Camera Settings for Hummingbirds

Camera Settings for Hummingbirds

Camera Settings for Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are one of the most enjoyable birds to photograph, if not the most, in my opinion. Not only are they very people tolerant, they are packed with personality. That said, many people are daunted at the prospect of trying to photograph these little birds. But - we got you. There are three camera settings for hummingbirds that you have to master to get sharp, vibrant Hummingbird photographs: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Let's talk about those.  

hummingbird photography camera settings

Aperture: What Does a “Fast Lens” Mean?

A fast camera lens typically refers to a lens with a wide maximum aperture, meaning that it allows a lot of light to pass through the lens and onto the camera's sensor. This wider aperture enables faster shutter speeds to be used, which is especially useful in low-light conditions where there is less available light and also for fast moving subjects, like hummingbirds.

aperture dof f/stop example

A fast lens is typically expressed in terms of its maximum aperture size, also known as the f-stop. A lower f-stop number indicates a wider aperture and therefore a faster lens. For example, a lens with an aperture of f/1.8 is considered a fast lens because it allows more light to pass through than a lens with an aperture of f/5.6.

Faster lenses also have the benefit of providing shallower depth of field, which can be used to create a blurry background effect, or bokeh, that can help to isolate the subject from its surroundings. 

(Need to show off your photography setting prowess? Get a Carry a Fast Lens shirt!)


What is the best lens to photograph Hummingbirds?

Photographing hummingbirds can be challenging because of their small size and fast movements. To capture high-quality images of hummingbirds, you'll need a lens with a long focal length and a wide maximum aperture. This is the first place to figure out your camera settings for hummingbirds. 

A telephoto lens with a focal length of at least 300mm would be ideal for photographing hummingbirds. This will allow you to capture close-up shots of the birds without disturbing them or getting too close. A lens with image stabilization would also be helpful to ensure sharp images.

In terms of aperture, a wider aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4 would be ideal as it will allow you to achieve faster shutter speeds to freeze the bird's fast movements and blur the background for a pleasing bokeh effect. However, a telephoto lens with an f/4 aperture can be really expensive. My advice is find a lens between f/5.6 and f/11 and you'll be able to have a great deal of success. If you opt to get a teleconverter (this give you more reach), know you will lose a few stops, and some will disable your auto focus. Research these carefully. I prefer the 1.4x, as it gives you that small boost without disabling auto focus, which is a must with hummingbirds. 

Male Costas Hummingbird Scottsdale Arizona

A lens that meets these requirements, and the one I use with my Canon R5 is the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L is USM Super-Telephoto Lens. Before I moved to mirrorless, I was using the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L is II USM Lens on my Canon 5D Mark IV and it was terrific for hummingbird photography.  However, there are plenty of 300mm lenses that would also work well. 

If you are uncertain of what lens or camera to purchase, rent the lens first. You can do this at Borrow Lenses and sometimes local photography stores rent equipment. 

Best Shutter Speed for Hummingbird Photography

When photographing hummingbirds, you'll want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze their rapid movements and capture sharp images. The exact shutter speed you should use will depend on several factors, including the lighting conditions, the behavior of the hummingbirds, and the lens you are using. As you've seen, photo examples of camera settings for hummingbirds are being showcased throughout this article. Conditions varied, but most were taken early morning, between 9am-11am. 

As a general rule of thumb, a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second is a good starting point for capturing sharp images of hummingbirds in flight. However, if the lighting is low, you may need to use a slower shutter speed or increase the ISO to maintain proper exposure.

Fast Lens for Hummingbird Photography

It's also important to consider the behavior of the hummingbirds you are photographing. If they are hovering or moving slowly, you may be able to get away with a slightly slower shutter speed. On the other hand, if they are darting quickly from flower to flower, you may need to use an even faster shutter speed to freeze their movements.

To get started capturing sharp images of hummingbirds, go with a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second and adjust as needed based on the lighting conditions and behavior of the birds.

What is ISO?

ISO is a term used in photography that refers to the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to light. In digital photography, ISO is a measurement of the digital sensor's sensitivity to light, while in film photography, it refers to the sensitivity of the film to light. 

