Monday, October 3, 2016

Photographing Hummingbirds

I originally wrote this post in August, 2013, but it needed updating, so I copied it from the public blog page, and I am rewriting it here. Google, in their amazing incompetence, will not allow me to go back that far for editing, nor will they respond to any of the several nastygrams I have sent them. In other words, if you want to do a blog, use Wordpress or some other platform.

I have to tell you that this article is not coming from one who has lived in hummingbird Nirvana. It is about the right equipment for the job and the technique. I am going to break this essay into three parts: flash equipment, supporting equipment including backgrounds, and technique.  I shoot with Nikon gear and have since about 1980. Consequently, I cannot convert much of my equipment specific information for Canon or Sony, although unlike a number of brand-idolizing camera owners, I have the utmost respect for these other companies' products. 

Shooting hummingbirds is equipment intensive; no way around it. You will need a camera which can respond to a remote trigger, preferably a radio-controlled transmitter and receiver, such as PocketWizard, and a 200mm or longer lens.  You will also want a sturdy tripod, 2 lighting stands, 5 flash units which can be wirelessly controlled, support for the flash units, and a master flash commander,  Add to that a hummingbird feeder, a background on a second tripod, and, of course, hummingbirds.

Flash Equipment

I just looked at what each piece of high-speed flash specific equipment cost me since 2005 and the figure is about $3000. (That does not include camera, lenses or tripods.) It is spread unevenly over 11 years, but less than $400 per year, not an unmanageable amount, if this becomes your thing. I haunted eBay, Craigslist, B+H used, and Amazon for bargains. The Nikon SB-600 (8) and SB-800 (2) flash units I own, all with wireless remote capabilities, and all older technology are still available on eBay. The latter units are great, but you don't really need one unless you are going to use it as a command unit. If you are just now entertaining this specialty you may wish to consider some of the much cheaper Chinese brands. If you are in a camera club with like-minded individuals to contribute equipment, you are in luck!

For me wireless remote is the key contributor.  I have SU-800 command units for both my cameras. This device sits in the hot shoe and its infrared signal sends the commands to each bank of flashes to fire.  It also sets the power for your flash units. The flashes themselves are programmed for 'remote', channel 1,2, or 3, and the flash group; A, B or C. So in summary, I use 5 or 6 flash units grouped around a hummingbird feeder, all set for 'remote' and group 'A' and channel '3'.

So why the flash commander?  Well, the pop-up flash in your camera will work as a commander as will the SB-800.  The built-in flash is close to worthless because it must recycle and its infrared range is limited. The SB-800 is a better choice, but again the same two limits become an issue at some point, and with both these options you will get a shadow on your background unless you can disable the actual flash. That can be done with the pop-up. With the dedicated commander
 the cone of the infrared signal is wider and deeper. Plus, you are using such a small fraction of each flash's power to achieve an  exposure that flash recycling is almost instantaneous for a burst of 3 or 4 frames. By then your subject is probably gone.

(The latest generation of cameras/flash units actually use radio transmission, but they are currently very expensive. Nevertheless, there will be no real aftermarket for much of this stuff as the new technology takes hold.) 

Supporting Equipment
You obviously have to support the flash units around a target location. This I achieve with two lighting stands on to which I have mounted an arm to hold two flash units. In the past I have used a strip of 1 X 3 wood which is drilled for a 1/4-20 wood insert and 1/4 inch (6 mm) hole for a bolt to hold the flash unit support. I have just recently switched to a stereo microphone bar, K+M 23550 from B+H and others. They are much more elegant and much more permanent.  Also, you will get multiple points of light in the eye of your subject which have to be removed in post processing.  Keeping the flash units facing the eyes of the bird closer together will help eliminate that problem. 

(Note the [+]) mark between some names. Apparently HTML does not like ampersands.)

Flash units on the microphone bar with small Manfrotto
ball heads.The bar is slotted to allow for variable distances.

