Most people who enjoy taking images of birds will attest to the fact that it can be especially challenging to photograph hummingbirds. These little ‘pocket rockets’ dart around constantly and very seldom stay in one place long enough for us to find them in our viewfinders, let alone actually get an image. If you’re like me even being able to capture a decent image of a hummingbird on a feeder with its wings spread is an uncommon feat.
I have always been intrigued with hummingbirds and really wanted to be able to capture images of these unique birds in flight – but without the hassle of using complicated flash set-ups, or the use of a tripod. This article shares some simple techniques I used to capture a number of images of hummingbirds in flight shooting hand-held.
None of the images in this article would be considered ‘award winners’ by any stretch of the imagination, but they do represent results that I believe a lot of folks can achieve using very simple gear and technique.
The first challenge of course is to find a location that has a good population of hummingbirds. To get the images for this article I went to Ruthven Park in Cayuga Ontario. There is a bird-banding cabin on site that has a few hummingbird feeders and appropriate plants to attract hummingbirds.
Regardless of where you live patience is required to photograph these little critters so bring a lawn chair or find a comfortable place to sit close to a busy hummingbird feeder.
To have any chance to even partially freeze the wing movement on a hummingbird you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed. The slowest shutter speed I used was 1/2500 and many of the images in this article were shot at 1/4000. I’d suggest using manual settings on your camera so you can control both shutter speed and aperture. To get the proper exposure use auto-ISO.
Lens and distance from subject
I used my Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 lens mounted on one of my Nikon 1 V2’s to take all of the images in this article. That set-up gave me an equivalent field-of-view of 810mm and allowed me to photograph the hummingbirds from a distance of about 3.5 metres (11.5 feet). This allowed me to capture them at a reasonable size to help avoid really aggressive cropping in post. I found that if I got any closer the hummingbirds would either stop coming to the feeder, or they would choose to sip nectar from the opposite side and thus block my view. I’d suggest using the longest focal length lens you have and get in as close as the birds will allow.
You will only have a split second to capture your images so its important to use AF-C with subject tracking on your camera, and shoot at a fast frame rate. I used 15 fps in AF-C with my Nikon 1 V2.
Capturing a hummingbird in flight requires split second timing and its my view that using a tripod will slow you down and result in missed shots. (Note: while a tripod may be restrictive many people may find using a monopod helpful especially when shooting with larger, heavier gear)
Anticipate where the hummingbird will hover before landing
Hummingbirds tend to hover for a split second before they land on a feeder. This varies by individual bird but I found that this hovering distance was about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) away from the perch on the feeder. To have the best chance to capture a hummingbird in flight I found that pre-focusing my lens on the perch of the feeder, then aiming it at the ‘dead spot’ where I thought the hummingbird would hover, allowed me to capture the most number of decent images.
Use ‘both eyes open’ shooting technique
This is the tricky part for most people. While looking through the viewfinder of your camera (which is aimed at the ‘dead spot’ where you anticipate the hummingbird hovering), keep your left eye open and look at the entire hummingbird feeder scene simultaneously. This will allow you to notice a hummingbird entering the scene and alert you to a potential AF-C run opportunity. If you keep your left eye closed the action is likely to happen so quickly that you will not be able to depress your shutter in time to capture the hovering hummingbird.
Technical Note: All images were taken hand-held using a Nikon 1 V2 with Nikon 1 CX 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR lens in available light. Images were produced from RAW files that were processed through DxO OpticsPro 10 including PRIME noise reduction. A DNG file was then exported into CS6 and Nik Suite for additional adjustments as required.
Article and images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication of any kind, or adaptation is allowed without written consent.
Very interesting. Thanks for the info. However, what is “AF-C”? Is that a Nikon term? I’ve never heard of it. (I don’t use Nikon.)
Nikon term…. Auto-Focus Continuous.
Love these, Tom! I’ve been trying to capture shots of the ones feeding on my pentas and firestorm bush–have a few that were visible, but tried what you’re doing and finally managed to see the wings. Love it! Still not as great as yours, lol, but I’m learning. I’ve also captured blue jays mating with wings spread, and woodpeckers also, and cardinals feeding their young earlier this year. So I’m hoping that your technique will help me do a better job next spring! Thanks for your informative article. Loved it!
Thanks for the positive comment Terry – I’m glad the article was helpful for you!
It was amazing to watch and if you think hummers are small you should see the young ones!