A lower ISO number, such as 100 or 200, means the sensor is less sensitive to light and requires more light to create a well-exposed image. This is ideal for bright outdoor situations or well-lit indoor environments.

A higher ISO number, such as 800, 1600, or 3200, means the sensor is more sensitive to light and can capture images in lower light conditions. However, using a high ISO can also result in digital noise, which is visible as grain or speckling in the image. This is not as a big an issue as it used to be, as there are apps that do a great job of removing noise and sharpening images. 

Hummingbird Feeding on Flower

Modern cameras have a wide range of ISO settings, with some cameras capable of reaching very high ISO values of 12,800 or higher, which is useful for shooting in extremely low light conditions, like Milky Way photography.  

In summary, ISO in photography refers to the sensitivity of the camera's sensor to light, and adjusting the ISO allows you to control how much light is needed to create a well-exposed image. Depending on how fast your lens is, higher ISO can benefit you greatly with hummingbird photography. I have shot at ISO 1600 many times then removed the noise in post. 


Should I use a flash with my camera for hummingbird photography?

My first answer: No.

My second answer: No.

Using a flash can startle and stress the birds. Hummingbirds have excellent eyesight that is specially adapted to their unique way of life. They are able to see colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, which allows them to detect the nectar guides and patterns on flowers that are invisible to human eyes.

In addition to their color vision, hummingbirds have a high degree of visual acuity, which allows them to see fine details from a distance. This is important for finding flowers, avoiding predators, and navigating through their environment.

Hummingbirds are also able to perceive motion and have excellent depth perception, which helps them judge distances accurately when approaching flowers or other objects. They can detect movement up to 50 feet away, which is particularly useful for detecting potential predators.

Hummingbirds have excellent eyesight that is adapted to their unique lifestyle and helps them navigate their environment, find food, and avoid danger. So, when considering using a flash, please imagine yourself driving your car on a busy and dangerous road and all of a sudden you get an unexpected burst of light in your eyes. Then another. And another. Would that impact your driving? Make you stressed? What if it only happened on one road? Would you avoid that road? You get my point.

In the image below, I did not use a flash. The sun was behind me, the plant was in the foreground and the background was a dark bush that was in shadow. It proves that you can create images where the hummingbird is isolated without harming it in the process. 

No Flash with Hummingbird Photography Example


Where can I find Hummingbirds?

Once you get your camera settings for hummingbirds figured out and are ready to go shoot, you can find hummingbirds in many parts of the United States, although their distribution varies depending on the species and the time of year. Here are some general tips for finding hummingbirds in different regions of the United States: 

  • Western United States: In the western United States, the most common species of hummingbirds are Anna's hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds, and rufous hummingbirds. These birds can be found in a variety of habitats, including gardens, parks, and wooded areas. Some popular places to see hummingbirds in the west include California's Central Valley, the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and the mountains of Colorado and Utah.
  • Eastern United States: In the eastern United States, the most common species of hummingbirds are ruby-throated hummingbirds and black-chinned hummingbirds. These birds can be found in gardens, parks, and wooded areas, and are most commonly seen during their migration in the spring and fall. Some popular places to see hummingbirds in the east include the Gulf Coast, the Florida Keys, and the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Southern United States: In the southern United States, hummingbirds can be found year-round in many areas, including Texas, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. Some species that are commonly found in the south include ruby-throated hummingbirds, black-chinned hummingbirds, and buff-bellied hummingbirds. Be sure to check out the world-famous Rockport, Texas HummerBird Celebration in September.

Overall, hummingbirds can be found in many parts of the United States and the best way to see them is to look for flowering plants and feeders that attract them. (see our previous Blog post Tips to Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard) Additionally, many nature centers and parks offer guided hummingbird walks and other educational programs that can help you learn more about these fascinating birds.

Bird Bitch is offering one-on-one hummingbird tours August through September in Denver Colorado. Visit our Photography Tour page to learn more (coming soon!) If you don't see the tours on our website yet, use our Contact Form for more information and we'll email you details/pricing. We can also create a tour to meet your exact needs (these tours are wheelchair friendly). 

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