Hummingbird Photography

An Online Guide - Part 5:

Equipment Advice

 
1
High Speed
Flash
2
The Outdoor Studio
3
Exposure
and Light
4
Feeders and Flowers
5
Equipment
Advice
 

Equipment Recommendations

Camera: A 35 mm digital or film SLR with the ability to manually set shutter speed and aperture and some mechanism for firing off-camera flashes. Some camera systems have accessory cords for firing remote flashes, or wireless off-camera flash. PC sockets for firing manual flashes are making a comeback on higher end SLRs after being discarded as "old technology." You can also mount a single manual flash on your hotshoe and use it to fire the others via slave.

Flashes: For serious work, I recommend four to six manual flash units. You can start with fewer and add more later. Your flashes should have

  • manual adjustment of power (light output)
  • high maximum power (Guide Number)

The most versatile—and expensive—option is to purchase several top-of-the-line flashes made by your camera’s manufacturer, plus all the cables and/or transmitters and remote sensors from your manufacturer required for full TTL flash operation off-camera.

On the other hand, if you're solely using your flashes on manual, you don't need the expense and whiz-bang features of top-of-the-line dedicated TTL flashes.

A good compromise is to own at least one or two full-featured TTL flashes for your camera system (which you can use for general flash photography where TTL is very useful), and purchase additional, simpler flashes for hummingbirds and other situations where manual flash is sufficient. One economical choice is the venerable Vivitar 283 (B&H $67). You will need to equip each one with the VP-1 Vari-Power Module ($27) which allows you to manually set the power. Also useful for triggering these flashes is the Wein "Peanut" slave ($14).

Film: To show the exquisite detail and colors in hummingbirds I recommend fine-grained ISO 50 or 100 slide film (e.g., Kodak E100VS, Fuji Velvia, Fuji Provia). Because the electronic flash freezes the motion of the hummingbirds and any camera shake, high speed film is not needed. However, ISO 100 film gives you an extra f/stop of depth of field compare to ISO 50. Participants in our workshops typically shoot 5-20 rolls per day.

Digital Media: If you're shooting or previewing your hummingbird results digitally, you'll need a camera capable of triggering your flashes. A laptop is helpful for critically judging your results. Otherwise, just be sure you've got sufficient storage for your images.

Lens: Close-focusing lenses in the 200-400 mm range are convenient for hummingbirds. Hummers are quite tolerant, but six to ten feet is a comfortable working distance; they’ll be less inclined to flee as you manipulate your camera. However, hummingbirds are small; close focusing lenses and/or extension tubes are needed. One good check of your equipment is to draw a 4x6 inch frame on paper and tape it to a wall. If your lens with telextenders and/or extension tubes allows you to focus close enough that it fills the frame, you can get frame-filling shots of even the smallest hummers.

Zooms in this range are ideal for quickly adjusting the frame for species of different sizes. A tripod collar for easily rotating between vertical and horizontal is also helpful. I turn off autofocus for hummingbirds at setups (although I use it for almost everything else). The blur of the wings tends to confuse AF systems. Because the birds are returning to the same small area in the setup, I can quickly tweak the focus manually and ensure that the subject is sharp.

You don’t need "big glass" f/2.8 telephotos, because you’re stopping down for depth of field, but large apertures do give brighter viewfinders for focusing.

Most of my early hummingbird work was done with the Canon EOS 300 mm f/2.8L lens, with 1.4X extender and extension tubes. I then set it aside in favor of Canon’s EF 70-200 f/2.8 L zoom with the 1.4X or 2X telextender. It is close-focusing and has a tripod collar for rapidly changing from horizontal to vertical. The zoom allowed me to quickly adjust framing for small Black-chins and large Blue-throats, and even with the 2X converter it is extremely sharp at the small apertures I use for hummingbirds. I also own the 100-400 f/5.6L IS lens, which is close focusing and offers a good focal length range for hummers.

Tripod: It's convenient to mount your camera and lens on a tripod, while you use a chair or portable stool. Then you're in place and your camera is pointed at your setup when a hummingbird arrives. A ballhead allows quick adjustments to your composition; my favorite is the Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball with Quick Release (B&H $400). Note that any camera movement will be effectively "frozen" if strobes are your light source.

Lightstands: I use Bogen/Manfrotto lightstands, which are well-made and reasonably priced. I have been using the 7' Lightweight Pro stands (2 lb., collapses to under 27") in black (#3372 - $58). You can save a few dollars buying the silver model (#3097 - $50) but silver is more distracting. (Note: B&H sometimes lists the black version under "#3097 Black".)

Bogen now sells Stacker Lightstands, which collapse smaller (25") and in a shape that allows easy stacking of several for travel (although they weigh slightly more). In this style I recommend the Stacker 7' Black (#3320B - $72) or the silver version (#3320 - $67, 2.4 lb.).

You need a means to mount the flash on the stand and tilt it. Compact ballheads work well; try the Stroboframe Shoe Mount Ballhead (#320-060 - $20, 1 oz.). It is also helpful to have one or more Bogen/Manfrotto Mini Clamps (#2940 - $15) and Articulated Arms (#2935 - $33). (Note: you don't need heavy-duty Magic Arms here—they are overkill for holding hotshoe flashes.)

As I said at the outset: Hummingbird photography is addictive! It stimulates your creativity, challenges your ingenuity, takes you to great places, and rewards you with great images of some of the most beautiful birds to be found anywhere.


Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Costa Rica

There's more to learn ... but I hope this guide gives you a good start!

To see more hummingbird photos with notes on how they were made, or for information on our Hummingbird Photography Workshops, follow these links:


US Hummingbird
Photo Gallery


Hummingbird and Flash Photography Workshop


Costa Rica Hummingbird Gallery


Costa Rica Hummingbird Tour

 
1
High Speed
Flash
2
The Outdoor Studio
3
Exposure
and Light
4
Feeders and Flowers
5
Equipment
Advice