If you have traveled with us, you know Cree and I can’t get enough of birds and bird photography. It’s like telling a dog ‘squirrel!’. We just can’t help stop and stare…and take photos! We recently returned from one of our favorite hummingbird locations, Madera Canyon, near Tucson. It is probably the best place in the US to photograph hummingbirds, which is exactly what we did for many days. We couldn’t get enough.
Photographing hummingbirds brings up a common question. What is better…freezing the wings in flight, or letting them blur some? There is no right or wrong answer, I like to photograph hummingbirds with and without movement. Think about what your creative or photographic goal is…I like them both ways. A natural look might include some movement, and a more artistic rendering might be tack sharp.
On this trip I focused on freezing all the hummingbird movement. Hummingbirds are unique in that they can hover, fly backwards and have incredible speed in their wing movement. Their wings can beat over 60 beats per second. That is real speed. Try photographing a hummingbird at 1/8000 of a second, the top shutter speed for many cameras, and you may still see movement in the wings. So how do you really freeze the wings? Use flash.
When flash duration is the only thing that is illuminating your subject, then flash duration, not shutter speed, will freeze the movement. I’ve used this principle for years using large strobes to freeze athletes in motion. To freeze the hummingbird wings, I used 5 speed lights. The great thing about speed lights is they have a very fast flash duration, especially if you shoot at low power. My SB5000 has a flash duration of 1/30820 at low power. So if flash is lighting the scene, my actual speed is 1/30820, plenty fast to freeze wing movement.
The trick is making sure you eliminate all daylight in the photo. My actual shutter speed for much of my shooting was 1/200, but using 5 speed lights at low power gave my plenty of light and a fast flash duration to freeze the hummingbird wings. This same lighting principle can be applied to freezing any type of movement..birds, people, falling objects, animals…you just have to light them with flash with fast durations.
If you have any interest in this topic, or want to see a variety of ways to photograph hummingbirds, join us on our upcoming July hummingbirds in flight workshops in Madera Canyon. We have two spots left! Check out this multiple exposure, another fun technique.