Garden photography: Tips to photographing hummingbirds in flight

Planning, patience: Key to capturing garden bird photographs

Garden photography isn’t always easy. In fact, I figure the photo took about six hours of patience and five seconds of shooting.

The result, pretty close to what I hoped for photographing with natural light in the shade of a magnolia tree. An electronic flash would certainly have punched it up both in colour and sharpness, but I decided to go with natural light.

The flash photo can wait for now.

Was luck involved? There is always a certain amount of luck in any good image, but to me luck would have meant getting the photograph in the first half hour, not the sixth.

Photographers looking to do more backyard bird photography might find it helpful to delve a little deeper into the creation of this image.

If I could have only one lens for wildlife and birds in the garden, it would be my F* 300mm F4.5. Check out my full story on the lens by clicking the link.

Much like most bird photography, good planning, lots of patience, and the right equipment went a long way in capturing the image.

Hummingbird feeds from a cardinal flower in the garden.

Hummingbird feeds from a cardinal flower in the garden.

Planning: The planning started when I ordered the native plant from back in the spring. I knew hummingbirds loved Cardinal flowers so I ordered three and planted them in an area where they would prosper. Then, I planted it where I would have easy access to them for photography. Beside the patio and a couple of feet from where I normally sit is the ideal location. And, so, that’s where the plants found a home. Nearby, there are three hummingbird feeders that encourage the birds to the general vicinity to where the plant is located.

Patience: Six hours speaks to the patience it took to get the shot. That length of time can be extremely long if you are out in the field, but sitting in a comfortable chair in the backyard makes the wait much easier. It’s one of the big benefits of practising backyard bird photography. Have a coffee, a beer or maybe a glass of wine and take your best shots. Couldn’t be easier.


In most cases a photography blind is not needed when shooting hummingbirds providing you take the time to acclimatize the birds to your presence.

(If you are interested in exploring garden photography at a higher level, be sure to check out my comprehensive post on the Best camera and lens for Garden Photography.)

Even if you’re not taking pictures, sitting out in the same chair and moving slowly will eventually cause the birds to recognize you as nonthreatening and allow them to go about their day as if you are not really even there.

This will not work with all birds, but many, especially Hummingbirds will eventually simply ignore you if you are always around their feeders.

Equipment: Bird photography has always been a specialty field involving high-powered cameras, motordrives and long, fast, expensive lenses. A visit to Point Pelee during spring migration, or any other of the birding hot spots around the globe, will certainly convince you that admission into serious bird photography requires more than an iphone or a point-and-shoot camera.

That’s not to say that with very careful planning you can’t get some good shots with these cameras. It’s just that it would be hard to do it consistently and the effort put forward might not be worth the results.

The small size of the hummingbird makes it even more difficult to get good results with these cameras.

So, with that in mind, I took the hummingbird challenge armed with a 35mm SLR camera with built-in motordrive and a 300mm F4.5 close-focusing telephoto lens (with a focal lens of around 450mm on the cropped sensor).

If I could have only one lens for wildlife and birds in the garden, it would be my F* 300mm F4.5. Check out my full story on the lens by clicking the link.

But this was not really the secret behind getting the photograph. They are merely the tools that helped make it possible.

The secret was a tripod, an electronic shutter release, and a camera set on backfocus.

With the camera locked into place on the tripod, and the electronic release ready to trip the shutter without moving the camera, the plan was almost complete.

However, one big problem remained. Normally, when you press the shutter halfway down, the camera refocuses, often going into search mode to find something to focus on. Trying to focus blindly with the hummingbird moving about makes it close to impossible.

That’s where back focus came into play.

What’s back focus you may ask?

On the back of most higher-quality 35mm SLRs is a button that enables the photographer to focus separately from the shutter control button. By using the back focus button, I was able to prefocus on the flowers and then release the shutter without it refocusing when the hummingbird reached the area where I expected it would be in-focus.

Focusing on the flower and then putting the camera into manual focus mode would also have worked.

In the end, the combination of planning, patience and equipment came together to create a pleasing shot. Months in the planning, hours of waiting for the plan to come together and a few seconds of actual shooting made it all happen.

A lucky shot if I ever saw one.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird feeds from a cardinal flower on a sunny afternoon.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird feeds from a cardinal flower on a sunny afternoon.

Later in the season, I set up a similar situation where the Cardinal flower was primarily in the sun.

The higher shutter speed that the additional light provided helped to get the frenetic little bird in focus and brightened the colours in its feathers. I’m not sure I like the photos any more than the earlier images taken in a shadier part of the garden, but taking it was certainly a simpler process.

Again, patience was the key. The process was similar. Camera on a tripod focused on the flower (again using the back focus button) and a remote release attached to the camera. Every time the hummingbird came to feed, I took several photographs hoping that enough of them would be in focus and sharp.

As I said earlier, photographing the bird in a sunny location brought out the colours, provided a highlight in the bird’s eye and allowed me to shoot at a higher f-stop which helped to capture more of the bird in focus.

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Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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