In order to gain maximum flexibility in how I orient the units around a feeder I have bought several of the Manfrotto 492 micro-ball heads. I definitely comb the used equipment ads for these, and I have gotten them as low $25. I mount the Nikon AS-19 flash stand on the ball head and attach the flash. Keep in mind the stereo bar has 3/8 inch bolts to secure the flash unit, so you will need the micro ball heads, or a little brass 3/8 female to 1/4 inch male converter. Those ship with the lighting stands as I recall. For even more flexibility I use Manfrotto 494 mini-ball heads between the lighting stand and the arm.  These small ball heads are overkill, but they are useful. This set-up is illustrated here.

For the background I use an old tripod and larger ball head to support the background frame, and a utility tripod.  This 1960 era Gitzo ball head, #275 is my bargain du annum. I paid $35.00 and shipping for it. The Arca Swiss compatible quick connect is from China. These clamps and plates are utility quality, but they are cheap and they work.

Chinese made Arca-Swiss dovetail components
on a 1960s Gitzo head
I preach about backgrounds. With the short duration of the flash units grouped around a target, the background will be featureless black without a way to illuminate it by artificial light. So, one of your flash units will have to be employed against an artificial background.  I have painted them either sky blue or to affect foliage and sky on a piece of foam core, but I have never been quite satisfied.  The better solution for hummingbirds is to photograph a suitable landscape - blurred out of focus - and blur it even more in Photoshop if necessary, to a pleasant bokeh. I have them printed on 20 X 24 (32cm X 39cm) canvas which I stretch over a wood frame  They are light and the texture of the canvas does not show.  Spray Krylon uv-resistant clear matte acrylic on them to protect them against sun and the elements - including bird poop. (Dick Bick Art).  Use the coating only once.  More coats will cloud your background image.  Been there...

I am a glutton for comfort in what could be a long session, so I purchased a pair of PocketWizard Plus II remote units which are attached to my camera's accessory port with a pre-trigger cable, now reasonably priced.The units themselves are no longer made, but can be had on eBay for $85-90. They work great on my D700, but not on my D800E.  For later technology you will need the PocketWizard Plus III. One is the remote transmitter and the other the receiver, and allows me to trigger multiple shots with either camera by swithcing channels on the one transmitter.. These are radio controlled units, so you do not have to be in sight line with the camera and they will work at great distance.  I can sit inside reading a book, get up and go for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (after wineo'clock), and not miss an opportunity. Carefully research the compatibility of any remote control system with your camera, and be aware that different countries require different frequencies, so if you are in Europe and buy something from eBay US, it may not work for you. 

I use a very small tube feeder, and none others close.  If it can be disguised with a flower in bloom, so much the better and your job of pre-focusing will be much easier. It is very effective and adds interest to your composition. (I had been using a small three hole feeder, on which I cut off the perching ring, and then duct taped over two holes. The bird can only feed from that one location and must hover.) I pre-focus on the spout of the feeder and switch my lens to manual. I can set my camera up as close as I dare. This eliminates the need for any super expensive monster lens. Although I have used a 300mm f/4 with a teleconverter, I prefer a 70-200 set at 200mm. This arrangement also gives me a little more useful depth of field than a longer lens. However, the greater distance with the longer lens may mitigate the sound of the shutter, which may startle some subjects. The focal point is just away from the feeder where I expect the subject to hover. With a flower you would want to include it. My lament is that fall and winter (some western birds come in) when I do this, there is nothing in bloom that works.  I am still working on that solution.

Set-up at a hummingbird feeder

Your flashes are probably best set for 1/32 power to start unless you have four or fewer units.  The flash duration is set on the back panel of the SU-800 commander or similar Canon product.  Recall that flash units do not have variable light intensity, only shorter or longer duration. With the Nikon equipment I use, the flash duration is about 1/20,000 of a second when the units are set as above. That essentially becomes your shutter speed, and it stops the subject cold, illuminating even the tiny details of feathering.

