Hummingbird Pictures: Experiments with techniques to take digital pictures of the hummingbirds that visit my feeders.

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I want to make it clear from the start that I am not a professional photographer and have never taken even a single photography class. What follows is an account of what I, as an amateur, learned from experimenting with taking pictures of hummingbirds. I'm posting them to help anyone who might want to attempt this fascinating hobby and wishes to avoid my mistakes.

This pages chronicles my progress in improving the quality of hummingbird pictures and shows what can be accomplished using digital cameras in the 2 megapixel class, middle-grade cameras with 5 megapixels, and a semiprofessional camera with 8.2 megapixels.

 
Using 2 Megapixel Cameras:

Taking photographs of hummingbirds in sitting poses is easy, though it does require some patience. All you have to do is get as close to a hummingbird feeder as possible, get the feeder in the viewfinder, hold still so as not to spook the birds and wait for a hummer to land. When a hummer comes to feed, click the shutter without moving. Using a "blind" (some sort of structure with a small hole for the camera's lens to shoot through) that hides you from the bird may allow you to get closer without frightening him away. I found that when using a tripod, the most comfortable position in which to wait is not sitting in a chair or on a stool, but standing.

Here's a full frame image taken using a 2 megapixel camera with no zoom. The closest I could get was 4 feet away. Note how small the hummingbird shows up in the picture:

The combination of low pixel count and the small size of the hummer results in a poor image when cropped and expanded.

The problem is that there aren't enough pixels covering the bird to pick up detail. Using the camera's 3X optical zoom helps.

Using the 2X digital zoom in addition to the 3X optical zoom improves the image further.

The main problem with this last image is that this female's coloring is so close to the gray concrete block wall behind her that much detail is lost.

Trying to take a picture of one in flight is much tougher.

The picture above was taken a 6X zoom. There was no shutter speed adjustment available.

The best bet for this class of camera would be to use the flash, which is usually faster than the camera's shutter. If the flash is adjustable, set it to it's minimum intensity. Flashes reduce the amount of light they put out by how long they are on. When they are set to a lower level they flash for a shorter period of time, which helps stop the action. The problem is that while the results are better, the low pixel count again renders the image too grainy, as the following two cropped and enlarged examples show:

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It's obvious that using small point-and-shoot type cameras are only going to yield marginal results. The best advice for using one is to find out the minimum focusing distance of the camera when it's set to maximum zoom, set it up at that distance from the feeder and wait motionless until a hummingbird decides to trust you. Even then the best you're likely to get is something good enough for a 5 x 3.5-inch print.

 
Using a 5 Megapixel Camera:

Using a slightly better camera with more pixels works much better. While the pictures won't be good enough for National Geographic to want to purchase, they can still make attractive 5 x 7 prints. Here are two pictures using 5x optical zoom (left) and 5x optical plus 2x electronic zoom for a total of 10x zoom (right) from a Sony DSC F707 5.25 megapixel camera taken from 6 feet away:

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As you can see the picture on the left is less sharp than the one on the right. Even though your camera's instructions warn you that the electronic zoom may loose resolution, I find that it's always better to use it than not when photographing very small objects like hummingbirds. These are starting to look better but if enlarged for a 4 x 6 inch print they begin to look grainy.

Moving to only two feet away from the bird, the image becomes large enough, with a full 10X zoom, to begin to capture some of the fine detail of these exquisite little birds.

Even enlarged three times larger than the previous pictures, this one shows considerably more detail. It has been reduced to 72 dpi for posting on this page. In its original 300 dpi format it can be printed out to 8 x 10 inches and looks okay, though some graininess is evident.

Be careful to set the lens aperture small enough, if you can do so, to ensure that the depth of field (the total distance in front of and behind the spot on which the camera is focused over which the image appears sharp) is at least six inches. This helps make sure that the entire bird will be in focus. Otherwise part of him will be in focus and the rest blurred. Typically this means an aperture of F8 to F16 depending on how far away the camera is from the bird. Using F22 sounds like it would be better but at this small an opening diffraction effects can begin to blur the picture. The only way to determine this limit is to experiment with your camera/lens combination to determine what the optimum aperture is. This assumes that the lens on your camera allows you to make such adjustments.

