How to take great hummingbird photos

Getting great photos of hummingbirds can be a challenge, especially in-flight photos.

I've been a serious photographer for more than 40 years now, but have only been taking hummingbird photos for a few years now. I'm still learning about, and getting better at, capturing these tiny and fast moving birds. I'll be posting several articles in my blog on various photo and video tips and techniques. To start with, here are some of my basic tips and techniques for taking photos of hummingbirds in natural light conditions:

Aim & Wait

Hopefully you have some feeders and/or flowers that regularly attract hummingbirds. If so, the best way to capture photos is to sit or stand far enough away to not scare off the hummingbirds, but close enough to get a relatively tight shot of the birds with your camera and lens. The more you're outside with the hummingbirds, the more they will be comfortable with you around. I like to get my camera pre-focused on a feeder, or flower, that the hummingbirds visit regularly, and then just shift my aim slightly to the side that I think they will come in from. Quite often, they will hover very close to the feeder or flower before they move in to feed, and that's the best moment to capture the photo or video. You may have to sit or stand very still, holding your camera, for quite a long time, before they visit. Patience is key! My camera with the giant zoom lens can get quite heavy to hold, so I'll often lower it after I have already framed the shot and pre-focused, and then very slowly move it to position as soon as I hear the hummingbird approaching (I usually hear them before I see them). Sometimes they still get scared off when I point the big lens at them, but most of them are familiar with me and my camera now. If you have already pre-focused your camera on the feeder or flower, then the camera shouldn't have to shift focus very much to focus on a bird hovering a foot or two away.

Focus Settings

Getting a fast moving hummingbird in focus can be difficult, unless they are just sitting still on a feeder or some other perch. If you want to capture the hummingbird in fight, even if it's just while they are hovering, you need a good focusing system that can track subjects. If you're using a DSLR or high quality mirrorless camera, you'll want to set your focus mode to "AI Servo" and enable object tracking, or even eye detection, if your camera has those settings. The Canon R5 that I use has various object tracking modes, including Animal, that works great for birds. It also has eye detection that can track even the tiny little eyes of the hummingbirds. If you're trying to get shots with a cell phone, many phones will let you click on an object on the screen, and then it will try to track that object. Whether or not your phone can track a hummingbird and keep it in focus really depends on your phone and how close you can get. Most phones are not going to be able to track these tiny and fast birds, but you may be able to get a good shot if they are hovering in place. When using a camera like my Canon R5, you may need to dive deeper into the settings menu and change some settings in the focus tracking section. The Canon R5 has several different settings when object tracking is enabled, which determine what happens in the focusing system when another object enters the viewfinder, or if there are obstacles. I did some internet searching to figure out how professional photographers were using these settings for birds, and then played around with a few different settings until I found the one that worked best for me.

Shutter Speed

When it comes to shutter speed, the higher you can go, the better, if you are trying to capture the hummingbirds in flight. Anything under 1/1000 is not really going to cut it, and I usually try to go for at least 1/2000. Even with a shutter speed of 1/2000, the wings are still going to be blurry most of the time since their wings move incredibly fast (thus the humming noise). The closest you get to getting wings that aren't completely blurry (without using a high speed strobe/flash) is during that very small fraction of a second when their wings are changing direction. That's usually when they are all the way back or all the way forward. Of course, there is no way you can see that and time the shot with your naked eye, so that simply comes down to luck or taking a huge number of photos with a high speed drive.

High shutter speeds require a lot of light, and thus you usually need to shoot with your lens at its widest aperture. If you're not in direct sunlight, then you are probably going to have to crank up the ISO to be able to get higher shutter speeds, and that can lead to more noise and less detail (more on high ISO shooting in another article). Our backyard garden is in shade most of the day because of tall trees, our house, and the mountain we live on. There are only a few hours in the day, when the sun is directly overhead, that I can get enough sunlight to get high shutter speeds without cranking up the ISO to 8000 or higher. But, that's when the sun is directly overhead, which is the worst possible lighting condition. Also, since we live in the greater Seattle area, we get far more cloudy and overcast days than we do sunny days. More on shooting in low light conditions with high ISO in a future article.

Note that even if you're using a phone to try to take photos, you can adjust a lot of these settings by switching to "Pro" mode, or something similar. Some phones may have an action mode, or a mode that will fire off a burst of high speed photos. Experiment with different modes of your phones camera settings to see if you can get a good shot or not.

Also, if you are already lost with terms like Shutter Speed, ISO, Aperture, and AI Servo, do some internet searches for "photography basics" tutorials. These are all second nature to me since I've been involved with photography since a young age, but some family members and friends eyes will start to glaze over when I talk about this stuff!

