Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Turk’s-cap Lily, Skogstjarna, Carlton County, Minnesota (i.e. my “backyard”)

The whole family has had a blast watching the Ruby-throated Hummingbird antics at our backyard feeder this summer. We’ve had up to 4 around the feeder at once. Though there are six feeding holes in the dispenser, they seem unable to feed peaceably next to each other. Fights are non-stop. For a while we had the “bully,” a male who sat like a king on his throne on the hanging bracket and chased away any nearby hummer…even when he wasn’t interested in feeding. The last few summers we’ve had the feeder out by the garden, but moving it to the “backyard” was the best move we could have made. Our large picture windows allowed great viewing and also helped remind us when the sugar-water mix was low or out. We used to forget about it when it was by the garden and let it run dry much to the hummers chagrin.

Here is an example of a flash image that I don’t like as much as the non-flash image below. (Liatris bloom)
And this is why you keep your finger on the shutter even after your flash fires. Sometimes you like the non-flash image! Though only shot at a relatively slow 1/250 of a second, the hummer’s head is sharp, which proves that though hovering with wings beating at 55-70 times per second, their head is absolutely still. Amazing! This might be my favorite from “the summer of the hummer.”

My first goal was to get some photos of Ruby-throats feeding on native flowers…A very difficult shot in the wild. Why is this type of image tough to capture? Because in the wild, you can’t control the situation. If you plant yourself near some highly desirable hummingbird flowers (Liatris, Monarda, Milkweed, etc) you never know when one might show up, and then it will be cautious of that weird large human with the “bazooka” pointing at it. On the other hand, if you stumble upon a feeding hummer, it is highly unlikely that you’ll have time to focus, position the flash, get the correct exposure and fire off a shot before the hummer moves on, as they normally quickly move from flower to flower.

plampThe native plant/clamp hummingbird set up.
A female comes in to an irresistable Morning-Glory bloom.
Here’s where the hummer’s long bill and tongue really come in handy; deep corolla flowers like Morning-Glory “hide” their nectar deep inside.

NOW, HOW TO DO IT (FOR ALL YOU FELLOW PHOTO NERDS!)
To get clean hummingbird images, you need to control the situation. First I gathered a native and photogenic flower and put it in water so it wouldn’t wilt. I then set up my camera on a tripod about 25 feet from the feeder. You have to judge the distance for yourself and what lens you are using, but you want enough room surrounding the flower to allow for the body of the hummer. You don’t want to be so tight that you clip part of the bird. Err on the side of too much space around the flower as you can always crop later. I attached my flash and to that attached a Better Beamer (a flash attachment that uses a fresnel lens to concentrate the beam of your flash so it projects further).

Now, I took the native flower and attached it to the bracket that the feeder was hanging on. I used a regular clamp this time but often use the “plamp” (plant clamp) from Wimberley to do this. One end has a beefy clamp that can attach to tree branches, a tripod leg, or in this case, the hanging bracket. You can then twist and bend the plamp into any position you need. The flower end of the plamp has a swiveling low tension clamp so you can fine tune the flower’s position.

Quickly test your set up. Position your tripod so that you will be shooting exactly perpendicular to the feeding hummingbird (if this is the shot you want). This is possible with Morning-Glory but not with Liatris where they can feed on all sides of the flower. Also look for the best background for your images. You don’t want distracting branches, blown out sky, ugly browns in your background. This is a VERY important step that can make or break a photo. Since I am in a very wooded spot, I am especially worried about “hot” branches, branches lit up by the sun that cause very distracting light lines,blobs in the final photo. What I do look for are nicely lit, even green foliage that I know will blur into a smooth green background.

I pre-focus on the spot where I want the hummingbird and then turn off the auto focus on the lens. This way I don’t have to be looking through the camera when I’m shooting. I just watch and press the shutter when I think the hummer is in position. Now quickly fire off a few test shots. Exposure is always a compromise between shutter speed and aperture. You want a relatively shallow depth-of-field (DOF) to get out-of-focus backgrounds BUT you also want enough DOF so both hummer and flower are in focus. A delicate balancing act for sure. Most are shot at f5.6 to f6.3. For the majority of these images I used high-speed sync for my flash, shooting at 1/1000 of a second (all but the Liatris images). But I don’t think I’d do this again. I like some blur in my hummingbird wings…It adds some drama, reality, motion into the image…And even 1/1000 doesn’t come close to freezing them…And high-speed sync seems to take more effort from your flash so it doesn’t recycle as quickly as when shooting at its regular 1/250 sync speed.

The final key to this operation is to cover the hummingbird feeder completely with a towel. You can also remove the feeder if you like but I found this just an extra unnecessary step. Now plant yourself next to your camera and get ready…finger on the shutter button. Because if you have an active feeding station it won’t take long for the first hummer to come zinging in. He/she will seem confused at first, trying to get at the covered feeder, but then it will see the showy flower you provided conveniently at hummer-head height, and think to itself, “Why not? It’s here, it has nectar, might as well try it” and that is when you start firing off shots as fast as your flash will recycle. But actually I just keep shooting because even non-flash images in a sequence can be beautiful.

This set-up really works well on established hummingbird feeders…but only for a few minutes…until all the local hummers have been fooled and tried your flower and used up the nectar. So I immediately take down the flower and uncover the feeder after my photo session…Usually less than half an hour. You don’t want to frustrate your guests too much so they go over to your neighbor’s feeder!

My big failure for the summer was NEVER getting a male to feed on “my flower”…I think all the images here would be enhanced with the male’s iridescent throat feathers shining like a ruby in the sunlight/flash burst. Oh well, there’s always next summer!

**[All images take with Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 430EX flash with Better Beamer attached. Tripod. Most at f5.6 or 6.3 at ISO 200 to 400, 1/250 to 1/1000]

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