1200 Beats per Minute… !

1200 Beats per Minute… !

Here’s a crazy fact: an average hummingbird heart beats 1200 times a minute during the day. This, in comparison to you or I with a typical resting heart rate of 60-90 beats per minute. That’s INSANE!!! Well, insane, and one of the many things that makes me love to photograph hummingbirds wherever I can find them when I’m out an about.  How about this?  Hummingbirds frequently sustain flight speeds of 30mph, and can fly up to 60mph in a dive.  No wonder their heart rate is so high and they take an average of 250 breaths per minute!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have two primary species of hummingbird- Anna’s and Rufous. In the lowlands, Anna’s can be year-round residents, while Rufous tend to leave during winter months. (A quick note on the Rufous hummingbird- they have the longest migration of any hummingbird species, some flying more than 3000 miles from nesting grounds in Canada to winter home in Mexico!) Whichever species might frequent your backyard or park, these birds are incredible and make for a very addictive subject matter.

First, here are a couple of general tips to start you off:

First, spend a bit of time watching for their feeding locations. Hummingbirds feed 5-8 times per hour, so you’ll find that hummingbirds will “farm” a patch of flowers for some time, leaving to survey their territory from the top of a tree or bush, and then returning to take in more nectar.  It is also likely that once a good feeding location is found, they will come back to the same high perch as well so keep your eyes peeled!

Next, a tough one- have patience.   Yup, don’t plan on jumping out of the car and getting close to a group of hummingbirds.  Settle in so you become less of a perceived threat and so your new feathered friends can relax and display their character!

Now, let’s talk about getting the image:

  1. Light is your friend. If you intend to stop action on the wings, you are going to need a very fast shutter speed, and for most of us, that means you need light. 
  2. Learn about and follow the pattern of hummingbird behavior. In many climates, this means taking advantage of morning hours when hummingbirds come out of their torpor state and are actively searching for nectar.  Torpor is a state that hummingbirds use to protect themselves from the cold. They lock their feet onto a branch or other perch, and then lower their body temperature and slow down their heart rate to just a few beats per minute.
  3. If you have one, use a cable release so you can set up the shot and then relax a bit waiting for the right moment.
  4. Remember that as with many subjects, simplicity is key. Keep the background simple and without competing subjects so all eyes will be on your intended shot. From an f-stop perspective, keeping a shallow depth of field can blur distracting backgrounds and help keep your image clean.
  5. Experiment with exposure and get creative. Do you want “freeze frame” wings or blurred motion?  If you are wanting to freeze the wings, know that you’ll need a fast shutter since a hummingbird’s wings beat between 50 and 200 beats per second depending on direction of flight and other conditions. Also, make sure to notice the environment you are shooting.  Are there reflections that you could pull into your image for interest?  Is there interaction between multiple hummingbirds that you want to capture?  We are lucky in this day and age to use digital SLR cameras, so don’t be shy and experiment a bit!

Regarding post-processing, there are a number of things you can do with your images once you have downloaded them and using software like Lightroom and Photoshop.  We’ll get into that subject in later posts, but as most photographers will agree, try to do as much as you can when initially taking the image and you won’t have to rely on using software in post to achieve the result you are looking for.

One last thing to remember- it’s not about the technology – it’s about your connection to the scene, understanding of behavior, and ability to plan for and even anticipate the action.  Don’t run out and buy expensive lenses and high-end accessories.  Focus on understanding your subjects and you’ll be well rewarded. 

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