1. High Speed Flash

Hummingbirds are some of the most colorful and delightful birds—wonderful to watch, and fun to capture with your camera. This Online Guide will give you an introduction to professional techniques for photographing these flying jewels, and preview what you will learn in our Hummingbird Photography Workshops. But try these techniques with caution—hummingbird photography can be addictive!

Freezing a Hummingbird's Wings: High-Speed Flash

As hummingbirds hover at a flower or feeder, their wings can beat up to 80 times per second, which produces their signature hum. To the naked eye—and often to your camera—the wings are just a blur. One of the first questions I'm asked is what shutter speed I use to stop this super-fast movement.

The real answer is that the motion is frozen with high speed electronic flash strobe, not by a fast shutter speed on the camera.

You can photograph hummingbirds with a single flash mounted on your camera's hotshoe. But for professional looking results, you'll want to use multiple flashes mounted off the camera. How many should you use? That depends on your style and resources.

Three or four is a good starting number. I sometimes use five or six because, as you'll see, you usually need separate strobes on the background. The good news is that you can use fairly simple and inexpensive hotshoe flashes (e.g. Vivitar or Sunpak) as I'll explain below.

Controlling Flash Duration

A typical hotshoe flash puts out a very fast "pulse" of light. But how fast is fast? To freeze all motion in a hummingbird's wings, you need a duration as short as 1/5,000 to 1/20,000 of a second (50-200 microseconds).

At full power, a typical hotshoe flash has a duration of about 1/750 to 1/1,000 s, which is too slow for our needs. However, today's variable power flashes have a key feature that we can exploit: as you decrease the power, the flash duration also decreases, roughly in line with the power.

For example, my Canon Speedlites have a duration of about 1/750 s at full and half power, and then the duration decreases by roughly half every time you reduce the power by one f/stop. The result is about 1/6,000 s at 1/16 power, and 1/10,000 s at 1/32 power. That's plenty of stopping ability—albeit at the cost of reduced light output. (But we can compensate for that by using several flashes and moving them closer to the subject.)

There are two ways to get low power from a hotshoe flash: adjust the power manually (if your flash has a manual power setting), or use TTL (Through-The-Lens) automatic flash and move closer to the subject. I prefer to set the flash power manually, for more control. But let's take a look at how TTL autoflash works first.

Getting Short Flash Durations with TTL

TTL flash metering requires a camera and flash that can communicate with each other. When the camera senses through the lens than enough light has reached the subject, it signals the flash to quench its output. Hotshoe flashes can accomplish this extremely quickly via a component called a Thyristor, which immediately cuts off power to the flash tube and stops further light output.

If you're familiar with the Inverse Square Law for light output, you can see why moving the flash closer to the subject in TTL mode reduces the flash duration. The Inverse Square Law says that each time we cut the distance in half, the light output increases by 22, or a factor of 4. For photographers, that translates to a gain of two f/stops.

Since the camera senses the need for less flash output as you move closer, the TTL system will automatically reduce the power—and thus the duration. This works as well with older, pre-TTL automatic flashes, like the Vivitar 283, which measures light reflected from the subject via a photocell on the front of the flash instead of through the lens.

Short Durations with Manual Flash

While TTL flash at close distances gives you short flash durations, it has two disadvantages for hummingbirds:

  • It is hard to know the actual power and thus the duration.
  • TTL flash can be fooled into overexposing by a small subject with a distant background.

For these reasons I prefer to set my flashes manually to a low power—and motion-stopping ability—of my choosing. In that case, there are two features to look for in flashes for this type of work:

  • ability to set low power manually
  • high maximum power (Guide Number)

Not all flashes allow you to set the power manually (even though they may adjust it internally in TTL mode) so check for this feature. And you want to start with a fairly powerful flash, so that you can set it to low power and still have enough light.

I'll have more to say about choosing flashes in Part 5. But now let's learn about how to use them for hummingbirds.

2. The Outdoor Studio

Although we've decided to use flash for our hummingbirds, we'll typically be working outside in daylight. So it may not be immediately obvious how to deal with flash and daylight at the same time. The simplest solution is to ensure that the total flash output is several stops brighter than ambient. If you do that, then all the light in your picture will come from your flashes.

To put it another way, you want to work at a shutter speed and aperture that would give you several stops of underexposure if your flashes didn't fire and only the ambient light reached the film. (A typical setting might be 1/200 s at f/16 with ISO 100 film in the shade. That can be achieved with several flashes positioned as I'll describe in Part 3.)

