Shooting Hummingbirds 2 of 2

How To Photograph Hummingbirds 2 of 2 (With Flash)

This blog article is the second of two:

  1. How to shoot hummingbirds in natural light without a flash (click here to go there)
  2. How to shoot hummingbirds with flash (This blog piece)

I didn’t just shoot these hummers, I BLASTED them!  Yeah, I BLASTED these buggers with a double barreled dose of flash.  If you want to freeze the wings, get this detail, and impress the chicks (the human kind), you need to shoot hummingbirds with a flash.  I used two flash units, but you can do it with one.

In this blog piece, I give you the ammo you need to blast these hummers into oblivion (or at least into your memory card).  As it turns out, it is easy to get pictures of hummingbirds like this but you have to plan, follow my instructions, maybe buy some gadgets, and just do it.  Do your planning, gather your equipment and props, then set aside at least five hours for setup and shooting.  I will admit shooting hummingbirds with a flash is a bit advanced, but give it a try; it is a ton o’ fun as you blast these buggers with photons.

While I try to give you some rational behind this stuff, if you just skip down to the SETTINGS section and use my recommendations, duplicate what you see in my setup, you will get pictures like I nailed here.

Hummingbirds – To freeze or not to freeze the wings

If you want to freeze hummingbird wings, you have to use a flash.  Period.  Here is why:  Using a flash is just like using a high-speed shutter.  Think of the days you went fishing in those awful discos where the thumping would have you barfing up your sloe-gin fizz just when you were dishing out your best moves.  Remember those strobe lights that froze the dance floor spasms?  Well, they were nothing more than flash guns like your camera flash.  Camera flashes work the same way, they freeze the action with very short bursts of light.

Why not use natural sun light and a fast shutter?  Well you can’t do it.  For one thing, most consumer camera shutters are just not fast enough with their maximum of around 1/4000.  On top of that, there is not enough natural light to use your fastest shutter speed along with a slightly closed down aperture for focus sharpness, or a reasonable ISO setting for good picture quality.  Sorry, you are going to need to totally re-think shooting a hummingbird if you want to freeze the wings.

If you want to shoot with natural light, then do so.  The results can be great but produce very different results than flash photography.  Click here for my blog piece on shooting hummingbirds with natural light.

What shutter speed do you need? – How fast are a hummer’s wings?

After consulting the oracle of oracles, The Google,  I found the estimates for hummer wing speed range from 55 to 75 beats per second!!!  Yikes!  That is fast!  I hate math but I am sure someone out there can do the calculations to translate this to an actual required shutter speed, but I will tell you this simple short-hand answer:  As fast as you can.

I shot these at about 1/6500 and still got some blurring.  Even this was not fast enough.  As I noted already, you can get these simulated shutter speeds using a flash.  Technically, you can get much faster speeds with a flash but you will see it is really tough to go faster due to the physical limitations of flash placement and other issues with your “home studio”.

How a Flash Actually Works – Power is not about brightness

First, there is a big misunderstanding about how a flash works and what is commonly called flash power.  While one flash model may fire brighter than another, stopping action is not about how bright the flash fires… it is all about how long it stays on.  Flashes always fire at full power, but the variable is when they turn off.

A flash, even at full power (actually full time), is still very fast and a very short burst of light.  It appears to be a long burn, but that is an illusion because your eyes are overloaded and left with the flash imprint until your retina recovers.  How fast is a full power discharge?  Well, that depends on the make and model of your flash.  Unfortunately, Canon does not publish their flash power times but the geeks on the internet publish this stuff for you. Why Canon doesn’t publish this stuff is a mystery to me, but the data you need is easily found with a few clicks.

There are blogs and websites that publish flash power / timings and as is typical, not all are in agreement.  Oh well, at least they were similar.  I used the numbers from a website called www.speedlights.net where you can read more about flashes than you would want to know.  They published the following for my Canon 580 EXII (a top of the line, discontinued pro model I purchased used over the ‘net):

Which speed to use?  As I noted earlier, as fast you can.  You must get the flash close to the bird, and then adjust exposures.  This will drive what power you can get away with.  I settled on 1/16 power that yielded an effective shutter equivalent of 1/6500 second.  If you use my setup recommendations and equipment distances, use 1/16 power.

A technical note about the above timings…. one of the reasons the timings published on the ‘net differ from each other has to do with the testing methodology.  I won’t go into it much but it has to do with the flash decay… when to declare the flash “off”.  The method above is a t0.1 methodology and this yields timings that are longer than other methods.  Note the difference between Canon’s own spec for full power and this tester’s results.  In other words, I probably got way faster shutters than published above…. whatever.

The Hummingbird Studio – This is the most important thing of all!!!

Here is a list of issues with a short rational:

  • A Bird feeder – Locate the feeder in the shade and where the hummers feel comfortable going
  • A flash or two – Located off of your camera on a tripod or flash stand located very close to where the bird will be floating
  • A flash stand or two
  • A flash triggering system – Your flash is off-camera so you need a method to fire it.
  • A tripod for your camera – I just can’t hold a camera steady enough or up to my face for as long as it takes to snap hummer photos.
  • A background – I used a blue, featureless blanket that has the dual focusing advantages of being ignored by your camera and will allow the bird to stand out for better and faster focus lock.
  • A zoom lens – I shot these with my 500mm but any zoom will do.
  • A ton of patients as you will have to sit motionless
  • Birds

Put the feeder up a week or so before shooting and locate it where it will be for the shoot.  The birds learn where to find the feeder.  Hummers are more likely to use a feeder if it is near bushes where they feel safe.  Stake out where you will sit, what background you will use and make sure the feeder is in shadow as you want the flashes to do the work and not the sun.