The critical factor is blocking ambient light on your subject, otherwise you will get ghosting. To do this set your camera to manual mode with a shutter speed of about 1/250. Close down your aperture and shoot an exposure until you can see nothing but blackness. Your camera is now essentially set - on a tripod of course.  Now turn on your flash units and adjust the distance to the focal point, or the number units you are employing, or the flash intensity, until you get a proper exposure.

I mentioned multiple exposures above. Often, it is not the first shot you prize, but the second, or third it if the bird reacts to your triggering a shot.  On my Nikon D700 I have the MB-D10 battery pack, which gives me an 8 frames per second burst rate. Since recycling is not a concern with 1/32 power lighting, I will get an equally well exposed shot on the second, and maybe the third frame. If you are a Nikon shooter do not over look this older professional camera; it is very versatile still. I have yet to spring for the similar accessory for the D800E. The PocketWizard Plus III will trigger multiple exposures on the D700 with Pocket-wizard Plus II attached, but not the other way around. If you have one of the newer technology cameras you will need two Plus IIIs for multiple exposures.

Keep in mind that aperture is a compromise. You are probably out around f/11 to f/16 if you are using 1/250 sec. and an ISO setting of 200  All the while you will want as much of the hummingbird in focus as possible. With a little practice you will be very pleased with your results. In low ambient light your flashes may spook the bird, but if the sun is out and the light is fairly strong they may not notice the flash and keep on feeding. If you live in a hummingbird-rich environment I really, really envy you, but I still wish you many dazzling images.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird in Georgia
Rufous Hummingbird wintering on the island

Ruby-throated Hummingbird in good lighting 

Note the gorgets in the images above.  You have to set one or two flashes right where you think the bird will be looking. I missed on the beautiful male Rufous Hummingbird

This technique will work just as well with song birds which use your water feature.  Find a nice prop, stick on top of the bird bath, and pay attention to where the birds like to perch - probably at the very end, but not always.  With song birds you will probably have more success from a photo blind which will eliminate the need to pre-focus. Keep in mind that burst of exposures; they can yield some dramatic shots.  In October 2014 I photographed 8 or 10 different warblers looking for water when they were coming through on migration.  It was like a dream.

Set-up at a water feature with a prop for song birds.  The SU-800 commander is mounted on a flash bracket which is totally unnecessary.

Carolina Wren
American Redstart

An important element for success, which should not be overlooked, is the proximity of cover in the shrubs and hedges in my back garden. If you are just beginning to lay out your feeders and props you will want to keep this in mind. 

Here I will summarize the equipment you will need to get into high-speed flash photography. This assumes you already have camera and one tripod.  Prices are B+H as of October, 2016:

Manfrotto 367B light stand, 2ea @ $80.99ea
K+M 23550 stereo microphone bar @ $13.49
Manfrotto 494 mini ballhead @ $69.88
Manfrotto 492 micro ballhead, 2ea @ $59.88ea
Command yunit for your system @ $250
Background photo on canvas, stretched approx. $75
Arca-Swiss compatible QR clamp and plate, approx. $25
Pocketwizard Plus III, 2ea at $135ea
Rechargable AA batteries, 20ea, approx. $45
Powerex charge for 8 AAs @ $60  
Five flash heads capable of wireless triggering approx $125 ea to $400 plus.
Utility tripod with head or stand to illuminate background
Threaded 1/4-3/8 adapters

Yup, expensive. But these are prices for new products. I would urge you to carefully shop eBay or other online sources, and you can come close to halving this investment. For instance the very capable Nikon SB-600 is now on eBay for $125 or less.  The Chinese models for less than that. You can get along without the little ball heads, but they area a real convenience to precisely locate your light source. I bought all mine used or phased out models.

Finally traveling with your equipment.  Read my recent post on "Air Travel with Equipment- the New Normal".  Airlines and electronics are essentially incompatible. Regrettably I am over 1800 miles from the places I would like to take my stuff. That is a lot of driving. The only solution is to buy Pelican cases. Airlines will reimburse you for lost luggage, but not damage to your equipment.