The PEEC Amateur Naturalist: Photographing Hummingbirds

PEEC Amateur Naturalist
Column by Robert Dryja, with special thanks to Bob Walker





Male hummingbirds from left, a Black-Chinned, Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds. Photo by Bob Walker

Forty-eight species of hummingbirds have been identified on the North American continent. Of these, at least 17 species have been reported in New Mexico.

Another 28 species are identified as living in Mexico, but New Mexico is adjacent to it. Could some illegal alien species occasionally fly north to Los Alamos? If additional species from Mexico start to appear, is this an indication of global warming?

Hummingbirds typically hover at flowers to feed for only a few seconds before moving on. This is the best time to identify the species, but only seconds are available and lighting needs to be correct.


What is an amateur naturalist to do? A well taken photograph is one solution. Such a photograph can be compared with photographs of others for a more assured identification.

But what is a “well taken” photograph? On the one hand, the photograph is taken with strobe lighting so that a sharply focused and correctly lit picture is created. The species then can be identified with confidence.

On the other hand, the photograph also should be artistically pleasing. The three photographs shown above are technically excellent for identification. The fourth photograph shown below also is artistically pleasing due to the background and the flowers included in it.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird female. Photo by Bob Walker

The easiest way to take a photograph is to wait patiently by a hummingbird feeder with the sun shining over your back toward the feeder. Have your camera focused on the feeder and ready with its flash unit.

If fortunate, you will snap a photograph when a hummingbird arrives to feed. However, the photographs included here take more preparation.

Here is what Los Alamos photographer Bob Walker did to create these photos when he started doing high-speed hummingbird photography last summer. He started with a telephoto lens on his camera and three off-camera flash units.

The flash units are mounted on stands that allow them to be placed away from the camera. Always seeking better results, Bob now is using up to six off-camera flashes.

Take a look at the photograph below of his back yard “studio.” It is taken from the perspective of the camera used to photograph hummingbirds.

At the right of the photo is a blurry part of the barrel of the telephoto lens. It is pointing to where a hummingbird is going to arrive.

Some pink penstemon flowers are strapped to a tripod above a flower pot. (The flower pot is there to attract the hummers to the area in the first place.)

To the upper right and left of the flowers is a pair of off-camera flashes. Their job is to provide light to illuminate the hummingbird. In the far background is a third off-camera flash, whose job it is to light up that hibiscus bush in front of the fence, so the background of the photo has some texture.

The white arrows point to the three flash units and the red arrows point to flowers and to the telephoto lens of the camera. Photo by Bob Walker

Bob sits in a chair by the tripod and camera with the telephoto lens and waits for a hummingbird to arrive. Then he presses the shutter, the flash on the camera fires, and its light in turn fires all the remote flashes you see in the photo.

All the camera and flash exposure settings are done manually — without the flashes, the picture would be almost completely dark.

Since all the light comes from the flashes, and since they discharge in a very short amount of time, the resulting stroboscopic effect freezes the motion of the hummingbird’s wings, which beat from 50-80 times per second, and would under normal circumstances be blurred in an image. If you are lucky, you will have a well taken photo.

With more flashes, you have better control over the lighting details, and with the additional brightness you create sharper pictures (i.e., a faster “shutter” speed because the flash duration can be shorter.)

There are a couple of ways to have a flower in a photo. Bob usually takes a cutting from something blooming, sticks the stem in a florist tube and straps it to a tripod. He then places a drop of nectar (sugar water, like in hummingbird feeders) inside the flower and hopes a hummingbird finds it interesting.

Another way is to take a potted plant, set it on a table below a regular hummingbird feeder, and wait for hummingbirds to arrive.

Bob carries a whole pot-full of plants and flowers around to wherever he is taking pictures. He is not sure whether it’s better to train the hummingbirds to go to one special spot, or to move feeders around and train them to look around.

You may need to set up your studio in a neighbor’s yard if hummingbirds do not come to your yard. Bob believes that only four species of hummingbirds frequent the Jemez Mountains-Los Alamos area.

These are the Black-chinned, Broad-tailed, Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds. But have you possibly seen one of the other 44 species?

Want to Learn More? If you are interested in attending a photography workshop at PEEC, send an e-mail to


LOS ALAMOS website support locally by OviNuppi Systems