Capturing the Magic of Hummingbirds

Speakers Notes

By  Larry Cowles FPSA GMPSA/P EFIAP/p


Hummingbirds have been called the jewels of the bird word because of their bright, almost neon colors that can sparkle in the light.  Hummingbirds can be of great interest to photographers for several reasons.  They can be a great nature subject but can also do very well in color exhibitions. They are found only in the Americas, migrating from Alaska and Canada down to Mexico and South America. South America is home to over 300 species of Hummingbirds, about 60 can be found in Mexico.  While 23 species have been seen in the USA, only about 13 are found on a regular basis.  The rest are rare and found when they end up flying too far north.

The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the only one found in most of the Eastern US and areas east of the Mississippi.  States with the most types are Arizona, New Mexico and Texas followed by California, Nevada and Utah.  The most common found in the West are Anas in California and Arizona and the Rufous. 

While many Hummingbirds live in the forest, deserts and jungles of the lands they inhabit; they have adapted very well to living in urban areas near humans.  They can be easily attracted to the backyard by putting up feeders that are available in most hardware and bird feed stores.  It is best to place several feeders around your yard.  Having or planting flowers that attract hummingbirds is very helpful.  It may take several weeks before you start to see birds coming into your feeders.  You may have to try several locations.  I generally hang my feeders on poles with bent hook tops designed to hold planters.


You don’t need to waste your money to buy the red liquid hummingbird food found in the stores, it doesn’t attrack the birds any better than homemade food.  Make your own hummingbird food from sugar and water, mixing it to a 4 to 1 ratio; four parts water and one part sugar.  Some believe the red dye used in commercial hummingbird food may harm the birds.  Heat it up on the stove, bring it to a boil for a moment and you are done.  Get some gallon containers to store your food and keep it refrigerated.  If all the food is not gone from the feeders within a few days, discard it and put in fresh liquid.  Mold can build up in the feeder and on spouts which can make the birds ill, you should clean the feeders with a mix of bleach and water and rinse well before you refill.

Hummingbirds may not be the only visitors to your feeders.  Ants, wasp and bees will also be attracted.  Not only will they eat some of the food but the birds don’t like these other competitors and will not eat at a feeder full of bees.  Ant guards are sold to place between the feeder and where it hangs.  It may use some chemical barrier or water that keeps the ants from climbing up the pole and down the wire to the feeder.  Bee guards will keep the bees from getting to the nectar but they will still come to get the drops that may leak out during the day.  Vegetable oil sprays such as PAM can be sprayed on the spout, the bees don’t seem to like it but the hummingbirds don’t seem to mind.  Because it is a vegetable oil, it won’t hurt the birds.  This may work for several hours before having to re-spray.

When photographing hummingbirds, you may want to take down some of the nearby feeders which will drive them to the feeder you are going to use.  Many feeders have several ports to feed the birds.  You will want to use a feeder with only one port or tape up the other ports with black tape; otherwise they will go to the other ports and not be in the one in your viewfinder.  If the feeder has a perch, take it off, otherwise the birds will sit on the perch and not back out so you can photograph them without the feeder in the image. Many photographers use flash to capture Hummingbird images because their wings are flapping at such a high rate of speed and they move so fast, it is very hard to catch them in flight and stop the wing motion.

We mostly notice Hummingbirds when they are flying but they perch much of the time.  When collecting food, they tend to go on a route from feeder to feeder or flowers in a rotation.  Often, they will perch near a feeder or patch of flowers.  If you watch closely, you can see where they perch which will be the same each time.  Finding this location allows you to photograph them hand held and at slower shutter speeds.  This can also happen when a bird stakes out an area as “their territory”.  They will sit on a high perch waiting for another bird, then chase it away.

While flying birds or those at feeders or flowers can be captured without flash, it will require high shutter speeds of 1/2000 to 1/4000 of a second that still may not stop the wing action.  It may also require a higher ISO to obtain these speeds.  When not using flash try to take the images in sunlight.

