Hummingbirds…well, one bird at least

The Magenta-throated Woodstar is the smallest hummingbird I’ve seen in the last 3 days at Monteverde.  It is a frequent visitor to the feeders at the hummingbird deck near the entrance to the Cloud Forest Reserve.  I’ve spent hours on this deck watching a variety of hummingbirds come in to feed and socialize.  It is farily easy to get a decent shot of the birds sitting on a branch with a nice background.  Not so with the in-flight shots. Discounting the ever-changing light on the background, the biggest challenge, for me, was finding the focus point for approaching birds.  There is not a prayer of following them and catching focus… at least not for me.  I quickly learned that this tiny Woodstar (about the size of a large bumblebee) would approach the feeder, feed, back away about 4-6 inches and come in to feed again.  It rarely lands that I saw.  So, it became my focus tool. I would find a background that looked decent and wait for the Woodstar to approach.  I was able to grab focus on the Woodstar as it fed, shoot and confirm focus (or not) and then switch to manual focus so I didn’t mess it up.  Then I would wait for another species to come into the same location on the same feeder.  Like I said, I spent hours here and I don’t know too many who would have the patience to wait, and wait, and wait… shoot… ooops, too late, wait some more.  At least there was a lot of action around to keep entertained – not just the birds but the tour groups and guides.  It was fun to watch the excitement of adults and kids as they watched the birds.  Could it get any better or easier?

Magenta-throated Woodstar
Magenta-throated Woodstar


Photographing hummingbirds is an art and I feel like I’m in the “chunky crayon” stage.  There are two basic schools of thought: (1) use of flash to stop the wings, or (2) no flash but good light and an ISO high enough allow for a shutter speed of 1/1600 or faster to stop the wings.  In scenario one, the flash is powered down to a very low power which effectively decreases the duration of the flash burst.  Durations of about 1/40,000 second are quite possible with a modern speedlight.  The folks who really specialize in the use of flash for hummer photography will employ as many as 6 flashes and will often bring their own backgrounds and flowers to the “field set”.  Me, I had one flash and was stuck using it on camera since had no way to place it off camera.  I could have triggered it off camera if I had some sort of stand to hold the flash.  I didn’t so I settled for using the flash as a minor amount of fill.  I was on Manual exposure at about 1/200 sec at f/8 to f/13 depending on the ambient light.  Glenn Bartley and Greg Basco are masters at using flash to provide off-camera directional fill or main light.

Scenario two is often similar in that a set is created to entice the birds into a known source of food…often a lovely flower arrangement.  The set is located so that sunlight is abundant and the photographer plans the shot using a very fast shutter speed and small f/stop to get depth of field.  This will frequently require a boost in ISO to make it work.  Raymond Barlow is a master of this type of photography and I encourage you to visit his website if you want to see some amazing, natural light images.

I have to be up-front with the ethical issue of using flash for bird or wildlife photography.  I’ve had an enlightening dialog with a friend as the result of my stating I used flash in some hummingbird photos in a previous post.  There is certainly a risk that a short burst of light can startle or affect a bird’s behavior.  Some folks find the idea of using flash a crutch and are quite set against it’s use anytime for bird photography.  Other folks maintain that the short burst is of no consequence…especially if it is meant to fill shadows rather than be a main light on the subject.  In reading Bartley and Basco’s ebook on Tropical Nature Photography they clearly fall into the camp that flash can be used safely if the bird is not nesting or in another sensitive situation.  I have not seen any writing by Raymond Barlow about his thoughts but I do know that he frequently cites “no flash used in any of my photographs” which leads me to believe that he would be firmly in favor of natural light.  And he’s darn good at it.

My recent discussion with my friend made me think about my use of flash.  I decided to ask the local guides about using flash for bird photography.  I asked 7 local guides and one back in Portland about how they saw the use of flash.  One local guide was adamantly against it based on his belief that it scares all the birds away.  The others saw no reason why flash should not be used.  A few guide brought out their own cameras and showed me images they had taken with flash.  I heard one guide encouraging his group to use flash so the colors would be better.  All this limited sample means is that the majority of the guides I interviewed did not object to use of flash. But there’s that other guy who did.  Therein lies the problem or issue.  I concluded that my goal was to utilize flash to open shadows and stop motion.  If the brilliant colors were enhanced I was OK with that.  I did this with full realization that it may irk some but, at the same time, there were as many as 20 people on the deck with point and shoot cameras flashing each bird they could find in their viewfinders.  Being part of a large population of flash users does not necessarily make it an appropriate technique but, if used with purpose and intent, I felt that the images I made benefited.

One of my main reasons for coming to Costa Rica was to stand on the hummingbird deck to watch and photograph these amazing birds.  I have decent photos of 7 species.  I had hoped for 30.  I will move on from Monteverde now and will drop elevation to the Pacific coast.  New species await.


One thought on “Hummingbirds…well, one bird at least

  1. The flash dilemma…I’m a bit of a purist but if all those tourists are flashing away with point and shoots and the hummers don’t seem to mind I guess that’s the answer.

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