If you want to take a picture of a hummingbird in flight things get very complicated. Besides their high wing beat rate (70 per second), hummingbirds also fly very fast and, at least near a feeder, tend to move in short jerky steps that are hard to track. If your camera has an adjustable shutter speed you can try setting it to as fast as possible, but even at 1/1000 second the wings will still be blurred.

One way to help freeze the action is to use the camera's flash, which is usually faster than it's shutter. If the flash is adjustable, set it to it's minimum intensity. Flashes reduce the amount of light they put out by how long they are on. When they are set to a lower level they flash for a shorter period of time, which helps stop the action. Here are a few examples:

These pictures point out a big mistake I made: setting the feeder that attracted the hummers too close to a wall. The wall catches the shadows cast by the flash. I can hide the shadow by covering the background with a dark cloth or simply moving the feeder away from the wall.

The problem with the Sony is that the flash adjustment doesn't go low enough to truly stop the action. For that a significantly better camera is required.

 
Using an 8.2 Megapixel Camera:

The Canon EOS 20D, 8.2 megapixel camera is classed as a semiprofessional unit. Equipped with a good lens it is capable of taking outstanding pictures. However, even it is stretched to its limits in photographing hummingbirds.

It's tempting to think that with 8.2 megapixels one can be caviler about taking pictures of hummingbirds from any distance. Regrettably, this isn't the case. Consider the following picture taken from 7 feet away using a 200mm lens:

Cropping out everything but the hummer, in other words throwing away 95 percent of the pixels, provides what at first glance looks like a good photo:

As nice as it may appear, note that there is very little fine detail in the feathers. The neck area blurs into a tan haze. Enlarged to an 8 x 10-inch print the detail is far too soft and there is a distinct graininess caused by over enlarging it. This is a case where reducing the picture to 72 ppi for posting on the Internet actually helped sharpen it. (It's a pity this wasn't taken closer... it's a nice pose.)

To capture the sort of detail that takes people's breath away you need to get as close as possible to the bird. This creates a problem because as brave as they are, hummingbirds get very skittish if you get within three feet of them. My solution was to add a 25mm extension tube onto my 18-200mm lens. This enabled me to almost fill the frame with the bird to capture the maximum of detail while sitting a comfortable 5 feet away. Here's what that did for me:

Although the detail isn't practical to be shown on the Internet (at 72 ppi it would be 18 inches tall) this picture can be blown up to an 8 x 10 inch print and every feather on the body is razor sharp.

Note: the picture above was taken using a flash. I've found that using a point source or focused flash causes the top layer of feathers to cast shadows on the next layer, which increases the contrast between the two layers and brings out extra detail. Also, reducing the photo to 72 ppi for the Internet increased the harshness of the image and lost much of the depth of color.

One of the problems with getting this close to the subject is that the depth of field, the distance in front of and behind the subject that appear sharp, is greatly reduced. Look at the wings and you can tell that they are blurry not just because they are moving but because they are also out of focus. They are outside of the field of focus. Unfortunately there is no way around this problem. Michael Reichmann has an article in Luminous Landscape (http://luminous-landscape.com) that proves the depth of field is dependent solely on the aperture, distance from the object, and the size of the object on the sensor. What this means is that setting back and using a longer lens so the image size is the same will not increase the depth of field.

For my lens, the minimum aperture that can be used without introducing diffraction effects that blur the image is F18. At the 64 inch distance I take most of my pictures this provides a depth of focus of 4 inches; mathematically large enough to cover a small hummingbird. However, I've noticed that the actual depth of field appears to be half this.

