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What is the secret of photographing Hummingbirds?

Lamoine Einspahr , Sep 09, 2005; 10:07 a.m.

I was using a Rebel, 100-400LIS on a Bogen tripod with IS off at F5.6, and a EX550 strobe. I can not freeze the wings or get a sharp enough photo to satisfy. 640th of second was the fastest shutter I could use Not enought light was the culprit, but for the next effort, I would like help. What shutter speed will provide stop action on a hovering hummigbird? With that knowledge to start with I can determine if I have or can get the neccessary equpment, lighting or lenses. Thanks! Lamoine

Hummingbird hovering


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Anupam Basu , Sep 09, 2005; 10:12 a.m.

I haven't tried shooting hummingbirds, but I think it's impractical to try and freeze the wings with shutter speed. Flash is the way to go for that - make it your main light source.


Lamoine Einspahr , Sep 09, 2005; 10:24 a.m.

I checked after posting, sorry, but this one photo was shot with 800th of second and boosted out of RAW to gain exposure. The Camera was on Manual and I experimented with faster shutter speeds and trying to get the flash to carry the load, but not enough light. I used the high speed focal plane flash mode. It was obviously daylight and too much ambient light to depend totally on flash, by experiment. I tried TV, AV, and P modes. Manual produced the best images. I've seen some very nice hummer photos, and I would like to produce my own. Pride you know. A second EX550 would only gain one stop. I believe I may need two or three stops to get what I want. The starting shutter speed is my start. The Rebel is a GREAT camera, but anything more than 400 ISO is too noisy. Lamoine

Mark U , Sep 09, 2005; 10:25 a.m.

You need to achieve very short flash durations, which means NOT using high speed sync, but rather setting the camera in M mode with the shutter speed set to max X sync, and an aperture that would result in significant (say 2 stop+) underexposure without the flash. Flash duration is minimised by keeping the flash to subject distance short. A long wired or wireless release can help to allow your tripod to be positioned reasonably close without disturbing the bird. There is no practical benefit to increasing ISO, because you will need to use a narrower aperture to reduce the ambient exposure, offsetting the benefit to effective flash guide number. However, using a Better Beamer will increase the flash illumination by concentrating the beam, allowing shorter duration flash. You need to be using your lens at 200mm plus if you use the flash extender, because otherwise the flash beam is too narrow. The other way to boost effective flash power is to add one or more slave flashes.

Casey Wigginton , Sep 09, 2005; 10:38 a.m.

I use a Canon Powershot A-85 (cheap point and shoot). With the in camera flash on, I set it on Shutter priority mode with a shutter speed of 500th of a second (b/c that's as fast as I can sync my flash with it). I handhold the camera. For some reason I am able to stop the wings in flight. Here is an example:

Attachment: Photo 066.jpg

Casey Wigginton , Sep 09, 2005; 10:40 a.m.

Another one I shot.

Attachment: Photo 065.jpg

Robin Sibson , Sep 09, 2005; 10:46 a.m.

Mark U puts his finger on the vital point, which is that the Canon Speedlites control output by controlling flash duration. I do not know what the full-power duration of the 550EX is, but I would be surprised if it was longer than 1/500 at most, probably more like 1/1000 (we are talking conventional flash here, not HSS which works differently), so if you are close enough to take it down to a low level of output, say 1/32-power which if I remember rightly is the lowest manual setting, you will have a flash duration of no more than 1/16000. OK, the intensity-by-time plot may not look too much like a square pulse at that level, but you see the idea. Should be quick enough to do the job.

Mark U , Sep 09, 2005; 10:54 a.m.

Perhaps I should have added that you should be aiming to shoot at the widest aperture consistent with ambient underexposure and a shutter speed of <= max X sync. It can be advantageous shooting when ambient light levels are lower, as it might allow a wider aperture while still underexposing, resulting in the need for a shorter duration flash to illuminate the bird.

Scott Matchunis , Sep 09, 2005; 10:59 a.m.

I have been experimenting with hummers too as there is a nice aviary only a few minutes from my house. It is going to be hard to freeze the wings entirely. I have tried with and without flash. Flash gives better exposure but as noted, hard to get high shutter speed. The other tactic to take is to get a good exposure and sharp focus on the body/head/eye/beak and consider the blurred wings to be artistic effect.

Conrad Erb - Philadelphia, PA , Sep 09, 2005; 11:14 a.m.

put the flash as close to the bird as you comfortably can. put the flash on its lowest power setting - lower power flashes are shorter. use the highest sync speed you can. studio lights would be best, but you probably can't do that with a hummingbird...

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