August 14, 2018 | Kathy Adams Clark
Photographing hummingbirds is pretty easy. Successful photos come from knowing a bit about biology, a bit about photography, and a bit about flash.
Hummingbirds visit parts of the United States during specific times of the year. At my home on the Upper Texas Coast, ruby-throated hummingbirds appear in spring and fall. Male ruby-throats arrive in mid-March from wintering grounds in Latin America. Female ruby-throats follow a few weeks later. Males leave the area to get to their breeding grounds in northern Texas and the Midwest. Females follow the males. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are in the Houston area from mid-March to mid-May except for the rare summer breeding female.
Ruby-throats return to the Upper Texas Coast in late summer. Males arrive first since they don’t help females raise young on northern breeding grounds. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive in my yard near Houston in late July or early August. Usually I have a breeding female and juveniles still in residence from the summer so the males try to take over the feeders.
Hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds return to the Upper Texas Coast and Central Coast in late August and September. Most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds in the central United States migrate through coastal Texas during fall migration. By early November, all ruby-throats are out of our area and enjoying the winter in Latin America. During September and October on the Texas coast, it’s possible to have 20 or more ruby-throats at a feeder.
Feeders are not enough, though, for ruby-throats. They prefer yards or gardens filled with nectar rich flowers. Favorites are hamelia, Turk’s-cap, salvia, firespike, and shrimp plant. Smart gardeners get those plants established so they are thriving by fall. Most garden centers offer these and other hummingbird favorites in containers during the summer and fall.
Hummingbird biology lets us know that ruby-throated hummingbirds are on the Upper Texas Coast during the spring and late summer around feeders and blooming plants.
Photographing hummingbirds around feeders and plants is challenging but fun. Set your camera to Aperture Priority (AV in Canon, A in most other cameras) with a f/stop of 5.6 or maybe 8. Point your camera at the targeted feeder or bloom and raise the ISO until you get a shutter speed of 1/500 to 1/1000. (The wings of a hummingbird will be blurred because they are moving so fast.)
Try sitting quietly near a hummingbird feeder and wait for the birds to feed. I find ruby-throats return to the feeder about every 20-minutes. Be patient.
For the impatient or restless photographer, slowly walk around the garden. Notice which blooms are the most popular with hummers. I once stood at a large stand of Turk’s-cap and photographed hummers for nearly an hour.
Watch for perched hummingbirds as well. Hummingbirds will visit a feeder or flower, sip nectar, and then return to the same perch. Find that perch and you’ll be rewarded with stunning photos of perched hummers.
The showy red throat of a ruby-throated male is an amazing sight. It’s hard to capture in a photograph without using a flash. The same goes for the sparkly green body feathers on the females and juveniles.
Camera flashes are a bit tricky but really pretty simple once you know a couple of tricks. The pop-up flash on most cameras will hit a subject 8 to 10-feet away. Push the flash controller button or use a menu to set the flash to “rear” or “slow”. (Canon users can ignore this step.) The pop-up flash will only work with shutter speeds below 1/200 or 1/250, though. In Aperture Priority, lower the ISO to keep the shutter speed below that range when using the flash. Your camera will warn you of a problem if the shutter speed is blinking or red. Pay attention when using the pop-up flash.
An external or top-mounted flash is a bit more versatile and gives more power. Set this flash to TTL or eTTL on the back. Make sure the flash is following your zoom lens. There should be no “M” next to the word zoom if this feature is activated.
Top-mounted flashes will also max-out at shutter speeds of 1/200 or 1/250. Override this feature by going into “high-speed flash.” Canon flashes have a H with a lightning bolt symbol. Nikon flashes are set in the camera by going to “custom settings” E1 menu. Select 320 Auto FP or the top setting. (This is not an option in the D5500 or D5300 models.)
Hummingbird photography is a great way to learn about your camera and flash. It’s also a great way to learn about hummingbirds and their biology.
Keep your camera out in the fall when ruby-throats have left the area. The Upper Texas Coast hosts wintering rufous hummingbirds from the Pacific Northwest. Other western hummers appear in our area all winter. Keep the feeders full and your camera ready.
About the Author:
Kathy Adams Clark is a photographer, naturalist, and teacher. Her goal as a businesswoman is to promote photography and the natural world through teaching. When people understand photography they can enjoy it for a lifetime. When people experience the natural world they will work to preserve it for future generations. To learn more about the author, please visit her website at http://kathyadamsclark.com/index.html.