Photographing Hummingbirds in Flight – 8 Top Tips
Look, a Hummingbird! Seeing a hummingbird creates an instant smile, pops up your mood and makes you forget about everything else for a moment. They are truly fascinating and fierce little fliers that are always welcome to our home.
We see tons of hummingbird pics perched on feeders. How about photographing hummingbirds in flight?
So how can you photograph hummingbirds in flight? First of all, you need to know where to spot them. Then, you can figure out what they like to eat and their behavior. Know your subject. Then, we’ll look at some of the best setups to get some great shots!
1. Where do they live?
Hummingbirds only live in the Americas. They migrate north, all the way to southern Alaska, and the most diversity in species can be found in humid tropical and subtropical forests of South America, including the Carribbean.
There are more than 300 Hummingbird species! Here are a few of the more common species and their ranges:
- The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is a very common species living in the Eastern United States to Canada. They migrate north (from Mexico) from March to October.
- Anna’s Hummingbird can be found on the West coast from northern Mexico to Southern Alaska.
- The Black-Chinned Hummingbird is the most widespread and common species in the southwestern United States.
- The Rufous Hummingbird is the most widespread species in western North America.
Ruby-Throated Hummingbird female
Anna’s Hummingbird by Bryan Hanson / Pixabay
Black Chinned Hummingbird (above) and Rufous Hummingbird (right)
both images by Daniel Roberts / Pixabay
There are many other hummingbird species that you can learn about. My favorite birding resource is All About Birds from Cornell
Now let’s take it up a few notches – how do we capture great images of these fast moving fliers? Depending on their size, they are able to hover in air by flapping their wings anywhere from 12 to 80 beats per second! The noise created from their wings produces a humming sounds, thus, they are known as hummingbirds! So, they’re super-fast, small and can spook easily.
You can visit areas where there are known populations, such as botanical gardens or wildlife management areas. Here in New Jersey, considered the Mid-Atlantic region, we’re not fortunate to have those options nearby, so we have to get them to visit us!
2. Best chance – feed them!
Hummingbirds have become accustomed to feeders. In fact, when they arrive in the spring, they will often go directly to the feeder location from last year! Place a few throughout your yard and be sure to keep them clean.
These cute little feeders stick to a window or you can use them to hand-feed hummingbirds! They are super lightweight and easy to clean and refill. Check them out on Amazon.
It’s better to keep them in a shady location, but that’s not always possible. Clean them thoroughly at least once per week. The sugar water goes bad and insects can muck it up. A simple solution of 1 part sugar to 4-5 parts water works well (about 20-25% sugar).
Even better, grow flowers that they love – and look better in pictures!
Knowing the best plants to grow is critical for attracting hummingbirds. These flowers provide nectar for the birds and habitat for all the insects they also like to eat. Plus, they don’t require cleaning like the feeders do! They are naturally attracted to red, orange and bright pink; some of their favorites include:
- Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis
- Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia
- Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens
- Salvia, Lamiaceae
- Bee balm, Monarda didyma
Zinnia is my personal favorite – they are easy to grow and easy to photograph for not only hummingbirds, but Monarchs and a vast array of other butterflies and pollinators.
Short on Space? Not enough time? Not in your Zone? Don’t fret! Look for these at your local Garden Center in a hanging basket and/or container:
Image by Paul Diaconu / Pixabay
- Zinnia (short varieties)
Image by Tess Pixy256 / Pixabay
As hummingbird traffic around your feeding areas increase, spend more time out there so the hummingbirds get used to you. Be PATIENT. They have to get used to you. They may be skittish at first, but they will come back.
You have to know your subject to be successful. Spend time observing them. Create some perches near the feeders. One of the easiest things you can do with a larger multi-port feeder is to keep one port open, secure an attractive flower in another opening – it should be taller than the feeder if you have the room, or branch out from the feeder for them to perch. Tape up any other openings and secure the flower with tape – masking tape should be ok – it won’t get too sticky.
