Growing up in northern Ontario, there was only one species of hummingbird that called the region home in the summertime—the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Opportunities to travel and see the wildlife of the world have introduced me to many other species of hummingbird, like this beautiful male Violet Sabrewing photographed at a lodge in Costa Rica at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. The Violet Sabrewing is the “Big Daddy” of Central American hummingbirds—at ~6″ long it is only surpassed in size by the South American Giant Hummingbird.
Photographing hummingbirds in flight presents a challenge—with wings beating at 40 to 80 beats per second, freezing their motion requires a very, very short exposure. If you were to try and achieve this with natural light, you would require a lot of direct light, a very fast lens and a camera capable of quality high-ISO captures and very high shutter speeds. One way to get around this limitation is to use artificial lighting—in this case, four flashes. The actual time it takes to discharge a flash is dependent upon how much light it is putting out—the lower the power setting on the flash, the less time it takes to discharge. A modern flash at low power (in this case 1/32 power), can discharge in ~1/20,000th of a second—fast enough to freeze the wings of a hummingbird.
This image was made by first creating a “set” in which to photograph the hummingbird. Hummingbirds were already very accustomed to the lodge’s sugar-water feeders, located under a covered roof in an outdoor dining area. So putting up the set in this dining area meant that the roof would shade out all the natural light—a good thing. The set itself consisted of an artificial background, a flower supported by a “plamp” and four flashes mounted on lighting stands. The artificial background was a large (~30″ x 45″) out-of-focus photo of greenery, printed on some inexpensive paper then clipped to a piece of hardboard mounted on a folding artist’s easel.
Of the four flashes, one flash was dedicated to illuminating the background while the other three were set to illuminate the hummingbird—one from overhead and behind. The other two were placed in front on the level of the target area for the bird (and camera) at ~45 degrees from each side at about ~24″ from the target “zone” where the set is. All flashes were set to 1/32 power and were fired with radio triggers. A few test shots were required to get the exposure correct—typical camera settings are ISO-200 to ISO-400 at f/11 to f/16 with the shutter speed set to the camera’s sync speed (remember, the exposure comes from the light of the flashes, not the ambient light). To adjust the amount of light coming from the flashes, the light stand is moved closer or further away from the target (as changing the power of the flash would alter its discharge time). It is important that all flashes are of the same manufacture and are set to the same output power or “ghosting” may result from varied flash discharge times.
Once ready to go, I “juiced-up” the flower by injecting some sugar-water nectar into the flower with a syringe, then sat and waited for a hummingbird to find the flower. – Jeff Dyck
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L telephoto zoom, Canon Extender EF 1.4X III teleconverter, four Yongnuo YN-560 flashes with Phottix Strato MULTI 5-IN-1 wireless flash trigger – 1/200th @ f/13, ISO 400 – 160mm.