How I got the shot: The Long-tailed Sylph

Hummingbird photography at the Equator

by Ralph Paonessa
Published July 8, 2013

There are over three hundred hummingbird species in the world, all in the Western Hemisphere. The Long-tailed Sylph is one of the most beautiful. I had never imagined there could be such a hummingbird until I saw it in the valleys of the Andes Mountains at the Equator. The Equator was not hot and steamy here as I'd always pictured it, but cool and lush—and home to most of the world's hummingbirds.

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A Long-tailed Sylph visits a Centropogon flower.

Papallacta River Valley, Ecuador. October 28, 2008.

  • Canon EOS 5D raw capture, EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS-L lens at 135mm.
  • Four high-speed flash units at 1/16 power (1/10,000 second).
  • Manual exposure ISO 200 - 1/200 sec - f/16.
  • Processed in Adobe Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS6.

The male Long-tailed Sylph can measure over 7 inches from the tip of its bill to the end of it's shimmering green tail. The Andes, which reach over 20,000 feet (6,200 m) in Ecuador, bisect the country into eastern and western slopes, and each have their own resident bird species. The Long-tailed Sylph occurs on both slopes but is more common in the east, which drains into the Amazon basin. It prefers elevations of 5,200 to 8,500 feet (1,600 to 2,600 m).

A deep Andean valley on the eastern slope.

Fast rivers have cut steep valleys on the slopes of the Andes. Many hummingbirds live in this moist tropical habitat, including the Long-tailed Sylph.

I had to get a picture of this bird!

Photographing hummingbirds in flight

Hummingbirds are known for their ability to hover while flying, and their appetite for nectar and sugar water. To photograph them in flight, I set up feeders or flowers to attract them, and place several high speed flashes to illuminate the area where I expect they will feed, and wait. In our Ecuador Hummingbird photography workshops, we stay one week on the eastern slope at remote Guango Lodge, where sylphs and many other hummer species are common and used to feeders and people. Here my group had a constant stream of colorful hummingbirds at their cameras.

Techniques for high-speed photography

I'm often asked what shutter speed I use to freeze a hummingbird in flight. But in reality, the trick is to use high-speed flash, so that it's really not the shutter speed that stops the motion, it's the 1/10,000 second flash burst. You can get such short flash durations with a standard hotshoe flash, as long as it allows you to set a low manual power, like 1/16. These flashes reduce their power by cutting the duration of the already-short full-power flash burst (usually around 1/1,000 sec). You can then shoot at your camera's flash sync speed, usually 1/60 to 1/250 sec.

At these low powers, the flashes must be placed within a few feet of the subject. Also, to make this shot work, the total light from all the flashes must be a few stops brighter than daylight. If not, part of the exposure would come from daylight, and this would produce ghosting, where a blurred natural light image is superimposed over the frozen motion from the flash, giving a sort of "double exposure." When properly controlled, this effect can look good; but it's more complicated to get the exposures right, and simpler to set up so that all the light comes from the flashes.

Feeders and flowers

As one biologist in Ecuador told me, "Hummingbirds are insectivores (insect eaters) that supplement their diet with nectar for energy needs." So you can readily attract them to sugar water feeders. And hummingbirds are quite bold, especially around feeders and photographers. (As a diversion, I'm working on my "finger list," which is all the species I've been able to have perch on my finger held in front of a feeder. I think it's now a couple dozen.)

Lending a helping hand to a Booted Racket-tail.

I've created a series of sugar water feeders with glass tubes for hummingbird photography. This friendly Booted Racket-tail (one of the most enchanting of the Andean hummers) was happy to accept my finger as a perch while taking a drink. I could feel it's tiny claws gripping.

You can get plenty of excellent multiple flash shots at feeders. And it takes a fair amount of practice to learn how to aim and focus, anticipate the motion and behavior of the birds, and frame your shot well with a zoom. I practice this at feeders.

But my favorite shots tend to be those where the hummer is visiting a flower. This requires some patience. A common mistake I've seen is taking down all the sugar water feeders in an area and putting up flowers, in the hopes that the frustrated birds will feed from them. But hummingbirds are creatures of habit, and can fly very far very fast, and will just as easily go somewhere else when their familiar feeders are gone.

