Hummingbird Headshots

October 4, 2019

Studio on the fly

Each year I visit a friend's family cabin in the mountains of New Mexico. One of the pastimes is photographing the hummingbirds. As we often are bringing a bit of professional equipment to experiment and play during this time each year we try to one-up or challenge each other to come up with a new way of doing what we have done in the past.

This year was particularly wet. It rained... every. single. day. So this prevented some of the excursions we typically enjoy. What does one do other than improvise? During the early afternoons, we photograph the hummingbirds that we have attracted by setting up five feeders along the balcony railing. We relax and sit at a table under the covered deck for our morning coffee, meals, reading, post-processing, and enjoying the sites and sounds of the hummingbirds, which we also take the opportunity to photograph. Beneath the cover of the patio, we have set up our camera gear in an outdoor studio for hummingbird headshots.

This "studio on the fly" includes our tripods, cameras, and strobes. To effectively photograph "hummers" you need to have a fast shutter speed to stop their movement and freeze the blazing speed of their wings. Did you know that North American hummingbirds average 53 beats of their wings per second, in normal flight?  The highest recorded is 80 beats per second. To support this "high-octane" lifestyle hummies are protective of their food source and fiercely defend the yellow plastic flowers full of nectar we provide.

Getting down to business

Upon arrival, the first order of business is to prepare the feeders. Typical nectar equals out to a 4:1 water-sugar ratio. The feeders are spaced out on the railing to catch some of the afternoon sunlight, which is great to photograph in, however, with it raining daily, we supplemented the sun with a 500 watt/second strobe mounted in a 3ft by 4ft softbox. This large, powerful light source is great for solving the problem of intermittent sunlight. Properly secured with sandbags we positioned the light at a 45-degree angle, to the right of the camera, for wrap-around lighting and to allow the depth necessary we photographed at a smaller aperture of f16 and f22.

The high f-stop allows more to be in focus, especially when using a longer lens such as the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens. We set up our equipment facing their main approach to the feeders, just outside of their view. The afternoon rains were quite intense and started to splash onto the softbox. Knowing that standing next to a tall metal light stand is probably not the best thing, with the rain, thunder, and lighting. However, I was not ready to end this session. As we took our cameras indoors, I saw a different angle.  From inside looking out, I can see the soft light through the clouds and rains.

Without skipping a beat, I set the light back up under the cover of the patio. Positioning my tripod in the middle of the living room of the cabin and moving a couch out of the way, gave me access to the window. Removing the screen I now have the perfect angle and still, use the light source which was now covered and out of the rain. This new option allowed me to still photograph in the middle of a torrential downpour, complete with thunder and, lighting, while the hummers were still feeding in. While not all our tiny winged friends were out, there were quite a few.


During this shoot, I was able to get the image of "Spike", the drenched Rufous whose head feathers looked like a high schoolers spike doo. Vacation allows photographers to play at their craft, finding new ways to be creative. By utilizing a longer lens I was able to compress the background into a beautiful pattern of greens that complemented his coloring. Headshots are a mainstay of my corporate business, on this trip my, clients were just a little smaller.

Click or tap the thumbnail photo below to view.


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