Monday, July 28, 2008

Hummingbird Photography 101

I get asked fairly often "how the heck can you photograph a hummingbird...they're so tiny and quick I can hardly see them"? I thought I'd put together a blurb as to how I do it along with some photos of my outdoor "studio" and some links to other sites that you may find interesting.

Whenever I see one of these "flying jewels" as early Spanish explorers called them, I always think back to John Audubon's description of them:

"Where is the person who, on seeing this lovely little creature moving on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to
another, with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course over our extensive continent, and yielding new delights wherever it is seen;--who, on
observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and instantly turn his mind with reverence toward the Almighty Creator, the wonders of whose
hand we at every step discover, and of whose sublime conceptions we everywhere observe the manifestations in His admirable system of creation?--There breathes not such
a person; so kindly have we all been blessed with that intuitive and noble feeling--admiration!"
~ John James Audubon

Few things in nature demonstrate God's handiwork like these glittering fragments of the rainbow and I consider it an honor to be able to show folks their breath taking beauty close up. I have yet to figure out why many of the hummer photos shown here are washed out and have a strong yellow color cast. The colors of the original photos are true.
Gen. 1:21 So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1: 19:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse,

What Paul is saying here in effect is that no one who can look at something as gorgeous as a hummingbird or out a window at our world will have any excuse when they stand before God (that isn't a matter of if, only when) for claiming they didn't know there was a God. Nothing in this world is the end result of a lightning strike in a swamp 5 billion years ago yet this is the best atheists and science has to offer and it is taught in schools as fact. One of the most absurd things I've ever heard proposed by "scientists" is that there is such a thing as "parallel evolution" for which the hummingbird is used as the example. This "theory" says that as the hummingbird evolved, the plant kingdom accommodated them by evolving red, tubular shaped flowers at the same time so the hummers would have something to eat. Pretty pathetic.

I like photographing small things (as you can see from other photos on my blog) and it can also be done from a wheelchair without much difficulty so hummers are right up my alley. The two main problems with them are their very tiny size and incredible speed. How the heck can you photograph something 3 1/2" long that can fly 50 mph? It can be done but it ain't easy! They are probably THE most difficult subject in nature to photograph successfully.

There are some tricks and techniques in working with them that tip the odds in our favor and we need all the help we can get! A liberal dose of luck doesn't hurt a thing either!

Our subject is:

1) 3 1/2" long
2) weighs about 3 grams (about the weight of a penny)
3) body temp. about 106 deg F
4) heart rate 250/min at rest-about 1200/min feeding
5) resp. rate 250/ min
6) can fly in any direction instantly plus hover
7) consumes more than its weight in nectar daily plus small insects for protein
8) average flight speed 25 mph with 50 mph bursts possible
9) number of young almost always two
10) fastest metabolism of all animals
11) wing speed and incredible 40-70 beats/ second!

Hummers are unique to the Americas and are found no where else in the world. There are about 340 species with the majority being found in South America. There are about 16 species that breed in the western US but only one, the Ruby throat, in the eastern US.

There are a few things about hummers that photographers can exploit to obtain photos of these animated ping pong balls:

1) their incredible metabolism makes it necessary for them to feed every 15-20 minutes during the day
2) they readily come to sugar water feeders (one part table sugar to 4 parts water with no food coloring added) Of course there are a few photographers out there who feed them a more diluted solution to make them come to the feeder more often :o)
3) They are not shy about approaching humans but are spooked by movement. If you can sit still there is no need for a blind when photographing them.
4) they're not very smart and tend to follow the same pattern of activity i.e. they usually fly to the feeder along the same route and feed in the same pattern: feed several seconds, back away, pause, repeat. Once you learn the individual birds, you can semi predict what they will do next. Some ignore multiple flash units going off in their little faces and others are gone after flash number one.