So my approach is to start photographing with my feeders. On my first trips it took a few days for the birds to learn to recognize them as food sources. I have no doubt that these hummingbirds have long memories, because when I return now they seem to quickly remember these feeders and go to them. (It's nice to have familiar friends in other countries.) When you're starting, be patient as the birds become acclimated.

Switching to flowers

Once the birds are acclimated to the position of my feeders and the surrounding flashes, I search for local flowers. Personally I prefer flowers that hummingbirds naturally feed from. It looks most authentic, and the hummingbirds recognize such flowers. (Over time, many hummingbirds and flowers have evolved together so that their bills and the flower corollas fit together well.)

I remove the feeder and mount the flower in its place. The birds are primed to return to this location (they have very good spatial memory) for food. Some of them will leave when they don't see the familiar feeder. But some will try the flower. To satisfy them further, I spike the flower with sugar water from a syringe.

Sweetening the prospects.

Adding sugar water to a flower further entices hummingbirds to return and stay longer.

Those curious hummingbirds (they in general are curious, constantly poking around for food sources) that feed from the flower become my new best friends, welcome return guests at my photographic buffet. They'll quickly drink all the sugar water from a small flower, so I'm up and down constantly with my syringe at the flower. Occasionally an impatient hummer will attempt to feed from the flower as I'm refilling it, the breeze from their wings cooling my hand. (Hummingbirds are not shy when it comes to food.)

Lighting is key

As I said above, this type of photography works best when essentially all the light comes from the flashes, not the daylight. This gives you a lot of control, and opportunity for creativity and experimentation; but you're completely responsible for the lighting of the shot. And the iridescence of hummingbirds can be somewhat challenging to light.

Over twenty years of high speed multiple flash hummingbird photography, I've developed a variety of lighting strategies. One thing I realized is that this is essentially studio photography, but you're building a miniature studio outdoors. I learned a lot about lighting by reading books on studio portrait photography. The equipment and subjects can differ, but light is light and the principles are the same.

You can start with one flash, if you can position it off your camera close to the bird. But for more interesting lighting, you'll want several flashes. Depending on the circumstances, I usually use three to five flashes, all remotely triggered from my camera.

Creating your outdoor studio

If you're familiar with studio portrait photography, you'll recognize that there's a place for the subject, various strategically placed flashes, a background of some sort behind the subject, and occasionally some props. The photographer stands some distance away, with camera on a tripod and some way to trigger all the flashes from a distance. Multiple flash hummingbird photography is the same thing! But on a different scale. So how do you proceed?

An outdoor studio for hummingbirds.

You can barely make out a tiny woodstar hummingbird visiting a banana flower placed in front of an artificial background. Several lightstands and other hardware hold everything in place on this tropical balcony.

Choose the right flashes

Multiple flash photography is simplest when all the flashes are identical. The most important feature for freezing motion, besides relatively high light output, is the ability to set a low manual power, like 1/16. (I rarely use TTL for this type of photography. You can do it, but it's more complicated, and I won't cover it here.) You'll also need flashes that can be triggered remotely, all at the same time. Top-of-the-line Canon and Nikon flashes will work well, but are expensive if you buy several. I previously recommended the old, simple, and affordable Vivitar 283 flashes until they were discontinued. (They are still available used on eBay; you'll need a Vivitar Vari-Power Module for each one). Vivitar replaced these with the Vivitar DF 283 Series 1 Digital TTL flashes, but beware: these have no manual power settings. But more expensive models like the Vivitar DF-583 flashes have manual power and look promising (though I haven't tried them).

In the space available here, I can't give a detailed explanation of all the lighting options. But I can distill it down to some guidelines:

  • The iridescent colors of hummingbirds show up best when the light is fairly close to the lens axis. If it's too far to the side, the iridescent feathers look black. On the other hand, light from the side tends to give a more three-dimensional look. Experiment to find the right balance.
  • I often place three flashes on the bird, in something of a triangle: Two above, to the left and right, and one below to fill in the shadows.
  • You can control the intensity of each flash by moving it nearer or farther from the bird. You can also zoom the flash to obtain a stronger, more concentrated output—but be sure the light covers your subject area and background.
  • If your artificial background is bright enough, it may not need its own flash. But usually with hotshoe flashes you'll need one flash that points just at the background. This can also help reduce shadows from other flashes on the background. Adjust the background flash until the background looks properly exposed compared to the bird in your pictures.
  • You'll need some way to trigger all the flashes remotely. Many flashes now have remote, "infrared" triggering built in, but this doesn't work as well outdoors without walls for light to bounce from. Orient your flashes and rotate their heads so that the remote sensors point towards the camera and master flash. Wireless radio triggers are more reliable, but more expensive (they're included in the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT). If your flash has a PC cord socket, you may be able to trigger it with optical slaves like the Wein PN Peanut Slave. I often resort to wiring PC cords together for simplicity with compatible flashes.

