Quick Draw or How to Take Hummingbird Portraits
The return of the ruby-throated hummingbirds by mid-May is a sure sign of spring-summer and the advent of another flower season for us in the Northland.
The smallest of all birds, these tiny creatures arrive after having migrated nearly 3,000 miles from their wintering home in southern Mexico. The perilous trip includes a non-stop 500-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Traveling 20 miles a day, the trip takes up to three months to complete and results in the loss of half of the bird’s body fat (which it had packed away by gorging itself on tropical bugs and nectar).
Hanging out a hummingbird feeder is a tradition in many families and a way to enjoy viewing and photographing the colorful birds with tropical origins.
Getting your camera out and snapping pictures as they perch and hover makes for an enjoyable pastime and a wonderful experience for kids and grandkids. It’s easier than you might think because the ruby-throats are very inquisitive and easily attracted to feeders, where males in particular typically display aggressive behavior toward rival hummers. They quickly become accustomed to human presence and will swoop down to investigate red articles of clothing, possibly as potential food sources. I noticed this one day as I was tending to my feeders wearing a red shirt. I wondered why the little hummers would fly right up next to me and then figured out they must think I was the “mother of all flowers.”
June Photo Tips
While hummers are quite easy to photograph when perched, it is difficult to capture the wing movement since the speedy little birds can beat their wings 60 times a second and fly in an acrobatic style matched by few other birds. They also have the capability to hover or fly upside down and backwards.
Some folks like photos showing the blurred wings, but, if you want to truly examine the exquisite structure and iridescent colors of the hummer, it will take some setup work and planning. A very fast shutter speed is needed to stop the wing movement in flight. Most high-end digital cameras have shutter speeds capable of 1/8000 second, even these incredible cameras can only due a marginal job of stopping the wings.
The use of photo flash is an effective method to stop the wings and the flash duration can be adjusted by power setting on the units. While not everyone has an interest or the equipment to create a backyard hummingbird studio, I will describe how I did mine.
A hummingbird studio – The process of setting up an outdoor studio begins with setting several feeders in the same area. When you are ready to photograph, all but one feeder is removed and all but one feeder hole on the remaining feeder is covered with tape.
Photo equipment – For my studio I took four portable Canon 550EX flash units and set them up strategically around the feeder, these units are wirelessly triggered by the Canon 5D Mark II camera. Each flash unit is placed on a light stand that will give the best lighting of the bird. The camera exposure is set so that only the lighting from the flash heads will light the bird in an ultra quick burst of light that approached 1/22000 of a second. (1/32 f-stop). I use a Canon 100mm Macro lens for this setup.
Background lighting – Due to the low power settings needed for the flash units and the camera settings to purposely underexposure the image, the true background landscape will be black. For this reason, a separate backdrop is used and placed within close range to the bird. In my studio, I use a “green screen” in order to later use Photoshop to add any background picture I desire. The backdrop is lit with a separate flash unit.
The lights and camera are manually set and focused on the area where the hummer will hover just prior to taking another drink of nectar from the feeder.
Process – While setting up the studio, it’s not unusual to have the birds zooming in and out around your head basically ignoring you while they joust with one another in a constant game of king of the feeder.
After stepping away from the feeder, you can observe the constant activity and snap a photo as the birds fly into position. With an incredibly high metabolism and a heart of rate up to 1,200 times per minute, the burst of the photo flash doesn’t stop the hummbers from soon returning for another drink of nectar and making for another photo opportunity.
While not all the pictures are successful and there is needs to be a lot of tweaking with flash placement, power settings, and exposures, the digital capture of of one of the most unique and interesting of God’s creatures is always worth the effort.
See Dennis' other work at his website: www.northernimages.com