One of the joys of teaching photography is learning to be disciplined in a wide variety of areas. Take Hummingbirds for example:
Photographers all over the world struggle with pictures of the frenetic birds and with good reason. They are very difficult to photograph well. To that end, I vowed to set up a blind to shoot hummingbirds this year and see if I could get some shots that demonstrated some successful techniques.
I chose to place a hummingbird feeder purchased on sale at a local hardware giant on a short shepherd’s hook. and put it outside my ground-level office window at a distance just slight longer than the shortest focal distance of my 300MM F4L lens when mounted on the Canon 5D. The comparative darkness of my office would be my blind to allow me to move and work without disturbing the birds too much.
I set up my tripod to hold the lens at feeder level and attached a remote release so that I could reach over and trip the shutter without moving from my chair. This minimized the chances of scaring away the bird.
Ambient light failed me here as the morning feed occurs when the feeder-side of the house is entirely in shadow. To counter this, I started playing with some off camera flash. I placed a flash on the window sill about one foot below, one foot right and two feet in front of the lens. This flash was set to High Speed Sync at 1/2 power and aimed squarely at the hover point just off the feeder cup.
I was getting a shadow of the leading wing on the bird’s neck so a second light was placed in the middle window about four feet left, one foot higher and one foot forward of the lens. It was also set to High Speed Sync and 1/2 power. The camera was equipped with an ST-E2 trigger also set to High Speed Sync.
For Camera Settings, I found that ISO 200-320 seemed to be the sweet spot for F8 aperture. After experimenting with a variety of shutter speeds I tended to shoot between 1/500th of a second (to allow ambient light on the background) and 1/2000th of a second (for a dramatic, darkened background).
Any slower and the bird’s head movements were blurred. Any faster and the frozen motion looked artificial. Like in the Strobist’s article on the Helicopter shoot, hummingbird winds and helicopter rotors need a little motion blur for believability.
The hummingbirds took a full 45 days to find my feeder owing in part to its nearness to the ground. Once I had regular visitors, I was ready to shoot. I remove the screen and open the glass while I am shooting to maximize sharpness. Now, it became a waiting game. As the hummingbird approaches, I grab my remote release and fire a shot as it dips into the feeder cup. By deftly moving behind my camera, I can slowly compose the shot for the hover portion of the Feed, Retreat, Hover, Repeat cycle that the birds usually follow.
Reasonable Wing Blur
Setting the focus to AI Servo works well as long as you are careful to keep the lens spot on the bird. Otherwise, zone focusing is the way to go. Often, I am able to get five or six shots at a single visit with about half of these presenting a full bird in reasonable focus. The distance from lens to bird is approximately six feet so it is very easy for the birds to dart out of the scene or the depth of field.
To give the birds a little additional color, I used a Roscolux #88 Light Green Gel on the right-hand 580EXII flash. This balanced the sunlight nicely and allowed me to accent the hummingbird’s natural tint.
My sweet spot as it turned out was F8 at 1/1250th at ISO 250. The settings seemed to work in everything from morning shade through afternoon sun until dusk. This provided of course that two Canon 580 EXII lights at 1/2 power were doing the heavy lifting.
Rikk Flohr © 2008