This is exactly like shooting at night, with only flash to light the scene! It is also like shooting with flash in a studio, where strobes are your only light source. In fact, we are going to construct an "Outdoor Studio" in miniature to get our images, and then entice the hummingbirds to pose for us!

Can I Mix Flash and Ambient Light?

While it's easier to set up so that all your exposure comes from your flashes, it's not necessary. Sometimes the ambient light is too bright to ignore. Other times you may choose to include it.

When flash and ambient light mix, you'll see what's known as "ghosting." That’s because the photo is really a sort of "double exposure"—one image from the ambient light for the entire time the shutter is open (e.g. 1/125 sec) which will have wings blurred; and another superimposed image of frozen motion from the strobe.

Ghosting can impart an element of motion, which may be desirable. But it requires more attention to balancing the ambient and flash levels. With a flash meter, this is not hard to do, as long as your ambient light level stays constant.

Studio Control in an Outdoor Setting

One advantage of shooting in the "outdoor studio" is that you have almost complete control over the lighting. You decide where to put the lights, what backgrounds to use, and where you'll shoot. And proper placement of the lights is crucial for getting the best shots of iridescent hummingbirds. Of course, this assumes you can entice at least one hummingbird to cooperate—but they're usually pretty obliging if you feed them.

The heart of our setup is usually a sugar-water feeder, with flashes positioned 1-3 feet from the subject. As you'll see, part of the challenge—and fun—is hiding the feeder and placing flowers and other props to make your setting look natural. You can also set up at a plant naturally favored by hummingbirds—and further entice your subject by supplementing the natural nectar with a spike of sugar water. Your setup can be as simple or elaborate as you desire.

Getting Enough Flash Output

By now you can see that there's a tradeoff between flash output and duration. To freeze wing motion, your flashes need to operate at 1/8 to 1/32 power. But you also want a lot of light from your flashes—to effectively compete with daylight, and to allow small apertures for maximum depth of field. There are several ways to cope with these competing demands:

1. Arrange for your subject and background to be in shade (less ambient light to compete with).

2. Use as high a flash sync speed as possible.

3. Use more flashes, and position them close to the subject, perhaps two feet away or less. Remember that the Inverse Square Law tells us that if we cut the distance in half, light intensity at the subject will increase by a factor of four. And of course doubling the number of flashes will double the output, giving you one more f/stop.

Once you've created your setup, you can place your camera on a tripod 5-10 feet away, sit in a comfortable chair, and wait for the diners to come. But first you need to decide on the proper positions for the lights, and then determine the correct exposure.

3. Exposure and Light

If your camera and multiple flashes support TTL flash metering, your exposure can be determined automatically. But I prefer to set my flashes manually and determine exposure with a flash meter, for several reasons:

  • Setting power manually provides full control over the flash duration.
  • TTL flash can be fooled by a small subject.
  • Better balance between subject and background exposure.
  • Simple but high output non-TTL flashes (e.g Vivitar, Sunpak) are less expensive than camera manufacturers’ full-featured TTL flashes, and sometimes simpler to trigger in multi-flash setups.

Multiple manual flash requires the use of a flash meter. I like the new Minolta AutoMeter V-F (this replaces my IV-F), which is compact and doubles as an incident meter (B&H $220). A new meter that I like from Sekonic is the L-358 (B&H $200). A simple incident flash meter is all you need.

Your flash meter should have a "non-cord" mode. In this mode, you depress the trigger button on the meter, and then any flash that fires in the next 60 seconds will trigger the meter to take the reading. The alternate "cord" mode requires that you connect the meter to the flash via a PC socket, which many hotshoe flashes don't have..

Be sure you know how to correctly read your meter! Most give exposures to the nearest tenth stop, but you have to know how to decipher the display. Minolta and Sekonic meters give you "full" f/stop readings (5.6, 8, 11, etc.) plus a smaller number that represents 0.1-stop increments (other meters indicate this graphically). If your meter tells you, "f/11 and nine-tenths of a stop," that essentially means f/16. This is one situation where the "fine print" is important!

Guide Number calculations are a nightmare with multiple flashes, and not recommended.

Finally, some reciprocity failure can occur in films at these very short flash durations, which can lead to underexposure. And meters and cameras vary as well. So it’s best to examine some test rolls or digital captures to calibrate your results.

Depth of Field and Focusing Distance

After you get up close and personal with hummingbirds, one thing becomes abundantly clear: they’re tiny! The smallest hummers you're likiely to encounter in North America are barely three inches from the tips of their bills to the ends of their tails – and that’s including a relatively long bill. (The world's smallest bird is the Bee Hummingbird, just over 2 inches!) Frame-filling shots of these birds approach the realm of telephoto macro photography. As a result, depth of field is very limited.

