How to Photograph Hummingbirds in the Wild

Black-chinned Hummingbird / Photo by Steve Berardi

Black-chinned Hummingbird (juvenile female) / Photo by Steve Berardi

Hummingbirds are amazing little birds: they’re the only birds that can fly backwards, and they’re the fastest animal on the planet (if you measure speed in body lengths per second, heh).

They’re fairly easy to photograph if you setup a feeder, but I prefer to photograph them in the wild, since my goal is to photograph truly wild moments. Sometimes that means waiting awhile for a hummingbird to show up at the perfect flower, but your patience pays off when you get that truly wild photo.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned so far about photographing hummingbirds in the wild:

Choose a location carefully

When you’re choosing a location to photograph hummingbirds, there’s a few things you should think about: nectar source, background, and light.

Hummingbirds are most attracted to red flowers, so you’ll most likely see them there. But, I’ve also seen plenty of them hanging out around white flowers, yellow ones, and even violet flowers.

You’ll also want to choose a location where there’s lots of places for the hummingbirds to perch with good backgrounds behind those perches (e.g. the background is far away and a nice solid color that contrasts well with the birds). Also keep in mind the background of the flowers, if you’re looking to get a shot of the hummingbird sucking nectar.

Another thing you want to think about is light. Choose a flower or group of perches that are frontlit by the sun. This way you won’t get any harsh shadows and blown highlights in your shots.

Lastly, I want to emphasize how important it is to leave no trace whenever you’re photographing something, so please choose a location where you can sit for awhile and won’t harm the land or soil around you. Don’t sit on top of other plants, or kill vegetation. Your best bet is to choose a nice patch of gravel to sit on, or a patch of dirt where nothing is growing.

It may take awhile to find this perfect place, but with so few wild lands left in our world, I think it’s vital that we protect what’s left, and leave no trace of our presence when we’re taking a photo.

Use a blind to mask your movement

Hummingbirds (and most wildlife) are much more sensitive to movement than they are to sound, so using a blind can help mask your movement while you’re sitting and waiting for hummingbirds to show up and suck nectar from a flower in front of you.

At first, I didn’t really like the idea of using a blind because I like to go on long hikes and couldn’t see myself carrying a huge blind with me. But, then I heard about Kwik Camo (not an affiliate link) from my dad: it’s basically just a camouflage sheet that you throw over yourself, so it’s super light weight. I’ve found that it doesn’t work too well with just the sheet though, so I usually build a tripod out of a few long sticks I find out on the trail and tie them together with a rope I bring. Here’s a photo of how I set it up:

blind

This is the blind that I sat in to get the photo at the beginning of this post.

If you’re lucky enough to have a 600mm lens or longer, then you probably won’t need to worry about a blind. But, if you’re using a 400mm lens like me, then you’ll need to get pretty close to fill the frame with a hummingbird. The blind helps you get that close.

Photograph them when there’s a shortage of flowers

If you’ve ever watched hummingbirds for even just an hour, then you’ll quickly realize how territorial they are. They find a nice group of flowers and stand guard over them, warding off intruding hummingbirds by chasing after them. It’s even been observed that hummingbirds are willing to fight to the death to protect their nectar source.

So, why does this mean you should photograph them when there’s a shortage of flowers?

Well, I’ve noticed that when there’s less flowers around (e.g. in fall and winter), that hummingbirds are significantly more likely to stick to their ground and not get scared away by your presence. They know there’s not a good chance of them finding another patch of flowers, so they’re more willing to stand their ground.

On the other hand, when there’s a big supply of flowers, like in the middle of spring, hummingbirds won’t try to defend their territory as much because they can just move onto another patch of abundant flowers.

Anna's Hummingbird (male) / Photo by Steve Berardi

Anna's Hummingbird (male) / Photo by Steve Berardi

For example, the photo above of an Anna’s Hummingbird was taken during the winter in the desert–a time and place where flowers are pretty scarce. The only thing that was in bloom was the yellow bladderpod, and the hummingbirds were protecting those flowers fiercely. This particular Anna’s hummingbird was so motivated to stand his ground that he allowed me to get just a few feet away to snap this photo. If there was an abundance of flowers around, he probably would’ve just moved on.

Follow their migration patterns

Many hummingbird species are migratory, so if you’re looking to photograph a certain type of hummingbird, then make sure you check to see where they are throughout the year. And, try to catch them when they’re in the middle of migrating through your area.

Stop and take a look around once in awhile!

If you’re failing to find that perfect place to photograph hummingbirds, then you might want to just stop, sit down, and take a look around for awhile. Don’t even look for hummingbirds necessarily, but just stop and sit and observe the world around you. This will help clear your head and if you’re lucky, hummingbirds will start appearing right before you.

I remember one day when I went hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, I decided to take a rest and sit on a rock by a stream to read some Jack Kerouac for awhile.. and, about ten minutes into reading, I noticed a bunch of hummingbirds taking turns sipping water from the stream! It was one of the most amazing hummingbird moments I’ve seen. And, I wasn’t even looking for them when it happened.

Learn as much as you can about their behavior

With an uncontrollable subject like hummingbirds, it helps to learn about their behavior before trying to photograph them. That way, you can predict what they’ll do next.

I highly recommend picking up a book, like the Peterson Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America. This isn’t like most Peterson guides that just help you ID the subject, but it also contains a ton of information on hummingbird behavior and migration patterns.

