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Nature Masterclass: Shooting Hummingbirds and Butterflies

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Every spring, the natural world bursts back into life. We're not only showered with bright flowers and warmer weather, but we also get to observe the wonderful pollinators of those flowers. Some of the most interesting pollinators are butterflies and hummingbirds, and this guide will teach you how to photograph these amazing little creatures.


Step 1: Get the Right Equipment


Before you start photographing butterflies and hummingbirds, it's important to get the right equipment. Here's a list of the basics, followed by a short description of why each is important.

  • Digital SLR
  • Memory cards (high capacity and fast)
  • Tripod (and head)
  • Telephoto lens (300mm or longer)
  • Extension tube (25mm)
  • Portable Blind

Digital SLR. Although you can certainly take good photos with a point and shoot camera, they're not very good with action shots. The Digital SLR allows you to take a lot more photos in a burst and can use longer lenses. Their bigger sensors also allow you to have more control over depth of field, so you can isolate the butterfly/hummingbird against its background.

Memory cards (high capacity and fast). With uncontrollable subjects like butterflies and hummingbirds, you'll end up taking a lot of shots quickly to ensure you get a photo where the subject is sharp and in a good pose. So, it's important to have high capacity and fast memory cards. Check your camera's manual to find out the fastest type of memory card your camera can handle (most cameras built in the last couple years can handle UDMA-6).

Tripod (and head). At first, you might think a tripod would just get in the way for photographing high-speed subjects, but there's actually a way you can still benefit from the stability of a tripod. Just setup your tripod as you normally would, except don't lock in the ballhead. Keeping the ballhead loose will allow you to quickly point your camera in a new direction in case your subject moves to another nearby flower (very likely for hummingbirds!). If you have a panhead, this probably won't work too well though.

Telephoto lens. You won't be able to get very close to butterflies/hummingbirds without scaring them away, so you'll need a long telephoto lens (at least 300mm). It's important to get a lens with a short minimum focus distance though (around 5 ft), because sometimes you will be able to get close (more on that later). The telephoto lens also helps you isolate your subject against an out-of-focus background.

Extension tube (25mm). The extension tube is a hollow tube that attaches to the back of your lens and allows you to focus much closer to your subject. If you have a telephoto lens that has a longer minimum focusing distance (more than 6 ft), then an extension tube can help your lens focus a little closer. Getting closer will help you fill the frame with your subject and get a more out of focus background.

Portable Blind. A blind isn't absolutely necessary, but it can help you get closer to hummingbirds. Most wildlife are more sensitive to movement than sound, so the blind masks your movement, making the subject feel safe as it approaches you. Personally, I use a Kwik Camo blind, but any blind will work well as long as it masks your movement and it's portable (you might have to hike for a few miles to find a good place to photograph from).


Step 2: Setting Up Your Camera


Below are a few camera settings you should consider using when photographing fast-moving nature. How to enable these features is different on each camera, so check your manual to learn how to take advantage of them.

RAW or JPEG? For controllable subjects, RAW is usually the obvious choice for file format. But, for uncontrollable subjects like butterflies and hummingbirds, you might want to consider shooting in JPEG instead. Why? Well, most cameras can shoot a lot more photos in a burst if they're shooting in JPEG. RAW files are so much larger that they take more time to write to the memory card. So, you may only be able to shoot 12 or so RAW files in a row before the camera has to pause while it writes the files to the memory card. On the other hand, most cameras can shoot more than 30 JPEGS in a row before they need to pause and write to the memory card.

Disable Mirror Lockup. Mirror lockup is great for controllable subjects when you have lots of time, but when you're shooting photos in a burst for action photography, make sure you disable mirror lockup. It'll only slow you down.

Set ISO to 400 or 800. Setting your ISO to 400 or 800 will help you get a faster shutter, which helps freeze the action and allows you to take more shots quickly. On most newer cameras, you'll barely notice any noise at ISO 400, but at 800 it starts becoming obvious, so only use ISO 800 when you have really poor lighting conditions (e.g. cloudy skies).

Enable Continuous Shooting. Most cameras have a separate setting that allows you to hold down the shutter button while the camera continuously shoots photos, so make sure you have this option on.

Turn ON Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction, etc). Although you'll have your camera on a tripod, it's still a good idea to turn on Image Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction on Nikons), because you won't be locking in the ballhead.


Step 3: Find a Good Group of Flowers


So, now that you have everything you need and your camera is all setup, it's time to actually find a place to take a photo! Picking the right group of flowers is important because everything needs to be right: a good composition with a good background, lighting, and minimizing your impact to the land.

Good background. A good background will contrast well with the flower and, more importantly, your subject. It should also be far away from the flowers, to help make it more out of focus. Following these rules will ensure the subject stands out.