To counteract this, shoot at apertures as high as f/16 to f/32 to get most of the bird in sharp focus. Again you must balance the conflicting needs of high flash power for depth of field versus low power to stop motion.

Iridescence – Capturing the Light

One of the most striking features of hummingbirds, and the one you’re sure to want to capture on film, is iridescence. Iridescence results from microscopic structures that break apart light and strongly reflect back only certain wavelengths. When light strikes at just the right angle, iridescent feathers appear to glow brilliantly and with very pure colors. The color may vary with the angle, and if the angle between viewer and light source is too great, it might simply appear black.

Many male hummingbirds, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, have iridescent gorgets (throat feathers). Some species, such as the beautiful Broad-billed Hummingbird, have iridescent feathers over much of their bodies.

Lighting position is crucial to capturing this color on film. Basically, some of the lights should be fairly close to the lens axis. If the light is too far off axis, the iridescence will be diminished or not visible. On the other hand, some light from the sides will help reveal the shape of the subject.

In many ways this is like studio portrait work, with special consideration for iridescence. A single light on the camera produces a very flat look (but usually shows the iridescence). Multiple lights off-axis reveal the shape and produce a more interesting look. I often position one strobe aboveand somewhat behind the bird as well; this is like a "hair light" or rim light, and helps visually separate it from the background.

Many of the images in our Online Galleries were shot with five flash heads. Some of the real fun and creativity comes from experimenting with lighting setups.

4. Feeders, Flowers and Backgrounds


For setups I often use tube feeders (Perky Pets makes one) to attract the birds, and hide them behind flower blossoms. By careful arrangement, it appears that the bird is feeding from the flower, and the feeder can’t be seen. (The compression effect of telephoto lenses contributes to this illusion.)

Setting this up, and lighting it, can become quite elaborate—and lots of fun! I have often spent as much time positioning the flowers around the feeder as I have on all the lights and other arrangements. (And sometimes the wings of the impatient birds have brushed against my fingers as we compete for "feeder time"!)

Backgrounds and Flowers

If you arrange the strobes on the bird to be much brighter than the ambient light, the background will go black unless you take steps to counteract this. Also, if your distant background is in bright sun, a "ghost" image of the bird silhouetted on the background can occur. So the next element of our outdoor studio is the background.

For a simple background you can use matboards from an art supply store, which are available in a wealth of colors. By placing one perhaps 18 inches from the bird, enough light may spill over onto it from the flashes lighting the bird, but beware of shadows. Dedicating one or more lights to the background will help. A flash meter is invaluable for balancing this light. Move the background flash until the background reading is the same as the reading for the bird—or vary the ratio for creative effects.

Matboards provide a clean background, but can also look artificial. After you’ve gotten proficient, you can try adding painted backgrounds or flowers. Three dimensional backgrounds such as flowers or plants require special attention to lighting, otherwise deep and unnatural shadows may result. For such situations, I often dedicate two or even three flashes to the background.

The photo on the right required three lights on the bird (positioned so as to not burn out the flower it's "feeding" from), one light on the background plant to augment the light spilling over from the bird, and yet another light on a painted matboard behind the background flowers (to prevent the "holes" in the plant from going black).

Visualizing Your Results

With some experience you will be able to predict the effects of lighting on complicated and three dimensional setups. Keep in mind that, for the most part, "what you see is not what you get," particularly if your flashes are much brighter than ambient.

Instead, try to picture the results as if you were shooting at night, with the only light coming from your strobes. (If you were in a darkened studio, you could rely on modeling lights on your strobes to preview your results, but that’s not practical outdoors.)

Before the advent of digital SLRs, I routinely used overnight or same-day E-6 processing to check my results. If you are shooting medium format, you can use a Polaroid back. Digital SLR bodies are a great advantage for this type of flash photography, since you can immediately see your results. And the quality is good enough that many of my participants shoot entirely in digital now—and we have a digital slideshow of their results later that day!

5. Equipment Advice

Equipment Recommendations

Camera: A 35 mm digital or film SLR with the ability to manually set shutter speed and aperture and some mechanism for firing off-camera flashes. Some camera systems have accessory cords for firing remote flashes, or wireless off-camera flash. PC sockets for firing manual flashes are making a comeback on higher end SLRs after being discarded as "old technology." You can also mount a single manual flash on your hotshoe and use it to fire the others via slave.

