Tips and techniques for taking photos of hummingbirds

The author’s hummingbird garden includes swamp milkweed, lavender, echinacea, hyssop, and many other plants. Photo by William Jobes

The technique

Here’s where it all comes together.

Photography schools, online courses, and individuals have honed and shared technical know-how for what seems an eternity. The wealth of knowledge can be intimidating and difficult to navigate. And, truth be told, many photographers, especially professionals and their aspirants, have been known to be cagey about their own personal success formulas. Not me; not this time. If you follow these eight simple guidelines, your success as a hummingbird photographer is assured.

  1. Use a tripod. Hand-held technique may work if your shutter speed is high enough, but tripods remove most of the element of chance and are the literal foundation for sharp images.
  2. Shutter speed. My minimum shutter speed to freeze a hummingbird’s wings in flight is 1/4000th of a second. In bright light, I can go as high as 1/8000th. While they hover, the birds beat their wings about 80 times a second, so you need shutter speeds in the thousandths of a second to freeze the action. Conversely, there are times when, for artistic reasons, I want to blur the wings. Usually, a shutter speed below 1/1000th of a second will do the trick. Experiment to see what works best, based on your light conditions and shooting environment on any given day.
  3. Lens aperture. This is a delicate balance, as you want to provide sufficient depth of field to encompass all the fine feather details while preserving a pleasing background bokeh, which is the quality of the background blur. I will usually set the aperture at F/4 to F/7.1 and vary the opening as I review in real time image results and adapt the setting based on the desired effect. The closer you physically get to the bird and flower, the creamier the background blur.
  4. White balance. These camera settings can sometimes bewilder even experienced photographers, as their impacts can vary widely based on camera body type and brand. In avian photography, accurate color rendition is critical. During each session, I take test shots of bricks on the garden wall to see which of the Auto, Sunlight, Shade, or Cloudy camera settings render the most accurate color under current light conditions. I check it often throughout the session, especially on days when the sun peeks in and out of cloud cover.
  5. ISO. Conventional wisdom says high ISO adds noise to an image and low ISO lends smoothness. That generality is true. With so many camera variations based on ISO impact, let’s just say that if you select Auto ISO, the results will nearly always be satisfactory, as the camera algorithms do the heavy lifting for you. I typically set mine between ISO 400 and ISO 3600, depending on the changing light.
  6. The background. Take careful note of the colors behind the hummingbird, for they’ll set the mood of the image. The background is likely the most-overlooked component of photo composition and framing. For instance, green tree leaves in the background, when shot with a telephoto lens, will blur into a pleasing tropical aura. A shady area behind the bird will present dark in photos, and, if your shutter speed is high enough, will give a stunning black background. Shooting into the golden light of a sunrise or sunset seems to place the bird in a heavenly paradise. When shooting into bright light, don’t forget to dial in three to five stops of positive exposure compensation to present the bird in full color, as opposed to a silhouette.
  7. Position. Here’s where it gets interesting. When first starting out several years ago, I was photographing mainly with a 600mm Nikon lens. My assumption, which turned out to be dubious, was that I had to be far back to avoid spooking the birds. I later started experimenting with a 300mm lens, a camera position much closer to the flowers and birds, and the results were magical. Once I established myself each day fairly close to the flowers, say 10 to 12 feet away, the birds didn’t seem fazed in the least. They came to accept me as part of the landscape, and they’d occasionally fly over and hover to visit just a couple of feet from my face. The gentle whir of their wings amplified the enchantment of their closeness. A pleasant surprise was when I started using a Sigma 150mm telephoto macro lens. With a shrimp plant in a container on the edge of a 3-foot-high garden wall, I would squat down directly below the plant and aim upward within a few feet of the feeding birds. They were so singularly focused on nectar consumption that they seemed not to even notice me an arm’s length below them.
  8. Time of day. In my experience, the most productive times for feeding activity are between sunrise and about 10 a.m., and in the afternoon, from about 3 p.m. until sunset. I’ve seen feeding as well in the middle of the day, but the overhead summer sunlight is harsh, and it often presents the birds in the shadows of a floral canopy, with less-than-pleasing results.

Article continues below photo.

Hummingbird
The author was ready with his camera when this hummingbird left a flower and burst vertically. Photo by William Jobes

Executing the plan

With all these keys in place, it’s finally game time. Here’s what to expect. The hummingbirds, especially in my suburban area, definitely make the rounds to various feeding spots throughout the day. Expect them to appear at least once an hour on a fairly regular timetable.

You may catch one out of the corner of an eye, hovering a few feet above the flowers, looking around and deciding which blossom to engage. Once the bird starts feeding, it will dash to a flower, remain for a few seconds, disengage, and zip to another flower. It’s a helter-skelter garden romp that changes constantly. Time spent on a flower is seldom more than a few seconds, so the time to photograph the feeder is fleeting.

My photo technique with an active feeder is to focus, shoot in short bursts, refocus, and fire a shutter burst on the bird as it visits each blossom. I recommend using the maximum frame rate possible with your camera body. In my case, it’s 10 or 11 frames per second. Not all images will be in focus, but with proper photography technique, many will be keepers.

The three must-do’s in the following summary are required to complete the mission and achieve your goal of hummingbird-photography excellence.

  • Patience. Patience. Patience. Yes, I said it three times for emphasis, yet while it’s only the first of the trio, you’ll fall short without it. Here’s why. You may spend an hour sitting and staring at the garden, but if you blink, you may not see the arrival, feeding, and departure of one of these avian rockets.
  • Persistence. Keep your eye on the ball. Or, in this case, the blossoms. To me, persistence is the proper execution of patience. This is more than casual observation of hummingbirds in their environment; it’s a serious endeavor to photograph them at the apogee of their lives — as they fly and ferociously feed on the rich, sustaining nectar. They will arrive without warning, and if you aren’t poised with your gear at the ready, I speak from experience on this: You will miss the shot.
  • Preparation. It all comes back to preparation. Gear, light, position, setting, and, above all, a mindset committed to your goal of capturing a jaw-dropping photograph. That said, in spite of all my best intentions, I will sometimes just sit back, relax, and watch. There’s short-term satisfaction and a lot of joy in this, but you’ll only get the long-term satisfaction when you capture that once-a-summer image of nature’s speedy flyers and can look back on it deep in the night of a cold, dark winter.

I’ve been fortunate to have had the experience. The hints I’ve offered here were honed over many summers of trial and error and, indeed, at times frustration at my results. I’ve opened my book and provided the tools to save you all that time and angst.

Now, it’s your turn.

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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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