Directly lit by the sun. You also want to find a group of flowers that are directly lit by the sun, to avoid harsh shadows (which create a disaster for exposure). Direct sunlight will also allow you to get the fastest shutter speed possible. Keep in mind that although a certain patch of flowers may not be sunlit right now, they may be later (or earlier) in the day. So, if you find some flowers with a great background (and somewhere to sit, as explained below), then consider coming back when the light is better.

Somewhere to sit without harming the land. Once you find a good group of flowers, then you really just have to wait for your subject to show up. And, this can take awhile: sometimes up to an hour! So, you'll need a good place to sit where you're not harming the land: either a patch of dirt, gravel, or a big rock will work. Avoid sitting on top of other vegetation (even if it looks dead).


Step 4: Setup Your Tripod and Blind


If you have a blind, then you can usually get about 3-5 ft away from the flower without scaring hummingbirds/butterflies. But, without the blind, you'll probably need to be at least 5 ft away.

Setup your tripod so the camera's height will be even with the group of flowers. This will make a more pleasing and "intimate" shot because it'll show your subject on their level, it'll show the world from the perspective of the butterfly.


Step 5: Find the Right Aperture

Okay, you should now be sitting comfortably inside your blind with your camera and tripod all setup. Now it's time to get ready for the shot and the first step is to find the right aperture.

Generally, you should start with the sharpest aperture of your lens and see how that looks through your viewfinder. You can press the depth of field preview button to get an idea of what will be in focus at that aperture (this button is usually hidden on the front of your camera somewhere).

The sharpest aperture of your lens is usually one stop down from it's widest available (so an f/4 lens is usually sharpest at f/5.6), but it's important to test your lens at home under controlled conditions to really determine the sharpest aperture.


Step 6: Find the Right Exposure


Use the histogram to find the perfect exposure by taking a test shot of the flowers. Then, keep increasing the exposure (longer shutter speeds), until the histogram is as far to the right as possible in at least one of the color channels. But, do not overexpose any of the color channels (indicated by a line on the far right of the graph that goes all the way to the top).

For hummingbirds, you'll want a shutter speed of at least 1/800 or faster to ensure you freeze their action enough. This will make their wings blurry, but the only way to freeze their wings completely is to use a flash (and that's a topic for an entirely different tutorial).

For butterflies, you don't need too fast of a shutter, but something around 1/200 or faster is usually good enough. Butterflies, once they're on a flower, usually don't move too quickly, so a fast shutter speed isn't as important.


Step 7: Wait For Your Subject to Show Up

Congratulations, your camera is now ready to go! Now it's just a waiting game for your subject to show up. This will require a lot of patience because it may be 30 minutes or longer before a butterfly or hummingbird shows up. This might make you think that it's just better to walk around until you see one and then just approach it slowly, but you'll never get close enough that way. The best way to get full frame shots is to wait for your subject to come to you.

While you're waiting, remember to keep an eye on the sunlight: is the patch of flowers still in direct sunlight? Do you need to update your exposure for new lighting conditions (e.g. the sun went behind some clouds)?

And, it's also important to always be alert and ready for action while you're waiting. If you start reading a book, for example, and a hummingbird shows up, it may very well be gone by the time you put the book down and find the bird in your viewfinder, focus, and take some shots. Luckily, butterflies will usually give you a lot more time though.

Always be ready!


Step 8: Snap Photos Quickly!

Once your subject shows up, find it in your viewfinder, focus on it, and then just hold down your shutter button while your camera continuously shoots photos. Also watch for the subject to move to another flower (and remember to refocus if it does).

Depending on how quickly your subject is moving, you may be able to wait until it's in a good pose before you start snapping photos. This will ensure your camera is ready to record images to the memory card when you really need it to.

One of the most annoying problems when photographing hummingbirds is getting a ton of shots of their back, and then missing the good poses because your camera is busy writing those poor images to the memory card.


More Tips for Success

Photograph hummingbirds when there's a shortage of flowers. Hummingbirds are extremely territorial, and will fight with other birds to protect a patch of flowers. So, when there's a shortage of flowers around, hummingbirds are significantly more likely to stick to their ground and not get scared away by your presence.

Photograph butterflies when it's cold outside. Butterflies need the warmth of the sun to use their wings, so when it's cold outside, they're much less likely to fly away. Sometimes on cold overcast days, you'll just see them chilling out on top of a flower, not moving at all, and allowing you to get just inches away from them!

Learn as much as you can about your subject. Knowing your subject is just as important as knowing your camera, so learn the habits of hummingbirds and their migration patterns. Or, learn about what types of flowers your favorite butterfly likes to get nectar from. All of this knowledge will help you find your subject and be in the right place at the right time.


Final Image

Here's an example of the type of image you'll be able to make after following the steps of this tutorial. Good luck, and have fun!


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