How I Photograph Hummingbirds

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“YOU took these?!”

Believe me, it was more a case of my friends being admitted into trauma care.  You know, in total shock as if their bodies had shut down after a major trauma when they realized these hummingbird pictures were taken by little ole old “shaky hand” me.

Well, after being discharged from trauma care, several of my friends asked, “Hey, did you really take these?”, still not believing I took them. “Okaay, Koj, then how did you take these hummingbird pictures?”

Well, I really didn’t have specific answers for them but I fumbled a couple up.

I guess it’s time to cough it up… literally.

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For me, I had never thought about photographing hummingbirds before this last February.  Yes, I had never taken photos of hummingbirds in my short long life.  Besides, there just weren’t many hummingbirds buzzing around my yard for me to get interested.

Well, my good next door neighbors had aloe plants growing very healthily alongside the sidewalk and driveway.  Starting in February, I noticed a couple of the hummingbirds feasting on the nectar on my neighbor’s aloe cactus’ flowers.  I was bored so I thought, “Why not?!”

As I begun this escapade, there was a lot of patient waiting, sitting in the sun in a beat up brown resin lawn chair with camera in hand waiting for those little friends to buzz by.  Cigar was going, too.  Indeed, some of my neighbors down the block must’ve been wondering, “What is that crackpot, stogie-smoking old Japanese man doing sitting out there in the sun on his driveway?!”

I only had my Canon 100mm macro lens to shoot with.  While I did snap a couple of shots with the 100mm, the first attempts photographically were dismal.  I wasn’t close enough to those little suckers most of all with the 100mm lens.  The hummers were like Tinkerbell against a Sequoia forest… sans the cute little green tights.

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My first attempts with a 100mm macro lens. Too far away and couldn’t get close enough.

Well, my other good neighbor across the street saw me shooting and I said I could use a longer lens.  Bingo.  He was a Canon user and had a lot more equipment than me!  He had an earlier model 200mm f/2.8 which he would lend me in exchange for a few stogies.  He was a cigar lover, too!  What a deal!

The results began to improve over the next few days.  Each opportunity helped fine tune the procedures.  There were a lot of bumps along the way.

  • First of all, the tiny buggers moved faster than my eyeballs.
  • Second, even if I were lucky enough to frame one in my viewfinder, they would stay in that certain spot for only a split second; a lot of times, I pressed the shutter when the bird was no longer there. That was because it took light years for my brain’s commands to jump through my well frayed synapses.
  • Third, my hands do shake and the lens didn’t have image stabilization, leading to fuzzy shots
  • Fourth, you had to be precise in targeting the focusing point for the auto-focus.  If the focus point was a wing, the entire bird would be out of focus.  That is because the wing is closer to the camera’s focal plane and there wasn’t enough depth of field to keep the hummer’s body beyond the wing in focus.
  • Fifth, bright sunlight made for desirable higher shutter speeds but it also resulted in harsh lighting.
  • Sixth and most importantly, my stogie kept going out.

Some of the results during and after the trial period were as follows:

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This was shot when the sun was overhead – not the best lighting condition. See procedural notes below.

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The Procedure

But in all seriousness, this is what I do when trying to shoot hummers:

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Essential equipment. A 54 ring maduro cigar.
  1. Select at least a 54 ring maduro cigar and light.  The hummers appear to like Dominican long fillers with a spicy ligero wrapper the most.  The wonderful smelling smoke was better than the sweetest nectar for the hummers… Trust me.  They love it.
  2. Set yourself within a half-foot of the minimum focusing distance for your lens from a choice bunch of flowers at that distance.  Seat yourself in a comfortable chair, ensuring the flowers you selected are at eye level.  (Note: I do not use a monopod or tripod.)  In my case, I was just about five feet away.  Its purpose is to fill the frame as much as possible with the hummingbird.
  3. Set your metering mode to aperture priority then your f-stop to wide open.  In the case of my lenses, it was f/2.8.  While the depth of field is incredibly tight, it allows for very good bokeh (i.e., the background will be thrown out of focus).
  4. Slightly depress your shutter button to check your shutter speed at f/2.8.  Adjust your ISO to a higher number until you see at least 1/2000th of a second.   Higher is better but no more than 1/5000th unless you want total stop action.  I like a little bit of wing blur to give the impression of action.  Besides, it looks more natural.  (You will of course get noise at the higher ISO but that can be edited down during processing.)
  5. Set your shutter mode to multi-exposure.  Ensure mirror lock is off.  (Note: if your camera has an adjustment for knocking down highlights – comes from glare off shiny parts of the flowers – select it.  It is “D+” on my Canon.)
  6. For the auto focus, I use a single point focus and do my best to put that focus point on the BODY (not the wings) of the hummer.  The eyes/throat are the best targets but with my aging reflexes, it was more miss than hit but the results were much, much better.  Using a broader focusing zone or AI option will make the camera attempt to focus on the moving wings or a more prominent flower petal.  With a narrow depth of field, the bird itself then will likely not be in focus.
  7. Sit.  Puff on the cigar to attract the little buggers.  Patience is the key.  As there are only a few hummers in my area, I sometimes sat for 90 minutes before one would come by.  Even then, it may not have been in my pre-selected focus area.

