Hummingbirds have always fascinated me and when I began serious wildlife photography I spent hours “practicing” on my backyard birds, especially the hummingbirds. I figured that if I could photograph a bird that has wings that beat 80 times a second AND can fly backwards I could photograph most things. Not so fast bucko…
Looking at what the “pros” were doing with 3 or 4 high-speed flashes, backgrounds and a huge amount of other gear was quite intimidating. I didn’t have the budget for several thousand dollars of gear to make these crazy setups. Since I could not afford that gear and after all I was a photographer not a Rube Goldberg type inventor. And since my images really were not very good in comparison to the pros, I just assumed you had to have all that gear and do it that way and I abandoned trying to photograph hummingbirds for several years.
Observation has always been a key to improving my wildlife photography. This means watching bird behavior and learning what makes them tick. It has enabled me to take far better photographs than when I was just out running around chasing the birds. My moment of clarity came when I was with a friend and watched the hummingbirds feed from a feeder that was still in his hand! Hmm, these guys don’t really care about much except that sweet nectar in the feeder. DING DING DING went the bells in my little brain…
Ok, the feeder is no problem, cheap and easy. So now I started banging away on the hummingbirds at the feeder. This worked out well, but I don’t like the feeder in the image and yes I can do some photoshop tricks and make it go away, but that can be a pain and I try to avoid that kind of manipulation. In this photo though I did just clone out the feeder.
I’m having a blast literally blasting away taking lots of “great” images, but there is still something lacking. Now that the feeder is gone there is no context in the image. The hummingbird is good (because it is in focus and has a nice pose), the background is awesome (because there is nothing in it) and the light is good (because it is behind me) so why be sad? Well it doesn’t tell me why the hummingbird is there and that hurts my head. My little brain is trying to add something to the image to help it make sense for me. So now what do I do?
I had to add context. I needed something natural, pretty, and useful that would help my photographs pop! I was in Colorado and the hummingbirds were quite active on my friend’s feeders and I had seen (remember that observation thing) hummingbirds occasionally dip for a sip on some cinquefoil growing in the garden. DING DING DING went my bells again and I attached a bit of cinquefoil to the hummingbird feeder. It looked good, hummingbirds liked it and it was a natural perch and food source…perfect.
Now to photograph! I aligned myself with the sun behind me for a great light source, I had the perch in a place that gave me a great background and I set my camera up at eye level with the perch. That’s it! No flash, no backdrops, no fuss no muss hummingbird photography. I didn’t need a flash because I had plenty of natural light to freeze or mostly freeze the birds in flight. I like a bit of blur in the wings as it seems more natural. How many times have you seen a hummingbird fly and seen the wings clearly…umm never. You’ll need bright light and a shutter speed of 1/1200 or more to get crispy sharp shots.
Now I was set and all I had to do was wait! It really didn’t take long and with full disclosure in mind, I was actually sitting in a chair with a glass of wine. I didn’t think about writing this until after the fact or I would have taken a picture of me hard at “work”. Hey it worked!
Now that’s a lot more like it and so I went all out. Now I had the concept down and so I began to play with some variations. I used a stepladder to hold the perches in order to be able to move the perch so that I had a better background and light. I put a bit of Wild Lupine on and got my images. Next, I clamped a bit of columbine to the ladder and got my shots. That is what is great about doing this, I could be photographing the same bird over and over, but all the images are new and interesting because I selected the perch. I could have and did move the feeder to a better spot as well. The results though were better when I moved the perch and left the feeder nearby.
A quick story: my dear friend Claire was very supportive of all of this hoopla around her bird feeders. She was also a tad skeptical about this rigging of feeders. She was going to the big box store and asked if I needed anything and I replied, “yes potted plants”. Her eyes really rolled back at that one! Off we went to the store and I bought a ragged foxglove for $3, brought it home and put it on a table under the feeder. Got my chair and my camera and within 15 minutes had this one… Claire actually BOUGHT a print for her house!
Of course you don’t always get what you want! And this brings up a lesson learned. You don’t want to give the birds a choice that will give them the chance to perch where you cannot photograph them. In other words it is best to put out one perch and make sure that when they use it, you can shoot it. Hummingbirds have the largest brain to body size ratio in the bird world, best not to let them out think you. A similar trick is to actually use some tape to close the extra feeder openings on the feeder. This will force them to your spot. This is very important when you have a few hummingbirds; it’s not necessary when you have a big number of birds on the feeder.
Don’t let the big rigs and complex technology stop you. You can do this with a relatively small (200mm) lens, a tripod and some patience! Have fun experiment with your perches finding something your birds like. When all it takes is time and a few dollars worth of stuff there is no reason for you not to start making some incredible hummingbird images. You never know what you might catch…
Homemade Hummingbird Perch Gallery
Hummingbird Photography Portfolio
I’ve used variations on this technique for hummingbird photography in the past and you can see all of my hummingbird images…HERE.