I persevered all week long and experimented with different settings. My biggest obstacle has been image noise, I use Topaz DeNoise, even with that I was losing detail. Today I set the ISO to a MAX of 800, then tried fixed at 320. I was more successful today and actually got two images I am quite pleased with….I would love to share them with you if you would like to see them….not for critique but just to share my excitement.
Sounds like you are on a real adventure! I’d love to see your images. You can get my email address from my website(s).
I came across your article and have found it very useful and inspirational, I love your shots. Being the third week of August I do feel a little late to the party for this year, but I am experimenting with different suggested settings for my shots each day. I have some shots that would impress novices, but I have yet to get “the shot”.
My gear is the Nikon D7100, using a Nikkor AF-S 55-300mm, f 4.5 – 5.6 lens. I have tried the recommended AF-C setting but cannot get focus, so for me the AF-S works best. I am shooting handheld and can get about 8 ft. from the feeder and sometimes as close as 6 ft. I am shooting in Manual mode and have tried shutter speeds of 1/2500 – 1/4000, too early to say but my best shots so far have been 1/3200. I set ISO to Auto today and may go back to 400 and other values tomorrow.
Having fun experimenting just the same and thank you for making is uncomplicated.
I’m glad you found the article helpful and that you are having some success photographing hummingbirds! I’m not sure where you are located, but I’m in the Niagara Peninsula of Canada and August is prime hummingbird season. The chicks are fully fledged and many adult birds are beginning the early stages of their migration so there tends to be a higher population density of hummingbirds in August. I love photographing hummingbirds but I’ve been quite busy with client work and I haven’t been able to spend as much time as I would like capturing these tiny, feathered rocket ships!
When using AF-C you may find it helpful to pre-focus your lens on your hummingbird feeder, then slider it over to a hummingbird when it arrives.
If you visit my blog you’ll find quite a few more bird photography articles, including hummingbirds.
Thank you for your reply. I live in Toronto but am currently at the cottage on Lake Scugog. I am seeing lots of active feathered rocket ships, they actually chase each other away as do the bees.
I will check out your blog.
ps: Last year I had the pleasure of watching (not shooting) a mom hummer showing her fledglings all the “spots” including my feeder! It was awesome.
That must have been a wonderful sight to witness i.e. the mom hummingbird with her chicks!
Beautiful shots, I use a similar technique to capture tree swallows flying and fighting over boxes, but use a much slower speed and I set my speed, ISO ,and focus point on the box. I have never shot at 2500 or 4000, but if I have the fortune to see another hummer this year , I will try your technique
It all really depends on how much wing movement you want in your images. I like to try to ‘freeze’ wing movement as much as possible. Hummingbirds required quite a fast shutter speed and even at the speeds I used the wings are perfectly ‘frozen’ in the images. I find the small amount of wing blur acceptable.
Very Nice Images. I am just starting down this Hummingbird path, and what fun it is. I am not getting the quality images yet that I am eventually hoping for, but am sure learning a lot along the way. I am using a Sony A6000, and trying different lenses from my SLR days with adapters for the E mount. My longest lens for now is an old vivatar 75 to 210mm, but am also trying an old, Tokina 75-150mm f 3.8, and my Nikon 105mm f2.5 afghan girl lens, so that will have to do for now. I do all my shooting in full manual mode.
I have purchased a radio remote for the camera and that works really well on the tripod, while I sit comfortably 15 to 20 ft. behind the feeder and shoot in continuous mode most of the time. I am getting some good images but not near as nice as yours, Ha Ha. I continue to surf the net for more information and ideas to get better pictures. These little wonders are sure fun to shoot with my Sony. Thanks for your wonderful information for all of us non pros!. Really helps. Looks like we will have some sun today so look forward to shooting, ( with my Sony) Hummers on the deck. Thanks Again Blake in Washington State
PS: wanted to share a couple picts, but don’t know how to add them to this post, sorry.
Thanks for the positive comment – much appreciated! None of us is ever immediately successful when we try new things with our photography. Just keep experimenting and having fun and your images will keep improving.
Some of these sure are award winners to me!
I appreciate the kind words!
You have a wonderful collection of images…thanks for sharing! Would you mind sharing your flash technique with readers? I’m sure they would be very interested.
Thanks for sharing Scott! I was also pre-focusing on the perch on the feeder then aiming my V2 at the general area where the hummingbirds momentarily hover before landing.
Thanks for sharing your technique!