Like most creatures, hummingbirds tend to be quite routine in their habits, especially where they perch. Observe how long they stay, the lighting and composition. Use binoculars if you have to. Soon enough, they get used to gear like a tripod and camera and will tolerate the sound of the shutter.
If you observe their behavior well enough, you will notice that they will circle around the top of a flower, like a Zinnia, so just be patient to get your shot. With other flower types, such as Fuschia, which is typically hung from a basket, there may be a little more obstruction. They will most likely circle back around, so just be ready and just take lots of shots.
4. Begin with Perched Birds
Start your endeavor by photographing perched birds. The first spot to practice is on birds at the feeder. Figure out how close you can get, lighting, exposure, shutter speed, composition and even how they behave. They may hover for a second, grab a quick drink, hover back up, and move on to the next spot or flower.
Next, practice photographing them when they are hovering near the feeder, instead of perched on it or drinking from it. Next, follow them to their perch. You will gradually increase the interest and storytelling of your photos!
Most of today’s cameras, whether it be an entry-level DSLR or perhaps an iPhone or Samsung camera phone, offer some great choices. It really helps to have a long lens. Using a wireless remote is another great option: Have your camera setup at the perch and fire away from a distance, even while sitting in your house! It’s also possible to shoot through a window – make sure it’s clean. The window may also act as a blind if you don’t move too quickly.
The key is to anticipate where the bird will hover before landing; they commonly hover 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) from the feeder perch. If you can pre-focus your lens to this area, you might have the best chance of getting good, natural-looking keepers.
Hummingbirds are most active in the early morning, which is also when you can get some really beautiful natural light. Ideally, the light should face the subject. It will be much more challenging to get a good back-lit photo of the bird without additional apparatus, like flash. It also helps if it is partly cloudy – the clouds act as a natural filter to soften the harsh sunlight.
The best light from my preferred shooting area – the deck – appears mid-morning. Based on my work schedule, I only had the weekends to get a chance at a great shot in that location. BE FLEXIBLE to increase your chances!
6. Shutter Speed
We know how fast these little guys can move – we need to freeze their movement. Therefore, you will need a fast shutter speed. A good range is 1/1600 to 1/2500+ but you can experiment to see what works best for you and your equipment.
Light and FPS (frames per second) will also affect how much (or little) speed you can get away with. I recommend using manual mode to set the shutter speed and aperture and use auto-ISO. Use the lowest f-stop possible depending on your lens.
Some of you are lucky to have the 70-200mm lens with f/2.8mm, even the f/4. I have an older, but classic, 400mm f/5.6 with no IS (no image-stabilization), but I’ve managed to get a few good ones over the years. Of course, the lower f-stop will also produce nice blurry backgrounds to make your subject pop!
Background can really make or break a photo. It doesn’t matter how great your subject looks. If the background is cluttered, it gets an instant downgrade. If it is too dark or splotchy, it may be the look your going for, but a clean, neutral and natural background is where it’s at.
This takes a lot of practice and planning, but once you get the hang of it, your photos will greatly improve. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to simply MOVE. Move up, down, point up or down. Move to the left or right for a brighter background while your subject has some pleasing shade on it.
A great example would be photographing hummingbirds in flight from your deck. How many of you have a canopy or umbrella? Even in harsh summer sun, if your feeder is in the shade and the background is well-lit and far enough away, you will get a great clean background with lots of pleasing bokeh. Give it a try!
8. Tripod or Hand-Held?
This is debatable; a tripod can slow you down but get you the sharpest shot. If you’re shooting with 400mm and longer, this may be your best option. If you’re setup with a remote controller, you have to use a tripod. To get the most flexibility and shots (not necessarily keepers), shoot handheld. A combination of both is really ideal, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a variety of hummingbirds in your area.
Hummingbirds in flight make for some of the most challenging bird photography. Be patient, start slow, observe, shoot, progress, add more interest, experiment with composition, repeat. Enjoy the fact that you can witness these little wonders and remember – always enjoy what you’re doing!
What techniques have worked best for you? What types of hummingbirds do you have in your area? What flowers do they LOVE? What camera / lens camera do you use? Let us know in the comments below.
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