Using all I've learned from the above experiments, I took the following photo of a hummer at 1/8000 second (trying to stop the wings with the shutter instead of the flash) at F18 to produce the following:

There are still many problems with this picture. Even shooting at ISO 1600 with 1200 watts of light the wings aren't lighted well enough. Additionally, the forward wing is casting a shadow across the hummer's chest. The detail is good in the original, greatly reduced in this compressed version, but I used several lights shining on the bird from different directions and they washed out the contrast-enhancing shadows mentioned earlier provided by a point flash.

At slower ISOs the picture becomes so dark that lightening it creates graininess and red artifacts. Using 1600 takes care of the darkness, but introduces graininess and red artifacts on its own. I prefer shooting at no higher than ISO 400. At this slow speed and with the aperture set for F18 even heavily supplemented ambient light simply isn't good enough. The next step is to use a high power flash.

(Funny comment about using 1200 watts of steady light: While doing this I noticed the birds stopped coming around after half an hour. The reason turned out to be that even though the feeder was covered with highly reflective aluminum foil the feeder solution got so hot it was almost boiling. The poor hummers could take the light but not their tongues being scalded.)

 

Iridescence:

Capturing the colored flash of light from a hummingbird's iridescent throat feathers is fairly easy. To see these feathers light up all you have to do is have the source of light close to the lens and the bird more-or-less looking toward the camera lens. For cameras with built-in flashes this is no problem.

As you can see in the photo above, taken with a 5 megapixel camera on full zoom, the brilliance of the iridescence trails off toward the top of the head and sides of the throat. This is because the iridescence is strongly directional, like reflections off a mirror.

The iridescence comes from very small patches on the bottom of each tiny throat feather. Sixty of these specialized feathers are required to to cover the head of an Anna's hummingbird.

Other Tricks I Learned:

It's almost impossible to get good pictures of hummingbirds by walking around to find them. They will invariably be too far away to capture all of their exquisite detail. It's much more practical to set up a feeder and let the hummingbirds come to you.

The best time to catch a hummer is from 15 minutes before sunrise to 15 minutes after. At this time the birds are at their hungriest and make the most frequent and longest stops at the feeder. They are so desperate to fill up after the long night that it's not uncommon to see several birds tolerating each other in close proximity. The second best time is 15 minutes before to 15 minutes after sunset. The birds aren't starving at this time so they tend to feed for shorter lengths of time and are more prone to fighting off others than they are in the early morning. (Note: please don't be so intrusive at these times as to scare the birds away and prevent them from feeding all they want. In the morning they are literally starving and desperately need to fill up. In the evening they are stocking up for a long night and need all the nectar they can get.)

Only one out of every 20 pictures taken turns out looking good. The rest invariable have the hummingbird in an unattractive pose, outside of the depth of focus or partially off the frame. So be prepared to take a lot of pictures.

If you don't like pictures of hummers feeding from artificial feeders, cover the camera's view of the feeder with a small spray of real flowers. They shouldn't be too large or they will draw the eye away from the bird. One exception would be the type of shot where the hummer buries his head deep inside the bloom. In such cases insert the feeder's tube into the throat of the flower, but still out of site of the camera's lens.

The camera's shutter "click" can startle them so turn it off if possible. My Canon is very noisy, can't be turned off and it often scares them away.

Use the highest power lens you have. The further away you can get from the birds the more relaxed they will be. Hummingbirds will tolerate people being close to them, but they really don't trust us.

It's hard to accidentally catch a hummingbird's iridescent throat from natural light. It's much better to plan to do so using a flash.

For close-up shots I've found that the lens's focusing ring is far to coarse an adjustment for fine focusing. Autofocus is too slow and erratic with a rapidly moving object as small as a hummingbird. What works best for me is to focus on the feeder then move forward or backward as needed to get the bird in sharp focus.

Hummingbirds have the uncanny knack of showing up at the feeder right when you've put the camera down for a second to scratch your nose. When you're ready for them, they seem to know it and avoid the feeder. I don't really think they are psychic... but they sure are good at pretending to be.