The important effect of light angle

Hummingbirds get their glowing colors from specialized feather structures that are iridescent. These do not reflect color from pigments, like most feathers, but produce color by the optical process of light wave interference. (Iridescence also produces the shimmering colors of soap bubbles.)

The color seen depends greatly on the angle of the light from viewer (or camera) to subject. A direct line, with the sun or flash along your line of sight, produces the strongest iridescence, as these pictures below demonstrate.

A Purple-throated Woodstar from the side.

This is a crop of a tiny Purple-throated Woodstar at a multiple-flash setup; there are three flashes pointing at the bird. At this angle the gorget appears almost black, and you might wonder where this woodstar got its name.

The iridescent gorget of a Purple-throated Woodstar.

This image is from the same multiple flash setup. After the bird turned its head and the light from the flashes is more in line with his throat feathers (gorget), the striking purple iridescence of these specialized feathers is visible.

What goes on in the background

One consequence of setting all the flashes to be brighter than the ambient light is that a distant background will be black, as if it were night. That's because the light from the flashes falls off very quickly at greater distances. (As described by the Inverse Square Law. Ever try photographing Niagara Falls with a flash at night from across the river? I'm from Niagara Falls, NY, and every night we'd see thousands of flashes go off from point-and-shoot cameras in Canada. Not much light reached the US.) To solve this problem, you can put an artificial background behind the hummingbird, close enough to the flashes that it will be properly exposed (but far enough back to avoid shadows). In this case, I'd prepared several backgrounds at home that were natural looking blurs of plants and flowers similar to what we'd find in Ecuador. I often shoot out-of-focus pictures of flowers and vegetation for this purpose, and further blur them in Photoshop. Use your creativity and artistry.

The background illuminated by flashes in daylight

This setup has an artificial background behind a flower. This wide shot of the setup (taken from the side at the same camera settings used for hummingbirds, ISO 100 1/200 sec. f/16) shows that the areas away from the background are completely underexposed, even though this picture was taken outdoors in mid-afternoon.

There are additional flashes unseen at the right pointing at the flower and background.

After I produce backgrounds I like, I print them on fine art canvas using a 24-inch Canon imagePROGRAF iPF6300 large format printer,which I bought in part for this purpose. I've settled on large 24 x 36 inch backgrounds, which are large enough to fill the frame with a good safety margin. Each background can cost up to $50 each, when you account for paper and ink. (I've been using 24-inch rolls of Hahnemuhle FineArt Monet Canvas, which are expensive, but I can roll them up for safe transport, and the canvas is quite thick, which means less damage and greater longevity in luggage on flights to Ecuador, and in constant daily use by my workshop participants.) I now have a nice library of backgrounds, and I'm constantly creating more. (When you try this, remember not to take all your shots with just one background; it becomes repetitive.)

How to mount everything in place

As in a portrait studio, light stands are invaluable for placing lights just where I want them. I am partial to those from Bogen/Manfrotto, which seem well-made and sturdy, and a good value at the lower end of the price range. I also get small stands for ease of travel and setup. (I won't be supporting heavy studio strobes, and I'm working in fairly close quarters, so small stands work well. It's convenient if they can extend up to about 6 feet. Wide legs improve stability. Lay weights across the legs to prevent tipping.)

They seem to continually change their models, but the Manfrotto 1051BAC Mini Air Cushioned Compact Stand, Black (height 6.75 feet/2 m, weight 2.2 lbs./1 kg) is similar to what I've been using. I prefer black for minimal reflections outdoors. As I write this the stand is $77. Not cheap, but they have held up through many workshops, and I leave them out in the rain. You can find stands for less, and/or improvise supports. But I value the ability to position the flashes through a wide range of heights.

I'm happy with the affordable Giottos MH 1004 Mini Ball Head, which screws on top of the stand and holds a flash. You'll need a mount that screws onto the ballhead and holds your hotshoe flash; most flash manufacturers offer these (free with my Canon Speedlites). This way I can point the flash just where I want it.

