How to Photograph Hummingbirds: The Long-tailed Sylph in Ecuador

Multiple Flash Photography of Hummingbirds in Ecuador

Ralph Paonessa

June 26, 2015

1. Introduction

There are over three hundred hummingbird species in the world, all in the Western Hemisphere. The Long-tailed Sylph is one of the most beautiful. I had never imagined there could be such a hummingbird until I saw it in the valleys of the Andes Mountains at the Equator. The Equator was not hot and steamy here as I'd always pictured it, but cool and lush—and home to most of the world's hummingbirds.

A Long-tailed Sylph visits a Centropogon flower.
A Long-tailed Sylph visits a Centropogon flower.

Papallacta River Valley, Ecuador. October 28, 2008. Canon EOS 5D raw capture, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS-L lens at 135mm. Four high-speed flash units at 1/16 power (1/10,000 second).

The male Long-tailed Sylph can measure over 7 inches from the tip of its bill to the end of it's shimmering green tail. The Andes, which reach over 20,000 feet (6,200 m) in Ecuador, bisect the country into eastern and western slopes, and each have their own resident bird species. The Long-tailed Sylph occurs on both slopes but is more common in the east, which drains into the Amazon basin. It prefers elevations of 5,200 to 8,500 feet (1,600 to 2,600 m).

I had to get a picture of this bird!

Photographing hummingbirds in flight

Hummingbirds are known for their ability to hover while flying, and their appetite for nectar and sugar water. To photograph them in flight, I set up feeders or flowers to attract them, and place several high speed flashes to illuminate the area where I expect they will feed, and wait. In our Ecuador Hummingbird photography workshops, we stay one week on the eastern slope at remote Guango Lodge, where sylphs and many other hummer species are common and used to feeders and people. Here my group had a constant stream of colorful hummingbirds at their cameras.

Techniques for high-speed photography

I'm often asked what shutter speed I use to freeze a hummingbird in flight. But in reality, the trick is to use high-speed flash, so that it's really not the shutter speed that stops the motion, it's the 1/10,000 second flash burst. You can get such short flash durations with a standard hotshoe flash, as long as it allows you to set a low manual power, like 1/16. These flashes reduce their power by cutting the duration of the already-short full-power flash burst (usually around 1/1,000 sec). You can then shoot at your camera's flash sync speed, usually 1/60 to 1/250 sec.

At these low powers, the flashes must be placed within a few feet of the subject. Also, to make this shot work, the total light from all the flashes must be a few stops brighter than daylight. If not, part of the exposure would come from daylight, and this would produce ghosting, where a blurred natural light image is superimposed over the frozen motion from the flash, giving a sort of "double exposure." When properly controlled, this effect can look good; but it's more complicated to get the exposures right, and simpler to set up so that all the light comes from the flashes.