As for WHEN to shoot…  A bright overcast day was the best for me but now that it is summer, this is unlikely.  While you CAN, I would not recommend shooting when the sun is above you.  I would suggest early morning or late evening with the sun is lower in the sky.  This will cut down on harsh shadows and lighting.

Good luck!

ps For stunning collections of hummingbird photos, please see Cindy Knoke’s blog here!

(NOTE: True pros use an intricate flash setup with remote release and an artificial background.  Not only do I not have multiple flash units, I feel shooting with a naturally occurring background more pleasing.)

35 thoughts on “How I Photograph Hummingbirds”

  1. It’s been a long time since I saw a hummingbird out in the wild, but I do remember how quick they were. I think you’ve done an outstanding job of catching them in action!
    Good to see you back, hope everyone is well.

    1. You gotta have tons out there!! Otherwise, life has provided me with many unwanted distractions. I’m sure that’s true for everybody. Certainly, our career fraudsters calling themselves politicians and unchecked terror has been certainly depressing.

  2. I stand in awe !! What fantastic photographs of some unbelievably beautiful birds. You have done really well here. And I am so jealous that there is nothing like your humming birds over here in England.

  3. I was at a friends and a humming bird flew right up to the flower next to me, it was black and red, and I was excited. Of course I did not have time to get a picture, all I had was my phone. I love your pictures Koji, and your tutorial.

    1. No, you don’t need a macro lens nor a telephoto. The hammers have been video’d a lighting on a person’s finger to feast out of handheld feeders. I’m sure they’ll come to you and your pure soul without fail.

  4. Koji-san,
    I take my hat off and stare in awe.
    Amazing photos with such helpful advise.
    It’s a shame we don’t have hummers in Tokyo. But, I will try to follow your tips to try and take (attempt) photos of some of the lovely birds here. Now, I just have to convince hubby to let me try cigars… 🙂 Hope you and your family are well.

  5. I have no remembrance of how I came across your blog, but I am sure as hell I’m glad I did. I love the humanity, humility and humour. Is it OK with you if I reblog this post? ( I don’t like reblogging without asking first.)

      1. Thank you. And as you mention Public I need report that due to unfortunate circumstance mine is private but I am happy to unlock it if you as Mr WordPress.

      2. If you want to go to johnsstorybook (that is me) then there should be a prompt telling you that it is private but you should then be able to put in your name and password and Wp will tell me and I will open the blog for you.

  6. Wow, you have amazing photographic talent. These are awesome. We love the hummingbirds that come to visit and can’t get enough of watching them. Every once in a while one comes right up to our living room window and flutters there for a minute, leaving us smiling and grateful for the sweet visit. 🙂

  7. These are beautiful! Hummingbirds are so cute, but they are also highly territorial and chase each other around, squeaking loudly. I rarely see them in my yard, but next time I visit my in-laws I will take our Nikon SLR (which I don’t know how to use very well yet) and practice on the hummingbirds that flock to her feeders. You have inspired me!

  8. Fabulous post, Koji! Congratulations on the success of your amazing hummer photos. And I really appreciate the detailed instructions. Thank you for that. Beauiful shots, my friend.

    We have hummers here, but they are not that common. If I ever find a spot Yhey frequent, I will try out your well-written instructions! Sending my best wishes for a great summer! :))

    1. Thank you, Jeannie. With your kind soul, I’m sure they will flock to you, especially if you hold one of those smaller, handholdable feeders in your hand. Kind people like you have video’d them as they slighted upon their finger. And your photographic artistry will surely be apparent when you do!

      1. Thank you – it came as a shock she was a lovely and beautiful person, I only wish I could have known her better. Mustang needs us all now.

  9. cool tutorial Koj…
    and a neighbor who shares a lens and likes cigars – another example of how God moves us like chess pieces…. oh yeah

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