the window with my camera. These last photographs were captured in about two hours yesterday morning. It's also important to shoot a lot because often with long lenses, only a small area will be in focus. I remember a sports photographer I knew years ago who showed me two rolls of film he shot at a pro basketball game. Only two out of 60-plus images were usable. Much of what I've learned about wildlife photography comes from many years of photographing events like outdoor festivals, concerts, graduations, and weddings in all lighting situations. You don't have time for a "do over," so you have to get the shot. That means lots of shots, just in case. 

You must be present to win

My final tip is: take your camera. I usually walk the dog every evening and I always have my camera, unless it's dark. If you visit your Facebook page (you don't have to be a Facebook member to see it), you'll see a photograph I also shot yesterday of a chipmunk eating a blackberry. I was about a block from my house with the dog when I spotted a chipmunk. I thought to myself "do I have enough time to get my camera out of my backpack and get a few shots?" I got about six shots of him and he never moved. My problem was there were some kids at the top of the hill shooting fireworks. My dog hates loud sounds and starting pulling on her lead to head home. I haven't seen that old dog move that fast in a year! There are so many incredible things, people, places to photograph. Often, they're right in your backyard or neighborhood. 

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