How to Photograph a Hummingbird in Flight


The wife set up a hummingbird feeder, within a day there was a hummingbird showing up. I had always enjoyed images of hummingbird's caught mid flight. So I sought to try and get my own images.

A feeder with a reservoir above is ideal as the first one we had didn't have it one and the sugar water quickly falls below the level the hummingbird can reach. No food and they won't stay. The sugar water is a 1:4 ratio of sugar to water, it dissolve faster in hotter/boiling water. Cool it before putting it out for the birds though. Feeder placement is important as you want the birds to feel safe, so up and in the open is good. these also allows for a gap between the feeder and your backdrop allow for a very smooth out of focus background.

The image I was trying to achieve was to isolate a hummingbird in flight while trying to freeze the motion of the wings. You need a fast shutter speed! Depending on the species of Hummingbird they can beat their wings 700-5400 times a minute when they hover. The fastest I can shoot is 1/4000s and I based my other settings off of this. I took test shots to dial my settings in and even in bright conditions 1/4000 doesn't allow much light in. I shot wide open on my Tamron 150-600mm G2 at 600mm with ƒ6.3 would give an ISO around 1250. I use a full frame and I humming bird would come close to filling the frame at 600. If you are using a crop sensor you could dial that back a bit.

Now I waited...

I quickly learned that holding my camera with a my 2kg lens steady for extended periods an exhaustive task. I decided to use the BBQ as my "tripod" still giving me ample flexibility in quick movement using the collar mount as a pivot point. I was only about 10 feet away from the feeder and the hummingbirds would come in, but quick movements or even the camera shutter sometimes spooked them.

Here is a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird investigating the sound of the shuttering actioning.

I spent considerable time staring at the feeder and picked up on some behaviours:

The humming birds come frequently and throughout the day, after all they need a lot to eat. I have seen several "rules" but if you take the number you see at any one time and mutilply it between 4-6x that's the number of Hummingbirds visiting your feeder. I was getting action about every 15ish minutes.

I also learned that hummingbirds can open their beaks. I don't know why I didn't think they could, but I have never seen a picture with their beaks open. They also have really long tongues and you can see them extended them at times before they arrive to the feeder, licking their lips for the sugar water! Of course I have many images sticking their tongues out, but none in focus.

They are quick and you don't really have time to focus.

They take off unpredictably, pushing off and going in almost any direction, likely to their next source of food.

If they don't land and get a bite, the chance they will come back right away is high. This happens when they get spooked or in the case I had, the male Ruby-throated waited in the tree near by and chased away any other hummingbird attempting to feed. It's possible he had a nest near by too as they are very territorial. This perching also for another photo opportunity. I shot it with the same settings, but you should have time to drop your shutter speed allowing your ISO to go down allowing for a cleaner image, as you likely will need to crop in, like I did here.

The most important one for what I was trying to achieve was that the hummingbird comes into the feeder perpendicular on to where it's going to perch and it will also hover there for a few seconds before it goes in to land (or flies off) This is the chance to get that shot.

I played around with the movement of the camera enough while waiting the the little cute bird to arrive, I had a pretty good idea of where I was moving the camera depending on where they were. When they came here I would spray and pray as I call it. My camera is on the slower side compared to some of the newer ones at about 6 frames a second.

The time I spent trying to get my image was going up and I was getting images, but not in focus. Like this one that I missed by about an inch, how frustrating.

This was the very first image I captured in focus while the hummingbird was in flight. Just my luck!

I did experiment with a few other options. One was using my Sigma 85mm prime ƒ1.4. The field of view was too big and to get what I wanted I would need to crop to heavily and won't get the shapeless I wanted, as you can see here;

I also tried to up my aperture on my Tamron 150-600, but I was already shooting at ISO 1250. Upping it to compensate turned it to a grainy mess. I also tried to shoot ƒ16 with the same setting and lift the shadows in post. It did better, but too noisy for my liking. I was able to achieve focus easier.

The trick for the money shot!

I then went back to my original settings, but picking up on my note above about the approach being perpendicular I turned the feeder so that two of the "flowers" were in a flat plane from my position.

It took me a total of about 5 hours over a a couple days to get the shot I was going for. It hit several images in focus that I am extremely happy with of a female Ruby-throated humming bird.

Now I have to make a decision of which one I will add to this years calendar!