Another (easier) way to learn about their behavior is to just sit down and watch them. But, don’t try to photograph them when you’re doing this because you’ll just get distracted. They’re pretty entertaining birds to watch, so find yourself a nice place to sit and enjoy the show! :)

What did I miss?

Although I’ve spent a lot of time trying to photograph hummingbirds in the wild, I’m by no means an expert and still have a lot to learn, so if you have another suggestion that I missed, please share it with us by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.

Comments

  1. Ashwani says:

    Dear friend thanks a lot for such great information.
    Regards

  2. Steve: Sitting here in my Berkeley, CA art studio, I can often hear an Anna’s hummingbird (or a pair of young ones) outside in a tree or feeding on flowers in the backyard. They also enjoy bathing and drinking from a small fountain that I put in this year (my backyard has become a popular spot for other birds too). When I photograph them, all I need to do is to open my door or go into the yard. Sometimes they fly away when they see me, but often they do not. When I am out, I have become good at finding nests (around here usually in February and March) by observing where the females go when they fly into trees and bushes. They show up in the most amazing places. One day I was at an Ace Hardware Garden Center in Oakland. There was a baby who was perched here and there on plants and other perches during my visit. At one point the Mom flew down and started feeding it! I don’t always get the camera out soon enough or capture every moment, but I have been very fortunate to get some good shots. I have had a DSLR for about 1.5 years. My Nikon D60 was stolen while on vacation in Belize (70 – 300mm lens). I replaced it with a Nikon D90 with the same lens (I have a couple other lenses as well) that I am just learning how to use. I am hoping for an opportunity to learn more about professional photography in the near future. When an Anna’s made a nest in our backyard this year, I was able to get some great shots using a smaller lens of the eggs and babies in the nest.

  3. Nice hat in the profile pic — I have a similar one that I wear and they’re great. What about using a flash? Do you ever use one of those? Also a request – would you include some lens/exposure info for your pictures. I’d be interested to know if you shot the top one with your 300 or something else. In the post you mention a 400. Did you get some new glass?

  4. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead says:

    Steve – for lovers of nature, the shots defy description! And your ‘leave no trace’ principle; my late father introduced me to pure simple nature even since I was a toddler. Ah, from up there he must be smiling at you.
    What were the camera settings, specially for the humming bird, please?
    I am poring over G. Rowell’s Inner Game.
    Tiberman – Mauritius

  5. Another excellent informative article Steve one question the photograph of the Anna’s Hummingbird with the sky as a background did you use center weighted and spot metering ? I have never had much luck taking a shot like this. the exposure has always been way off the bird too dark or the sky blown out, and I could never get a much better result either using lightroom in post.

  6. Thanks all for your nice comments!

    @Zack – I haven’t experimented with flash yet, but I’ve read that’s the only way to really “freeze” their wings in the frame.. I’m not a big fan of that kind of image though, I kind of like a little blur in the wings to show motion.

    The first image was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II, f/5.6, 1/1250, 420mm (300mm f/4L with 1.4 extender), and ISO 800

    More details at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveberardi/4632688160/

    The second hummingbird photo was also shot with a Canon 5D Mark II, f/8, 1/1250, 420mm (300mm f/4L with 1.4 extender), and ISO 800

    More details at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/steveberardi/4201053030/

    I’ve found that a shutter speed of 1/800 or faster works well for getting a good blur of the wings.

    @Tiberman – Glad you’re enjoying Rowell’s great book! I can’t wait to dive into all the cognitive science and image perception books he recommended.

    @Philip – My current method is to find the right exposure by using the histogram and photographing something in similar light as my subject (or the subject itself if it’s stationary like a landscape or flower). I get the histogram as far to the right as possible without blowing out any highlights. If you’re getting a dark bird and a blown out sky, then it sounds like you’re photographign the bird when it’s backlit by the sun? Those shots are always hard, if not impossible to expose properly, so try to shoot birds when they’re frontlit (the sun is behind you). Hope that helps!

  7. Thanks Steve for the info I think you have hit the nail on the head hear after reading your ” When photographing wildlife, always keep an eye on the sun ” Article it makes sense what I am doing wrong Thanks again for a very informative Blog :)

  8. Steve,

    Thanks for the follow up info and links to the shots on flickr. I’ll check ‘em out. As much as I’d love a 300 I have my heart set on the 500 f/4. That’s going to be my next lens purchase.

  9. http://humbirdhum.wordpress.com/2010/04/03/prepared-for-flight-2/

    http://humbirdhum.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/the-approach/

    For the past year I have spent a lot of time on my deck which overlooks an apple tree. The hummingbirds (Allen, Anna and Rufus most common) arrive in March-April and provide me with many hours of photographing opportunities as they flit through the blossoms. I have found that when I become a constant in their landscape (and wear a cap with dark clothes) I become non-threatening and have been able to get some amazing photos. But if I take a couple days off…well, it’s back to square one. I use a 300 mm zoom on my Canon Rebel and 7D.

    Great suggestions, and happy photographing!

  10. Marcus Vinicius Lameiras says:

    Dear Steve, First, forgive me because I do not speak English, unfortunately …
    I wonder if I can use extension tubes on my 100/400mm lens, with the objective of expanding (or even closer) I usually shoot the birds, without losing image quality.

    Thank you for your attention, any hints in this direction will be very welcome!

    Greetings!

    Marcus Vinicius
    Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcusviniciuslameiras/

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