I'll describe the methods I use with a SLR camera (one that accepts different focal length lenses). With the smaller "point 'n shoot" digital with fixed focal length lenses, you can probably get good results but you need to 1) get much closer and 2) be willing to deal with "shutter lag" which is the time interval between when you push the shutter release and when the shutter actually fires. This can be very short (fractions of a second) or agonizingly slow (a second) which is more than enough time for your subject to be in the next county. For serious hummer photography you about have to go the SLR route.
As a size comparison, the hummer isn't that much larger than a Yellow Jacket!

A little techie stuff first.

There are two general types of hummer photos: wings frozen and wings a blur which is how we generally see them. I personally like a mix of both. As a hummers wings beat up to an incredible 70 beats per second, the top shutter speeds found on SLR cameras (1/1000th- 1/5000th second ) cannot freeze the birds wings in place unless you catch the exact instant they reverse direction. The only way to accomplish this is with high speed flash units which can emit a very brief burst of light in the 1/12,000 to 1/20,000 sec range which is more than adequate to "freeze" the bird and his wings in place. If you set the exposure on the camera so the only light in the picture is that produced by the flash units and the duration of the flash is 1/12,000 of a second, your shutter speed is, in essence, 1/12,000 sec. See how simple this is!

I won't go into another problem in much detail, that being "depth of field" which is a big issue shooting hummers. In a nutshell, DOF is the area of sharp focus in front of and behind the subject which is controlled by a structure inside the lens called the diaphram. It works exactly like the pupil inside the eye which opens (dilates) in dim light to admit maximum light and constricts in bright light to shut out most light. With camera lenses, DOF is controlled by the diaphram. When constricted (stopped down) DOF is maximum and vice versa. As hummers are very erratic in flight, maximum DOF is necessary to get all of their body in sharp focus but the trade off is not enough light with the diaphram constricted. Thus, the need for additional light via flash is obvious.

My "studio" is set up on our back porch and is pretty basic.
This is it minus the camera. The goal is to force the birds to feed at the "X" port of the feeder (the other 3 are plugged). The correct exposure and rough focus is worked out for this 6" X 6" area before hand.

I generally use 5 individual flash units. Two ( # 2 and 3) are mounted on simple stands (~$10. each on ebay) which I place at about 45 degrees to the bird, one in front aimed at the male's bright red gorget and one in the rear. I mount another one (1) directly over the spot where the bird will feed on a home made wooden bracket. This one serves as a "rim light" and highlights the birds shape and separates him from the background. I place another (4) aimed at the background to keep the area behind the bird for going black. Finally, I have another flash mounted on the camera that lights the center of the bird and serves to trigger the other 4. All flash units have a "slave" attached to them (explained below) which are just small light sensors. The slaves job is to fire the flash it controls when it "sees" the flash from the main on camera flash. They're very handy and eliminate the hassle of wires running all over the floor connecting the flashes together.

The background (B) is nothing but a piece of craft store foam board sprayed with green and yellow paint (you can paint flowers on it, whatever) that is placed on a holder about 2 feet behind where the bird will be feeding. I generally place a potted plant there as a way to increase interest.

The black umbrella is to put the entire mess in the shade which helps eliminate the sun when you're trying to work out exposure setting.

Feeder is just a Walmart special that I modify a bit. As mentioned, I generally plug 3 of the 4 ports so I can control which one the bird feeds from. This is a biggie as if you let them feed where they want, you'll be constantly chasing them and won't get much. With only one available, you know within an inch or so where the bird will be when he feeds. I focus on the eye while they feed (the eye MUST be sharp with any living subject and have a "catchlight" or "highlight") and generally lock the camera down on my tripod. That way, when a bird is feeding, I can just fire away w/o messing with the focus to any degree. As long as remains in the same general area, he'll be in focus if I'm shooting with the lens stopped down.
We have a subject! Tiny isn't he!

