Hummingbirds on the Wing

by Kevin Shank | Aug 1, 2023 | 0 comments

male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at feeder
Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo © Kevin Shank.

When my wife and I moved into our home in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds soon became regular visitors to our feeders. Both Bethany and I grew up near here, but at our valley homes, we would see hummingbirds only several times a year. In the forest where we now live, hummers are regular visitors throughout the day—sometimes lots of them.

We began to realize they are not rare to our community; rather, they have habitat preferences too, and something about the forest seems to hold their interest most. This surprised me because I associate hummingbirds with flowers, and I would have thought more flowers abound in the farm country.

Before long I was trying to photograph the little creatures at a feeder on our deck. I got some photos, but they mostly showed a feeder in the photo. For years I’ve known that someday I want to pursue hummers again and try to improve both the foreground and the background.

Now that I have a Phototrap, that interest has been renewed. A Phototrap is not necessary for taking hummingbird photos, but, by using one, I could set up equipment to photograph them while I was elsewhere doing other work.
To photograph hummers at flowers, it only takes a keen sense of the obvious to know the “right” flowers need to be found. I chose crimson red mandevillas—in part because they were about the only good option at the store.

For the set-up, it is important to choose a shaded location. Flashes will be illuminating the bird in order to freeze the movement of the wings. If sunlight also illuminates the bird, a ghost image will result.

To attract hummingbirds to the “right” blossom, I place a flat hummingbird feeder a few inches below it. The feeder has several holes, so tape is placed over all of them but one. Hummingbirds have the habit of drinking a little, then backing off a few inches for several moments before coming in for another drink. With a little work, you can capitalize on this to get the hummer at a pleasing position in relation to the flower. A medicine dropper can be used to place a little sugar water in the flower to further encourage the birds to visit it.

male Ruby-throated Hummingbird at red flower
Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo © Kevin Shank.

For a lens, I use a telephoto on an extension tube. The extra extension enables me to focus closer than I could otherwise. The camera is positioned on a tripod, composing the picture so the bottom of the frame skims across just above the flat feeder, taking in the flower and the area in front of it where we want the hummer to be.

To light the ruby gorget on the throat of the male birds, it might be valuable to first understand why they are sometimes ruby red, and other times appear dark. The feather structure is concave. When these feathers face you with the light coming past you to the bird, the beautiful iridescence reflects back to you. To achieve this in photography, we place a flash at a forty-five degree angle on both sides of the lens, and a third flash below the lens.

These flashes are very close to the bird, maybe 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) away, and are set to 1/16 power. We use this reduced power setting to speed up the burst of light. This freezes most of the wing movement. I set my camera at 1/250 second to synchronize with the flashes, and use a small aperture such as f/22. I often use ISO 400. This combination, along with setting up in the shade, is the key to cutting out the ambient light. With only the flashes providing the light for the photo, and their reduced power output being about 1/8000 second, the wing movement is effectively stopped.

With no daylight illuminating the photo, the background will go black. While this works well for owls and bats, it does not work for daytime-flying hummingbirds. To deal with this, we add a background to the set-up and position a flash to illuminate it.

Backgrounds can be made a variety of ways. The first way I tried was to set my camera lens focus on infinity, and then photograph a pot of petunias from about three feet away. This gave me soft, out-of-focus pink and green color that I could use as a poster. I wanted the background to be sixteen by twenty inches, so I printed four eight-by-ten photos—one for each quarter of the background—and then put them together on a large piece of cardboard. This background was the best I had used up to that time, but the out-of-focus flowers that provided the color were too large to be the most realistic.

The next background I tried was to place a second plant behind the one the hummingbirds would “visit.”
A fifth flash can be used to backlight the hummingbird for a pleasing effect. This flash is sometimes called a “separation light.” The key to using a separation light is to bump the power upward a little so it is brighter than the front flashes. The result is a highlight around the contours of the hummingbird from the back side, which separates the hummer from the background.

Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird flying
Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo © Kevin Shank.

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