Images and Text by Nate Chappell
Photographing hummingbirds in flight in countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica with natural light or with just one flash can be very difficult. The reason – most of these birds live in the cloud forest where there isn’t much light due to both shade from trees and cloud cover. One solution for this, which creates beautiful flight shots, is a multi-flash hummingbird setup. By setting up several slave flashes set to 1/32 or 1/16 power around a hummingbird feeder or flower you can produce stunning images of hummingbirds in flight. The reason is that the flashes are actually synching at speeds of 1/8000 to 1/12,000 of a second changing the effective shutter speed from what is on your camera – let’s say 1/200 sec to the lightning fast speed of the flashes synching. The key to this is having the flashes produce all of the light, otherwise you will be mixing ambient light and flash lighting. In that case the 1/200 sec shutter speed will affect the image by causing blurring in parts of it. So you need to have your camera’s exposure set to at least -3 or -4 stops below the ambient lighting.Another helpful component is to have an artificial background – often a large printed photograph held a few yards behind the mutli-flash setup.
The camera settings I typically start out with are working in manual mode, ISO 400, f/22 and 1/200 sec (Note: you need to keep your flash below it’s maximum normal synch speed). In a dark environment this will get you a few stops below what the ambient meter reading would be. The high F-stop helps get both the hummingbird (sometimes hummingbirds) and the flower in focus when working at close range. Hummingbirds are quite tolerant when feeding so while your flash set up may scare them away at first, they will come back.
As far as equipment, any intermediate zoom or telephoto lens works well. I often use the Canon 300mm f/4. Zooms like the Canon 100-400mm or Nikon 80-400mm are ideal as you can zoom in or out depending on how large the hummingbird is or if there are multiple birds. Some photographers prefer to use a fixed 500mm to maximize detail. I am always on my tripod, aimed at the feeder or flower. That way, I can quickly fire off a round of shots if a bird approaches. You also need an on-camera flash that has manual settings. Even though the flashes are at 1/32 or 1/16 (they all need to be set to the same power) I am often at 1/64 on my on-camera flash. We use Nikon SB-26 flashes for slave flashes. I know that sounds strange when I say that I am a Canon shooter. The nice thing about the Nikon SB-26’s is that they will synch automatically with any flash – it doesn’t matter whether it is a Nikon or not, and that means we don’t need any other wired or wireless triggers. This allows participants on our tours to photograph with their normal cameras – Nikon, Canon, Pentax, etc. – as long as they have an onboard flash with manual setting capability.
We typically use six slave flashes. We place five around the hummingbird feeder and use one to light up the background. The flashes are set at varying heights so that both the bottom and top of the birds are lit up. They are set anywhere from two feet to five feet from the hummingbird feeder, with three on one side and two on the other side. You can use lots of different light stands to hold your flashes. Although fairly expensive, I prefer Manfrotto 6.75’ light stands. They are sturdy but short enough to fit in a normal sized duffel bag which isn’t overlong for international flights (folded up they are a bit longer than two feet). I use Novoflex Neiger 19 mini ballheads to attach to the top of the flash stands and hold the flashes. They are around $50 each. I have tried much less expensive mini ballheads but they break easily and don’t give me the ability to move the flash head as easily as the Novoflex Neigers. After some hummingbirds have started to come to our feeder, I will remove the feeder and hold a flower in place with a Wimberley Plamp. I insert sugar water into the flower with a syringe. This allows us to get photos of the hummers feeding at flowers. If the activity dies back down, I will put the feeder back up to get birds coming in again.
So, where are good places to do multi-flash photography? The answer: Anywhere there are plenty of hummingbirds! Ecuador and Costa Rica are two of the most popular locations. Ecuador has over 150 different hummingbird species. On a tour with stops at a few different lodges, it’s possible to get good images of about 30 species. At some of the cloud forest lodges there are literally hundreds of hummingbirds buzzing around. In the United States, Southern Arizona is probably the best location in terms of the number of species. In the Eastern United States, you can also get great action with Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, particularly during migration. My wife, Angie, is from Ecuador so we lead bird photography tours and spend some time there each year. We also do multi-flash photography on our Trinidad and Tobago tour and on our Arizona workshop. You can see some of the stunning birds we see and photograph in the images here. All of these images have placed in the NANPA Showcase within the past few years. And, a participant on one of my private Ecuador tours even took an image that was an award winner in this year’s BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year birds category! To see more info on our tours and workshops see www.trogontours.net