I also own many of the lightweight Manfrotto 196AB-2 Articulated Arm and Manfrotto 171 Mini Clamp. With a pair of these you can attach two flashes to one light stand, and I also use them for holding feeders, flowers, and other accessories. (Check out Manfrotto for many other modular products that work with their stands. Playing with this stuff is like having your own Erector Set.) And half-inch wooden dowels also work well with these clamps to hold backgrounds and other things you can improvise.

Camera and lens for the setup

I used a Canon EOS 5D for this shot and focused manually; but I've since switched to the EOS 7D and use it's capable autofocus, with a single square pointed at the hummer's eye. I also very much prefer disabling autofocus from the shutter button and triggering it as needed from a thumb button on the back.

You can shoot from five to ten feet away (move slowly to not scare the birds), so you don't need a large telephoto. I like my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 IS-L lens for this type of photography. A fast lens improves autofocus, and lets you see better if you focus manually. (IS is unnecessary with high-speed flash, which freezes all camera motion, so turn it off to conserve battery power.) I want the flexibility of a zoom lens for this type of photography, especially in a location like Ecuador where hummingbirds ranging widely in size will visit your setup over a few minutes. I use an Arca Swiss ballhead for aiming my camera.

I adjust the focus for each shot (even though the birds may repeatedly come to roughly the same spot) striving for accurate focus. The shallow depth of field will compromise your focus if the bird moves forward or back slightly, so keep this in mind. And depending on the size of the hummingbird and its approach, I may slightly adjust the composition and framing. (This all becomes easier with practice and time in the field.)

Whenever possible I position my tripod at a comfortable height in front of a chair. Even if the sun intrudes upon my setup, I try to situate myself in the shade. With a steady stream of tropical hummingbirds, you can entertain yourself for hours doing this; you may as well do it in comfort.

A workshop participant set up for hummingbirds.

A comfortable chair a few feet away from the setup holds workshop participant Wray and his Nikon 200-400mm zoom mounted on a tripod. Comfort is important. Note the teacup beside him. (Wray came from Britain for the trip.)

Determining exposure

Although you can determine exposure using a flash meter, digital SLRs have made exposure much easier. And if something's not working, you'll see it right away.

Male hummingbirds (the colorful ones) can be fairly dark. In practice I've found that a light level that slightly overexposes and blows out the palm of my hand is a good starting point. Your mileage (and palm) may vary. You could use a gray card held where you expect the bird, and look for a somewhat centered histogram.

You can control the brightness of the artificial background independently of the bird. Move the background farther away and it will darken; closer and it will brighten. If you have a flash dedicated to the background, this gives you more control.

Keep in mind that the histogram of a typical shot, with bird and background, is usually dominated by the background, because the bird is relatively small in the frame. So it's important to check your images carefully to make sure that, even if you have a nicely centered histogram, the bird itself is not too dark or light compared to the background; the bird may be a small blip on the histogram compared to the background. It's very useful to download some images and view them on your computer to assess your exposures (and focus) as you gain experience.

You should use the highest shutter speed you can with your flashes (the flash sync speed). This will minimize interference and ghosting from daylight, and will usually be around 1/125 to 1/500 sec depending on the camera. You do not want your flashes set to High Speed Sync mode, or you won't freeze the motion.

My goal is to set up everything so that I'm shooting around ISO 100-200 and f/16. Hummingbirds are small and you're shooting at fairly high magnification with a moderate telephoto, so this is like macro photography: you won't have much depth of field, so stop down to maximize this.

High ISO speeds won't help here, so I stick to low ISO for minimum noise.

Creating the shot of the Long-tailed Sylph

The sylph was becoming a regular visit to the feeder, so it was time to go to work.

Perching shots and finding the best pose

Initially, I created shots of the bird perched. Noticing that sylphs perched frequently when feeding (as opposed to other hummers that primarily hover while they feed), I chose a branch for a natural perch and mounted it near my feeder. As planned, the sylph frequently took advantage of the convenient perch as it approached the feeder.

Most male hummingbirds look best from the front, because they have iridescent gorgets (throat feathers), heads and crowns. In good light, they look most spectacular when facing you. After years of photographing such birds, it took me a while to realize that was not the most photogenic angle for the Long-tailed Sylph. Compare the two photos below.

