What enables a photographer to take outstanding photos of hummingbirds? Patience, for one. Here are the camera settings I use.
You’ve landed on one of 28 posts about photography and how to improve your skills. If you’re a creative, blogger, or photography enthusiast, you’ve landed in the right spot!
Eat a Hummingbird?
“Would you eat a hummingbird?” Mrs. Ojeda, one of my students asked me.
“They weigh less than a penny, I don’t think the meat is worth the effort of catching one,” I said with a grimace. “Not to mention, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I forgot about that.”
“Besides,” I said, “I could never eat an animal as smart as a hummingbird.”
“Hummingbirds are smart?” He looked skeptical.
“You bet. Black-chinned hummingbirds build their nests near Cooper’s Hawk nests.”
“Sounds pretty dumb to me,” he said. “Why build a nest close to a hawk’s nest?”
“Because Cooper’s Hawks don’t want to bother catching something with so little meat on its bones,” I said. “But they do like eating the mid-sized birds that prey on hummingbirds.”
“God sure had fun making hummingbirds,” I said. “One of the smallest hummingbird species migrates almost 4000 miles each year.”
“And they’re the only bird that can fly in all directions—forward, backward, side to side, and even upside down.”
The bell rang, cutting our conversation short. I hoped my student (and the others who had listened in), understood a bit more about why I think God had a blast creating these tiny, beautiful creatures.
What Settings Enable Your Chances of Better Hummingbird Photos?
For the past nine years I’ve been on a quest to improve my hummingbird photography skills. I still have 305 hummingbirds yet to see out of the 330 species. Capturing a clear photo of a tiny, fast-moving object takes practice, good lighting, and the right camera settings.
1. Use the [manual] setting on your DSLR.
This way, you have control over both the depth-of-field and the shutter speed.
2. Set your shutter speed at 1/2500 or higher.
Hummingbird wings beat at anywhere from 10 to 80 beats per SECOND. You’ll need a high shutter speed to enable you to stop that action.
3. Set your aperture at f/9 to f/11.
This will enable you to get close to your subject but still have most of it in focus. I use a zoom lens (Canon 100-400mm) and stand as close as I can and still have the lens focus. About five or six feet away from the feeder.
4. Get close, but don’t endanger the birds.
I’ve stood at my hummingbird stakeout with my shoulder eight inches away from a second feeder. The hummingbirds have no problem approaching me or feeding that close to me if I remain still.
5. Bump up the ISO a little higher than normal.
I set my ISO anywhere from 1000-2500 and still get sharp shots.
6. Become a student of hummingbirds.
Observing hummingbird behavior will enable you to anticipate where to aim your camera for a good shot. Most hummingbirds have predictable behavior. For example, Calliope hummingbirds act like little stealth bombers—they hang out of sight and then sneak up to the back side of a feeder. Black-chinned hummingbirds will approach the feeder, take a sip or to, and back off about 10 inches to hover and observe before moving in again.
If you want to photograph hummingbirds sipping nectar from flowers, focus on one flower and wait for the hummingbird to show up.
I don’t use a tripod or a flash, although I have set up studio LED lights or shop lights to achieve better lighting a time or two. Early morning and late afternoon work the best for me—both due to hummingbird activity and the softer, more diffuse lighting.
7. Experiment with backdrops.
I use the white curtains on my sliding glass door as a backdrop. I’ve also experimented with pinning a piece of black fleece on the trellis behind the feeders.
I know not everyone has my obsession for hummingbirds but choose a difficult subject and set out to become a student of it. Maybe you love waterfalls or roses or your kids. Do a quick online search for tips on the best camera settings for your obsession of choice. Spend time observing your subject in different environments and during different times of the day.
Put to use the lessons in patience from yesterday’s post and practice taking multiple photos of your subject. Load the photos you take onto your computer and take note of which settings work the best for your camera and your situation.
Practicing routinely and analyzing your results will enable you to improve more quickly.
Come Back Tomorrow
Tomorrow I’ll talk about why we need to act like bears and hibernate on occasion. You can find all of the posts in the 28 Days Behind the Lens series here.