Flashes: For serious work, I recommend four to six manual flash units. You can start with fewer and add more later. Your flashes should have

  • manual adjustment of power (light output)
  • high maximum power (Guide Number)

The most versatile—and expensive—option is to purchase several top-of-the-line flashes made by your camera’s manufacturer, plus all the cables and/or transmitters and remote sensors from your manufacturer required for full TTL flash operation off-camera.

On the other hand, if you're solely using your flashes on manual, you don't need the expense and whiz-bang features of top-of-the-line dedicated TTL flashes.

A good compromise is to own at least one or two full-featured TTL flashes for your camera system (which you can use for general flash photography where TTL is very useful), and purchase additional, simpler flashes for hummingbirds and other situations where manual flash is sufficient. One economical choice is the venerable Vivitar 283 (B&H $67). You will need to equip each one with the VP-1 Vari-Power Module ($27) which allows you to manually set the power. Also useful for triggering these flashes is the Wein "Peanut" slave ($14).

Film: To show the exquisite detail and colors in hummingbirds I recommend fine-grained ISO 50 or 100 slide film (e.g., Kodak E100VS, Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia). Because the electronic flash freezes the motion of the hummingbirds and any camera shake, high speed film is not needed. However, ISO 100 film gives you an extra f/stop of depth of field compare to ISO 50. Participants in our workshops typically shoot 5-20 rolls per day.

Digital Media: If you're shooting or previewing your hummingbird results digitally, you'll need a camera capable of triggering your flashes. A laptop is helpful for critically judging your results. Otherwise, just be sure you've got sufficient storage for your images.

Lens: Close-focusing lenses in the 200-400 mm range are convenient for hummingbirds. Hummers are quite tolerant, but six to ten feet is a comfortable working distance; they’ll be less inclined to flee as you manipulate your camera. However, hummingbirds are small; close focusing lenses and/or extension tubes are needed. One good check of your equipment is to draw a 4x6 inch frame on paper and tape it to a wall. If your lens with telextenders and/or extension tubes allows you to focus close enough that it fills the frame, you can get frame-filling shots of even the smallest hummers.

Zooms in this range are ideal for quickly adjusting the frame for species of different sizes. A tripod collar for easily rotating between vertical and horizontal is also helpful. I turn off autofocus for hummingbirds at setups (although I use it for almost everything else). The blur of the wings tends to confuse AF systems. Because the birds are returning to the same small area in the setup, I can quickly tweak the focus manually and ensure that the subject is sharp.

You don’t need "big glass" f/2.8 telephotos, because you’re stopping down for depth of field, but large apertures do give brighter viewfinders for focusing.

Most of my early hummingbird work was done with the Canon EOS 300 mm f/2.8L lens, with 1.4X extender and extension tubes. I then set it aside in favor of Canon’s EF 70-200 f/2.8 L zoom with the 1.4X or 2X telextender. It is close-focusing and has a tripod collar for rapidly changing from horizontal to vertical. The zoom allowed me to quickly adjust framing for small Black-chins and large Blue-throats, and even with the 2X converter it is extremely sharp at the small apertures I use for hummingbirds. I also own the 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens, which is close focusing and offers a good focal length range for hummers.

Tripod: It's convenient to mount your camera and lens on a tripod, while you use a chair or portable stool. Then you're in place and your camera is pointed at your setup when a hummingbird arrives. A ballhead allows quick adjustments to your composition; my favorite is the Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball with Quick Release (B&H $400). Note that any camera movement will be effectively "frozen" if strobes are your light source.

Lightstands: I use Bogen/Manfrotto lightstands, which are well-made and reasonably priced. I have been using the 7½' Lightweight Pro stands (2 lb., collapses to under 27") in black (#3372 - $58). You can save a few dollars buying the silver model (#3097 - $50) but silver is more distracting. (Note: B&H sometimes lists the black version under "#3097 Black".)

Bogen now sells Stacker Lightstands, which collapse smaller (25") and in a shape that allows easy stacking of several for travel (although they weigh slightly more). In this style I recommend the Stacker 7' Black (#3320B - $72) or the silver version (#3320 - $67, 2.4 lb.).

You need a means to mount the flash on the stand and tilt it. Compact ballheads work well; try the Stroboframe Shoe Mount Ballhead (#320-060 - $20, 1 oz.). It is also helpful to have one or more Bogen/Manfrotto Mini Clamps (#2940 - $15) and Articulated Arms (#2935 - $33). (Note: you don't need heavy-duty Magic Arms here—they are overkill for holding hotshoe flashes.)

As I said at the outset: Hummingbird photography is addictive! It stimulates your creativity, challenges your ingenuity, takes you to great places, and rewards you with great images of some of the most beautiful birds to be found anywhere.