A Long-tailed Sylph perches on a branch as it approaches the feeder.

The bird did what I wanted, but I was unhappy with the shot. Why?

The bird was not showing his best side! Although this sylph has an iridescent gorget (throat patch) and crown, those aren't his best features.

A male Long-tailed Sylph strikes a handsome and iridescent pose.

This is the same setup as above (and possibly the same bird), but I moved the feeder tube farther back, and pointed it to entice the bird to land facing away from the camera.

In this shot I removed the feeder tube from the upper right using Content-aware Fill in Photoshop CS6 and then the Patch Tool.

The most striking iridescence and color of this male is on his back, and the upper side of his beautiful tail, and that's the pose I wanted. (I think this bird is the Resplendent Quetzal of hummingbirds.)

Creating a shot with a flower

While the Long-tailed Sylph became a regular visitor at our feeders, I began to visualize and plan a shot with flowers. The sylphs regularly visited the violet Centropogon flowers that grew on the grounds of Guango Lodge, so I gathered some for our setup. Those flowers are a nice color complement to the sylphs and their violet-blue iridescence.

Because the long tail is the most striking feature, I wanted the full length of the bird from the side to emphasize the tail (and keep it all in the shallow plane of focus). And seeing that the most striking iridescence is on the bird's back and upper side of its tail, I decided to emphasize those as well by shooting from slightly above the bird. I rearranged the setup by lowering the flower, background, and flashes a couple feet (easy enough to do when they're all mounted on adjustable lightstands), and raised my tripod so I was now standing and aiming slightly down. Knowing the bird would hold out his tail, I set up for a horizontal (landscape) shot.

As the rain approached, this beautiful sylph came in several times. At first he was unexpectedly high and I had to scramble to adjust the background.

Oops! Almost there.

All was working according to plan, except the bird came in high and the background was too low. (Notice how underexposed the vegetation becomes behind the background.) And it was starting to rain, so I had to hurry. The background is supported by a lightstand, so I quickly raised it a few inches.

I really like the pose of the bird in this shot. This is in my file of "photos that could be fixed in Photoshop," by extending the background in this case. But these Photoshop fixes are a lot of work if done right, so in practice I just try to get a better shot.

The background is corrected, but now the bird unexpectedly perches (of course they do like to perch, as I learned above) and I lose the end of his tail.

The sylph decides to perch. We're not quite there yet.

With the background fixed, the bird returned, but surprised me by perching on the flower, grabbing it with its right foot. I like the behavior, but the tail dropped down and I clipped part of it.

As time goes on, other hummingbirds come in for sugar water and portraits. Some of them annoy me by chasing away the sylph when he tries to come in. More raindrops are falling, putting the flashes at risk.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet.

These Chestnut-breasted Coronets are quite beautiful, with a mixture of iridescence and chestnut pigmentation. This one posed for some shots (after chasing away my sylph!).

Finally, it all comes together, the Long-tailed Sylph comes in for several shots before the rain gets too heavy. To be on the safe side, I zoomed out to be sure to not cut off the tail, regardless of pose. In the end I was very happy with the shots I got that day, and this one in particular. But I can never get enough of these beautiful hummingbirds.

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The uncropped image of the Long-tailed Sylph visiting the flower.

To be sure I caught the long tail with room to spare, I zoomed out from my usual tight framing. Finally the sylph returned, and this was one of the last shots I got before the rain picked up and I had to cover the flashes. In the end I cropped the image to my preferred composition.

Ecuador hummingbird photography workshops

You can see more photos from my Ecuador hummingbird photography workshops in my online Ecuador Hummingbirds Gallery.

I've been leading workshops to photograph Ecuador's marvelous hummingbirds for ten years now, and I supply all the multiple flash equipment for you and show you how to use it. If you'd like to join a small-group workshop (limit six photographers) and return home with photos of birds like these, register now for our next Ecuador: Hummingbirds of the Andes before it fills.

We also offer hummingbird workshops such as Costa Rica Hummingbirds and More to photograph more hummers like those in our Costa Rica Hummingbirds Gallery.

And both Ecuador and Costa Rica have many more birds as well as scenery and abundant macro subjects to photograph.

Ralph Paonessa Photography
509 W Ward Avenue Suite B108, Ridgecrest, CA 93555-2542 (USA)
Email   Phone (760) 384-8666
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