High Speed Drive

Most DSLR and prosumer level mirrorless cameras have high speed drives that will allow you to take up to a certain number of shots per second when you hold down the shutter button. Even some phones have burst or action modes that will do something similar. When shooting in natural light, without photo strobes, using the high speed drive is essential to getting a good shot of hummingbirds in flight, or even when they are just hovering. As mentioned above, you'll need a very fast shutter speed if you want to try to freeze the wings without any blur in your photo. Your best bet is when the wings slow down a bit as they are changing direction. But, since it's impossible to see that and time your shot, you only option is to fire off as many shots as you can in a big high speed burst, and then hope that you maybe get one or two good shots out of that burst. The Canon R5 that I use can fire off up to 20 frames per second in the electronic shutter mode, and up to 12 frames per second with the mechanical shutter. Note that if you use the electronic shutter (with any camera) you can experience the rolling shutter effect, which can be particularly noticeable with fast moving hummingbird wings (you will see very abnormal looking wing shapes if many of the shots). The Canon R5 can maintain the high speed shooting for several seconds, depending on the speed of the memory card, and I can easily get 40 to 50 shots in one burst (usually stopping myself instead of the camera reaching its limit). I shoot this way quite often, and the combination of the high speed drive with the servo animal tracking and eye detection gets me many more keepers that I would get with my older cameras.

Aperture, Focal Length, and Depth Of Field

Aperture not only determines how much light passes through the lens to the sensor, but it also determines your depth of field, in conjunction with the focal length. As mentioned above, in order to get higher shutter speeds, especially in lower light conditions, you will usually need to shoot with the aperture at its widest setting (smaller f-stop number) to let in as much light as possible. Unfortunately, the longer the focal length of your lens, the smaller maximum aperture (bigger f-stop number). It's confusing, but bigger f-stop values mean smaller aperture openings, with f16 being a very small aperture that doesn't let much light in, while an f-stop value of 1.4, or even 2.8, are considered very wide apertures that are great for lower light conditions. The longer the focal length of the lens, the more difficult, and more expensive, it is to have wider apertures (and can also make the lenses much bigger and heavier). My Canon EF 100-400mm lens starts at f4.5 at 100mm and ends at f5.6 at 400mm, which isn't very wide and doesn't let a whole lot of light in, but the lens is still fairly heavy, and I wouldn't be able to hand hold anything much heavier.

Depth Of Field refers to the distance range that is in focus. When you focus on a certain point, there will be a range in front of and in back of that point that is also in focus, and anything on either side of that range will be out of focus. Things that determine the depth of field are the focal length, the aperture, how close you are to the subject, and the sensor size. Phones have very small camera sensors, smaller apertures, and short focal lengths, so depth of field is usually not much of an issue with phones. But, put a big super telephoto lens on a full frame sensor camera, with a wide aperture, and the depth of field can be a fraction of an inch. I use the eye tracking with my camera's autofocus system, and when it nails the focus on the eye, and I'm shooting at max zoom (400mm), and f5.6, many other parts of the bird will be out of focus if they are not parallel to the focal plane. Or, maybe I get a good focus on the wing, but then the head and eyes are out of focus. If there is a lot of light, I may try to bump the aperture to f8 or even f11 to try to get more of the bird in focus, but I'm usually shooting wide open at f5.6 simply because of the low level of natural light in our backyard garden. The closer you move to your subject, the smaller the depth of field gets as well. I'm usually anywhere from 5 feet to 20 feet away from the hummingbirds when I'm shooting photos. When I'm as close as they will allow me to get, I can usually fill up most of the frame with the bird at 400mm focal length, but the depth of field is extremely shallow. More often, I'm further back and can't fill the whole frame, but more of the bird will be in focus, and then I will crop in tighter during editing (the 45mp sensor of the R5 gives you a lot of resolution for cropping in during editing).

The big benefit of a shallow depth of field, though, is the nice looking out of focus background. The best lenses can produce really nice bokeh effects in the out of focus areas of the shot. Some cheaper lenses don't have very good looking bokeh.


It really just comes down to practicing with your camera, taking LOTS of photos, and finding out what works best with your gear. The more you practice, the better you'll get. I've been taking photos for well over 40 years, so don't expect to get the same results I do right away. I still get more bad hummingbirds shots than keepers. With this fast moving and unpredictable birds, you need to take many hundreds of photos (I have taken many thousands) and then hope to get a few really good ones.

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