For flash photography, place your feeder in a shady area or photograph on an overcast day.  If the feeder is in bright sun, pictures will show a ghosting effect along the wings.  This is produced when the ambient sunlight is bright enough to capture the wing movement with the exposure you are using and again when the flash goes off and stops the motion of the wing.  If the light on the bird is mostly coming from the flash and the ambient light is less, you will eliminate or reduce this effect.  You can use umbrellas or hang a large blanket or sheet to block the sun from shinning directly on the bird and background.

A 400mm zoom lens is ideal for this type of photography as you can zoom in and fill the frame with the bird.  You may have to move in closer but a 200mm lens can work.  Hummingbirds will come to a feeder, stick their bill into the feeding port and sip nectar.  They then will back out for a few moments than go back into the feeder.  They may do this 4-5 times.  As they back out and stop is the time you want to take the image.  This will allow you to capture their image without the feeder showing or give enough room to crop it out later in Photoshop.  Because most cameras will not focus fast enough as the birds come and go to the feeder, put the camera on manual focus.  Have someone hold their hand or other object at the point the bird will come into the feeder and pre-focus.  This will work on most of the birds but at times one may fly in from an odd angle and will not come into the depth of field area.  Take a few images and closely check the focus, readjust if needed.  Use a tripod and a remote cord release to reduce camera shake. This will make it a little more comfortable while sitting in your lawn chair waiting for the next bird.  Some photographers report good luck using auto-focus, give it a try and do what works best for your equipment.

Many photographers use natural backgrounds behind the feeder which may be a green bush or better, some colorful flowers.  These will show up blurred and out of focus due to the shallow depth of field.  You might go to the garden shop and get some colorful flowers in pots to be placed in the background.  Others use artificial backgrounds because they are easier to control and can be moved around.  Try taking green poster or matte board and spray paint other shades of green and maybe pink or lavender to look like flowers in the distance.  Be sure to use matte spray paint as glossy colors will shine in the flash.  The artificial backgrounds may be used for color competitions but may not be allowed in some nature competitions.

If you want images of birds coming into a flower rather than the feeder, you can take an eyedropper or small syringe and fill flowers with sugar water.  Some flowers that attract hummingbirds are shaped like a trumpet and can be easily filled.  You will have to refill the little flowers up after each bird feeds.  Another trick is to hang or place flowers just in front of the feeder spout to hide it.  Even though the bird’s beak is behind the flowers, the distance and long lens will compress the view so it will not be noticed.

You may have seen images of humming birds with their tail feathers spread wide, this generally happens when another bird approaches the feeder and they will show dominance in this way.  Some of the strongest images are when the bird does this behavior and turns toward the camera.

Your camera will need a PC connection or use a hot shoe adapter with a PC connection. You also need to attach an adapter that gives 3 PC connectors; sync cords can then be connected to 3 separate flashes but all will fire at the same time.  Because you want the flash to fire at its fastest speed, put the flash units in manual mode and set the power to the lowest setting, usually 1/8 or even 1/16th power.  This will require the flashes to be close to the birds, sometimes within 2 feet but will allow the flash to fire and recycle at the highest speed.  Place one flash to the side of where the bird will be photographed at about a 30 degree angle and at the level the humming bird will come into the feeder or flower.  The second flash will be to the opposite side and a little higher; the third flash will be pointed at the background to give separation between the bird and the background.  Because depth of field will be small when using a long lens and high magnification, you will want to use an f/stop between f13 and f16 or greater.  You can determine this distance from the flash to the feeder by using a light meter or by a little trial and error.  Focus on the feeder and take a picture then change your f-stop to increase or decrease the exposure as needed until you have a good exposure.  You will want your camera and flash in manual mode, set your f/stop and use the recommended sync speed for your camera, generally 1/125 is a good speed for most all cameras.  Because you want the smallest aperture size (largest number) possible for the most depth of field, you may have to use an ISO near 400.   If you use one flash mounted on the camera or the on-camera flash, you may see the hummingbird’s version of red eye which really shows up as a white or silver spot in the eye that doesn’t look natural.

Don’t crop too close in the camera; allow room for the birds to back in and out from the feeder or flower.  Do your cropping later in Photoshop.  Be alert and try to think ahead of what the bird will do next.  They move so fast, you will find some images with no bird at all because they were able to move out of the frame before you could click the shutter.  Take lots of images to get that one award winner.

For Comments or Questions, E-mail Larry Cowles at

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