Tips and techniques for taking photos of hummingbirds

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeds at orange impatiens in the author’s hummingbird garden. Photo by William Jobes

The mid-summer sunrise splashed golden light waves across the patio, enveloping my already keenly attuned senses, in anticipation of the arrival of the morning’s first hummingbird. My modest home-crafted elevated brick garden was lush with tropical florals; the camera was tripod-mounted and aimed at a bright red shrimp plant blossom as I settled into a well-worn canvas camp chair. A fresh cup of coffee rested at the ready on a small side table.

Within moments, I heard the faint hypersonic whirring of an approaching Ruby-throated Hummingbird as it hovered a few feet away, seeming to be studying me before approaching the flowers. A fun add-on benefit of frequent hummingbird home photography is the way the birds become accustomed to you — at times almost friendly as they fearlessly hover near you.

For the past several summers, this has been my morning routine, as I pursue my passion for photographing the tiny, elusive avian acrobats. For the longest time, my bird photography interests centered on majestic raptors — hawks, eagles, and falcons. In pursuit of new challenges, I traveled throughout the Mid-Atlantic region in search of hummingbirds, with, candidly, mixed results. The travel distance and time commitment simply didn’t justify hitting the road to hummingbird hotspots. So I decided to bring the birds home to me. Eventually, success followed.

My goal was to take publication-quality photographs of hummingbirds, without investing in a journey to Costa Rica and points beyond. Why, I reasoned, should I have to travel to their winter home in Central America, when each year these diminutive graduates of nature’s transoceanic flight school migrate as far north as Canada to summer in splendor.

Since they’d be in my neighborhood in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for a few months — and very likely in yours — I thought: Why not entice them to stay for a while? And what better time and place than my patio to photograph them going about their daily routine of feeding and flight?

What follows is a strategy for successfully taking hummingbird photographs for the first time, or, if you’re already in the game, maybe raising your skills to a new level. The techniques I’ll describe, properly executed, are guaranteed to bring the excitement and beauty of the fascinating flyers to your screen, and, if you wish, on prints to a wall near you. So let’s get started.

The keys to success include selecting the right flowers to entice the birds, gathering the appropriate photo gear, honing your photography techniques, and establishing a personal routine near the flower bed: one that gives you access to the birds without intimidating them.

This article was first published in the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Click below to continue reading.

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William Jobes

William Jobes

William Jobes is a print and broadcast journalist from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, whose experience includes news and sports photojournalism, as well as reporting and editing on staff at several major daily newspapers. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today, among others.  He is the recipient of numerous journalism and photography awards and honors, including several Emmys. He has written several articles for BirdWatching, including Hotspots Near You in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

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