Everything about it
To be honest, and contrary to what I read online, photographing hummingbirds was not as difficult as I thought it would be. That been said, it is not easy task (I said: “not as difficult as I thought it would be”) and a lot has to come into play in order for you to come up with a good picture. Lighting is crucial, almost as crucial as understanding your camera controls. Let’s talk about three of the main components behind every great shot.
First things first: I shoot RAW. Simply put, Raw files contain much more information (data/pixels) than JPEG files. When you shoot in JPEG the camera does its own processing to convert the data in the RAW file into a JPEG. Problem is, your camera is nowhere near as smart as your brain, nor is it as powerful as your computer. Shooting RAW allows you to process the image as pure as when it is first created, without the camera touching the file at all. I have been using Lightroom since I started taking pictures but pretty much any software out there able to process RAW files will do.
This one is key
I have discovered that some hummingbirds don’t actually move their wings as fast as others do, meaning, a fixed shutter speed does not work. Because of this, I like to range my shutter speed starting at 1/2000 sec and up. A preference of mine is to capture some movement on the wings. Hummingbirds usually don’t stay still while flying, and even if they do while eating/drinking from a flower, a slower than 1/2000 sec shutter speed more likely won’t work, because it might capture the bird’s body but not its wings. I have use a shutter speed of up to 1/6000 sec. To put things into perspective, according NPS “The Giant Hummingbird beats its wings 10-15 times per second. The fastest recorded rate is about 80 beats per second. North American hummingbirds average around 53 beats per second in normal flight.”
You are right, THAT’S FAST! Why not going all the way up to 1/8000 sec then, or 1/4000 sec for older/entry level cameras? Well, the problem is the ISO. It is not secret that when photographing wildlife, you will end up cropping, and bird photography is not the exception. ISO MUST be as low as possible, and I trust my camera enough to leave it on AUTO, at least at first.
Ninety nine percent of the time, for hummingbirds, I shoot wide open, that is f/5.6. Hummingbirds are small, and I am far enough to get them fully focused. Remember, the more light you can get the better. Smaller aperture means higher ISO.
I recommend switching focus from shutter button (by half pressing the shutter) to the AF-ON back button (name varies across brands, but functionality is the same). It has made a world of a difference when focusing on little hummingbirds! Please keep an eye on out for an upcoming article on this.
Focusing is always on AI SERVO (or equivalent for other camera brands).
There is no going wrong here. You can shoot Single Shot or High Speed continuous, although the second one might increase your chances of, if focused, going back home with a couple of extra good shots. I switch back and forth all the time.
Hummingbirds are hard to spot let along to photograph. The chances of seeing a hummingbird in the wilderness with the right lighting while being camera ready are 1 in 1000, and still a few tries are needed in order to get a decent shot. So, play smart! Research where they can be seen locally and pay them a few visits. Also, buy a birdfeeder and attract them to you. If you should take away anything from this post let it be this: a picture of a hummingbird is a picture of a hummingbird regardless of the setting and circumstances around it. A “stage” shot of a hummingbird is not any different from a “stage” shot of model in a studio.
Feel free to comment below your impressions on this post.