How to photograph hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are predictable.

Hummingbirds will hover in place, leisurely sipping nectar from flowers. Their hunger for sugary ambrosia drives them. In contrast, the other wee birds like sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches never seem to sit still. They flit and flap and zig and zag. They’re always moving, and it’s hard to anticipate where they’ll jump to next.

broad tailed hummingbird feeder red green backdrop @jenphotographs
That feather detail. Broad-tailed female @jenphotographs

What you need to photograph hummingbirds

Knowledge Is Power

Cheesy after-school-special title aside, start by learning about the local hummingbirds. What kinds do you get in your area? What do they like to drink? What flowers are they most drawn to? Do they like birdbaths? Do they like hummingbird feeders?

A good starting place is to Google “hummingbird” and your region’s name. If your state of residence is a large on, like Texas, you might try your town name, county, or region name. Eg: hummingbird northern Texas.

Flowers

pink orange honeysuckle flower plantPretty much all hummingbirds like flowers, tubular flowers in particular. It’s up to you to figure out which ones your local hummers prefer, and either A. plant them in your yard, assuming you’ve one, or B. find a public park or garden that has these flowers.

Hummingbird Feeders

The feeders can be hit n’ miss, in my limited experience. From what I’ve read, a neighborhood needs to have a lot of ideal plants and/or feeders to draw them on a regular basis. And if they do, they’ll visit your feeder more frequently.

It helps to be in their migration path, as well.

broad tailed humming bird sticking tongue out feeder green backdrop
Check out that sexy tongue action. Tinder picture? @jenphotographs

I’ve only ever seen a pair of Broad-Tailed Hummingbirds at mine. They stop by my feeder about once a week or so in spring, and will swing by more frequently in summers when the local yards and gardens get more alluring plants in bloom. However, I know people who get several hummingbirds regularly.

Give feeders a shot. You might have better luck than I have had.

Side note: while the above examples show red dye in the sugar mix, experts now recommend that you don’t add dye. It may actually be harmful to the hummingbirds.

On that note: if you live in an urban area, hang the feeders anyway. We humans have encroached into wildlife’s habitats, and it’s critical for us to encourage them to continue to frequent the area as long as it’s safe to do so, of course, especially for migrant critters like hummingbirds.

OK, so you’ve either scouted out a garden, or have successfully encouraged hummingbirds’ presence in your yard. Spiffy. Next:

Camera gear

Like any other wildlife, they get skiddish when we humans get too close. So, having a a long zoom is going to be critical to getting a decent shot.

You’ll want a lens that can zoom to at least 100mm, though more would be better. This allows you to be a safe distance away, say about 10 feet, and still fill your frame so that you don’t need to crop much.

In this batch of pictures, I used a Pentax DA f4-5.8 55-300mm zoom lens, which is an okay lens. The pictures were taken at 135mm, and I shot these through a window. Kinda cheating, but it allowed me to shoot from 5 feet away.

Find your backdrop

A pleasing backdrop is critical for any subject, doubly so for birds.

If you set up a feeder, scout out a few possible camera positions in advance, and take a few practice shots. If you get results similar to the tossers I shared (above), moving the feeder a few feet over might be all you need to improve your background.

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden with loads of hummingbird-friendly flowers like honeysuckle, lupines, and petunias, take a few test shots and figure out which spots in your yard will produce a nice backdrop. Remember to move over a few feet here and there; that may be all you need to get a great backdrop.

backside hummingbird bird flying green emerald iridescent @jenphotographs
This is what emeralds should look like. @jenphotographs

Camera Settings

You’ll likely want to shoot in either AV (aperture priority; A on some cameras) mode or TV mode (shutter priority mode; may be S on some cameras. Depends on your goals.

Pentax dslr cameras have a “TAV” mode which will be useful for the Pentaxians, which combines both aperture and shutter priority; it’s unique to Pentax.

Another option you have is to shoot in Manual mode (M on most cameras).

Aperture

All dslrs, some point and shoot cameras, and some smartphones have aperture control. I usually aim for a very shallow DOF, to maximize that creamy bokeh (the mooshy soft background – yes, that’s a technical term). To achieve that, you want to open up your aperture. Somewhere between f1.8 and f5.6. The picture in the header was shot at f5.6.

Shutter Speed

If you want to totally freeze wing action, you’ll need a very fast shutter speed of at least 1/16,000th of a second. As far as I know, there are no cameras on the market capable of hitting that speed.

It is, however, achievable by using fill lights (extra light sources).

For us average photography hobbyists and dabblers, though, we’ll have to make do with 1/1000th to 1/2000th of second. While some cameras can go as high as 1/8000th of a second, it requires ISO to be boosted to the point where the grain is too distracting.

Y’know what? I’m okay with blurred wings. Hummingbirds are so fast that freezing hummingbird wings almost seems artificial. Fake, even. Like they’re stuffed models in a museum.

To me, slightly blurred wings are more realistic.

ISO

Play it loose with your ISO; your shutter speed and/or aperture should take priority over ISO. Depending on your light conditions, you might get some grain, especially with higher shutter speeds and bigger apertures.

broad tailed hummingbird flying bird green backdrop @jenphotographs
Broad-tailed female hummingbird @jenphotographs

Most of your pictures will suck.

While hummingbirds are more predictable than the other teeny birds, they do move around quite a bit. You won’t always be able to get great pictures with great backgrounds and foreground. The birds won’t always be in focus. It’ll take practice and patience.

Know that you will have far more tossers than keepers.

After you get the hang of the basics, you can expect to have 1 keeper out of, oh, maybe 50? 100? Somewhere in there. Professional bird photographers have better odds, but that’s because they’re very experienced and understand the birds’ behavior.

Practice a lot! And be patient.

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pinterest graphic How to Photograph Hummingbirds

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