Hummingbird Photography for Dummies

Google “photographing hummingbirds” and you’ll read about fast shutter speeds and high ISOs, and see flash and strobe setups that look like NASA technology, with multiple lights, remote triggers, sensors, reflectors, diffusers, backgrounds. Is all that really necessary?

I don’t have that sort of gear or expertise; but I recently spent some time sitting near a hummingbird feeder and came up with a formula for good results with just my Nikon Z50 and a not-fast 300mm lens.

Hummingbirds can push you deep into the corners of the “exposure triangle”. They move fast – although they do hover fairly still for brief moments – and you want to stop those whirring wings, because otherwise they basically disappear in the photo and the bird looks a lot less interesting. Even 1/1000s won’t do it – it really takes at least 1/2500. So, a fast aperture – but wait, you also want enough of the bird in sharp focus, which means something like f8 . Then you’re into high ISOs and some of that beautiful shimmering detail is getting grainy.

So, maybe bright direct sunlight is the ticket. But hummingbirds are shiny, and the contrast gets extremely high. You can get harsh, glare-y photos, run out of dynamic range on the bright spots and/or have heavy noise in the shadows . The best chance of success is if the bird dives into a flowering bush and out of the direct sun. Here’s one at 1/3200s where the wings are almost stopped. I shoot raw files, and had to use Capture One’s Highlight and Shadow recovery to the max. It’s a good photo but a little… dull.

Photo of Ruby throated hummingbird

Some time ago I was visiting a home with a hummingbird feeder hanging on the porch, where I could sit in a nearby chair and have birds within range of my 300mm lens. But the weather was cloudy, meaning some sort of flash would be required.

The good thing is, in order to get enough of the bird in the frame, I had to be pretty close – close enough that the Z50’s tiny pop-up flash might be enough. But I hate metallic-looking, blue tinted “flash” photos. So I tried the hybrid approach.

The Z50s maximum “flash sync speed” is 1/200s, not nearly fast enough for hummingbirds. But the flash is much faster than the shutter. I don’t know exactly how fast – it depends on the power setting – but fast enough.

(If you’re not familiar with flash sync speed, here’s a summary. The shutter is actually made in 2 sections called the front and rear “curtains”. First, the front curtain moves off of the sensor, exposing it; then, after the shutter period, the rear curtain moves over the sensor and blocks it. During the time the sensor is exposed, the flash can fire any time. But, at high shutter speeds, there’s a catch: the rear curtain starts blocking the shutter even before the front curtain has finished exposing it. Basically the rear curtain chases the front curtain , at a small distance, and a gap between the curtains sweeps across the sensor. If the flash were to fire, only that gap would receive its light – not the full sensor. The flash sync speed is the fastest shutter speed where the whole sensor is exposed. When flash is enabled, the camera won’t let you use anything faster.)

On a cloudy day, I had nice diffused light wrapped around the hummingbird – just not enough of it. So I popped up that tiny flash, set it to Manual mode, and essentially combined 2 exposures into one shot: one from ambient light via the shutter at 1/200s, and one from the flash. Instead of trying to calculate how much light each source contributes, I cut to the chase. I set the aperture to f8 for the DOF; chose the highest ISO that would give me a really good image (from 400 to 800); and accepted 1/200s as the shutter speed. That combination, by itself, would be an underexposure; and that’s good because I want the flash to predominate. I then determined the flash power I wanted by just taking a few test photos of the hummingbird feeder.

It worked pretty well right out of the box; I got a nice exposure of the entire hummingbird with no lost highlights or deep shadows, and the flash put some extra light right on the front of the bird, which was great.

photograph of ruby throated hummingbird

The neat – and unexpected – thing is that doing it this way yielded 2 distinct images of the wings, a real double exposure. The one from the flash is more distinct, but the two together give a feeling of fast motion.

Here’s another, where the bird came over to check me out for a moment and decide if I was ok. The flash exposure stopped the wing motion, but the 1/200s exposure sort of overlays it so a bit of sharpness is lost; the combination is an effect I really like. Thanks to that 1/200s contribution, the cloudy sky went all the way to white and the bird really stands out.

photo of ruby throated hummingbird

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