I use a tripod for about everything including hummers. A lot of guys use a monopod or, if you're using high speed flash, you can hand hold the camera I suppose although it's tiring. Hummers will come right up to humans but movement, such a raising a camera, spooks them. It's much easier to just have the camera on a support aimed and focused on the spot you know the bird will be.
This tiny guy is about to have 5 flash units explode in his little eyes. The camera flash will fire all the others. As their movements are lightning quick and much too fast to react to (at least for me!) I'll generally shoot 5-7 frames in rapid succession if he will tolerate the flashes and view the pics later when I can compare the whole batch side by side. It isn't uncommon to shoot 130 frames in an hour but, as you can imagine, there are a lot of throw aways.

Hiding the feeder. Several ways to do it:

1) use real flowers and fill a blossom with sugar water with an eye dropper. This keeps the hummer at that flower longer giving you a couple extra seconds to shoot. The flower needs to be refilled after each visit, a real hassle for me .
2) set up in the middle of real flowers and wait, not very productive and the birds are in control of things, not you.
3) Add and extension tube to the feeder bottle and try and conceal it within a bunch of real flowers and hope the birds find it.
4) Photograph the flowers with the same lens at the same distance in the same light used for the birds in a separate photo. When processing the pics, slide the flower pic to the hummer pic and place it over the feeder tip. I use this method because it's easier for me to do.
Every so often, everything comes together at the same time and you'll get ones like these!


About everything I have was bought used from various sources (i.e. ebay, KEH camera brokers). I shoot hummers with the Nikon 300 mm/f4 lens shown below. It is tack sharp, focuses with one finger and allows me to work about 8' away from feeding birds. I usually add a 1.4X teleconverter to the lens which, in effect, converts it to a 420mm. ( 300 mm X 1.4 = 420 mm) Teleconverters, sometimes called "extenders" attach to the camera body and the lens is then mounted on the TC. High quality TC's cost as much as some lenses and are matched to specific lenses. They also cost you light in that you loose 1 stop with a 1.4X and 2 stops with a 2X. Cheap ones generally produce marginal and in some cases poor quality images. This flash also fires all the others via slaves (explained below). The "foot" under the lens simply slides into a dovetail mount on the tripod which takes only seconds to put on/remove.

All my flashes except the one above are basically junk but they work fine. I own a couple of old Vivitar 283's (can be found for ~$35. on ebay) that are powerful but very basic. I fitted them with a "vari power" module that allows me to set their output. Slaves can be found used as well with new ones running 20-30 bucks. That's about all there is equipment wise. I mount my flash units on cheap stands (~$10. on good ole ebay) and often put white trash bags over the flash units to diffuse their light.
Well, that's about it in a nutshell and probably more than most folks are interested in. If I think of anything else I'll add it on. Here are a couple links to guys who know what they're doing:

The speckled throat with a couple of isolated red feathers ID this bird as a juvenile male (this year's). He will have a full flaming red throat by the time he returns next year. It boggles the mind when you think about the fact that these tiny guys fly all way to Mexico and Central America (including a 500 mile non stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico that takes 20 hours) and can return to the same feeder in the same backyard a year later. Bird migration is triggered by hormones and is controlled by a small area of the brain called the Pineal Body. The "trigger" is tied to the photoperoid which is the length of daylight. As fall approaches and day light shortens, the signal to migrate is triggered. A common myth is that one needs to take hummer feeders down in late summer so the birds won't stay around too long and get caught by an early fall freeze. On the contrary, they should be left up until at least mid October so birds migrating from the northern part of their range (Canada) will have "refueling" stops.


KathyB. said...

Beautiful photography ! The hummingbirds truly are living jewels, aren't they ? My husband has tried to photograph the hummers around our place, and he does O.K., but yours are spectacular. Thank-you for the 'How To', maybe he will try it.

Have you done any photography of dragonflies. I have always admired their beauty and will stop and gaze at them while they rest.They too look like living jewels ! KathyB.

Farm Chick Paula said...

Hello- I came over from KathyB's blog at Cedar Pond- I enjoyed this post so much, from the tutorial to the scripture verses and quotes!
Wonderful photography, and wonderful blog!