Because of the limited depth of field in close-up shots, it's best to focus on the bird's shoulder. That way his head, and most importantly the eye, will be in focus as well as most of the body and wings. Don't worry too much about getting the beak in focus, that's easily cleaned up in processing.

 
Coming Soon:

I'm in the process of learning how to use my new Canon Speedlite 580 EX flash. Once I master it I'll be posting many more pictures on this page, hopefully of significantly better quality than I've thus far been able to offer.

 
More Hummingbird Photographs:

I'm still working on improving my technique. The following pictures will show how things improve as I discover the camera and flash settings that provide the best results. Please be patient. My progress at best would be classed as glacial.

This first picture is terrible for more reasons than I have space to list. However, it was such an interesting pose I couldn't resist posting it. I call it, "Sumo Hummer," because she looks likes she's in a sumo wrestling stance.

 

This one's slightly better. It's a little sharper, though not nearly as sharp as it should be, but overexposed. It was taken with a Canon Speedlite 580 EX flash set to 1/32 -0.3 ev. The washed out areas on the breast indicate over exposure. All the same, before reducing for posting there was enough detail in the fine feathers around the neck to make it interesting.

This is getting better, though reducing it for posting lost much of the fine detail. It was taken at ISO 200, F18, 1/250-second shutter speed, flash set to 1/16 - 0.3 power, using a beam focuser from five feet away. The lens was a Sigma 18-200 zoomed to 200 mm and mounted with a 25 mm tube extension. The bird took up 1/4 of the frame. It's difficult to get closer so the bird covers a larger percentage of the sensor and keep him completely in it a reasonable percentage of the time. Also, to catch the iridescence of the throat I think need to position the flash more to the side. In the shot above it was located directly on top of the camera.

 

When I got this shot I wondered what the little blob on her beak could be so I enlarged it.

I appears she missed one of the gnats she tried eating for dinner and it ended up taking a ride on her beak. I have to wonder if having a meal stuck between her eyes drove her crazy before she managed to shake it off.

The focus around the eye and head is unfortunately soft on this picture, but I'm including it because it captures the hummer with pollen on her beak. I wonder if it's there because the hummingbird was eating some pollen on purpose, or if it's just a by product of going for some nectar. (Note: three days after this picture was taken I observed what I believe to be the same female eating pollen off the tassels on my corn plants. Since corn pollen is yellow I assume this solves the mystery of the source of the pollen.)

The curious mottling of the background is an artifact of the picture being saved a JPEG quality 6. In the original the background is almost completely uniform.

Also, enlarging a hummingbird to this size an image somehow makes it look less like a hummingbird and more like any other bird. I suppose stopping the wings also has something to do with it.

 
NEW!!! All of the hummers I've seen in my 50 years in southern California have been mostly Anna's with a rare Costa's Hummingbird from time to time. Then one day in 2006 I noticed a different variety feeding on my feeders. Snatching up my camera I managed to get the following two shots of it:

It turned out to be a Rufous Hummingbird. His iridescent throat glowed with yellow, gold and bronze. I the camera I used was a 20D 8.2 megapixel unit with a Canon 100mm macro lens. The image was taken in max-resolution RAW mode at F6.3 (the sweet spot for this lens) and 1/200 second at ISO 200. Processed in lossless TIFF, the images can be enlarged to 10x10 inches and still retain full sharpness. I hope he stays around awhile so I can get even better images of him.

 
For more pictures of hummingbirds, you might want to try the following links:

The finest hummingbird pictures ever taken were accomplished by Mr. Walter Scheitauer for his book Hummingbirds. You can see a few samples scanned from his book on my page: Books about hummingbirds in captivity (with pictures). His book is long out of print so the only way to find one is through interlibrary loan. If you can do so I heartily recommend you do. besides the outstanding pictures, the description of the equipment and how he took the pictures in 1964 is fascinating.

http://www.pbase.com/canyon/hummers

 

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