Winter Treat: Frozen Hummingbirds

(No, not for eating. By the time you pluck and de-bone 'em, there's not that much left, anyway...)

Okay, so maybe you can't light up Grand Central Station with a few speedlights. But if your subject is two inches long and flaps its wings 50X a second, speedlights rock.

For one, you can keep dialing a speedlight down to get insanely fast flash durations (1/25000th of a second, anyone?) which effectively becomes your wing-stopping shutter speed when you overpower the ambient.

That's what reader Pat Hunt did, anyway. Hit the jump for his setup, and more amazing hummingbird photos.

He's Got The Beat

At 50 beats per second, you have to remember that you are talking about an entire wing flap cycle during that time, so a 1/25000th of a sec flash duration is going to comprise about 1/500th (give or take) of a flap.

That's enough to almost freeze the wings. IMO, the "almost" part makes for a more interesting image, too. Incidentally, that 50BPS is in the same frequency range as a mid-range bass note coming from your stereo, which is why you hear the wing beats as a low buzzing tone.

Here's the setup (click for bigger):

He's using four speedlights ('800's and '600's) to essentially surround the bird. He's using CLS to fire them all (piece of cake at close range) and has them dialed down to 1/64th power minus an additional third of a stop.

Pat even used an umbrella swivel to hold the feeder. Style points for that.

The exposure is a balancing act, in more ways than one. First, if you want the black background you have to get your flash exposure well above the ambient. (Or you could always stick a piece of poster board in the background, as Bradford Fuller did.)

But you do not want to waste any of that flash power, as each notch up in power costs you some flash duration. Pat used a normal, 1/250th sync because it was sharper than the pulsed flash of the higher-speed FP sync method. He also uses an umbrella to shade the scene from ambient light if the sun is at a bad angle.

Other particulars: No exposure compensation, low ISO for latitude, and a little juicing in the RAW converter to make it pop.

Regarding how the pre-flashes affect the birds, Pat said, "It varies with species. The chickadees and hummingbirds don't care much about the preflash or flash proper unless they are jumpy for other reasons. The jays are a whole different class of intelligence and paranoia and are extremely sensitive to whether belligerent neighbors are nearby."

He goes on to say that they took great care not to molest the birds, even to the point of giving them lots of runs at the food without popping the flashes.

Here are some more of Pat's images (mouseover for full frame):

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

If this doesn't work for you (it can be a little hinky) click here for Pat's Flickr set.

Speaking of Hummingbirds

Here's something you don't see every day.

Emily had a special hummingbird treat when we visited Costa Rica last month. I never would have thought they would light on her hand like that, but it happened three times.

She has always had a way with animals of all kinds. Kind stays perfectly still, and assumes they are willing to make friends at any given moment.

Of course, Pat's multi-light setup makes my on-camera-flash, point-and-shoot shot look pretty lame. But still...


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Anonymous Melissa's Cozy Teacup said...

After reading your past post with Joey Lawrence as well as some others and almost daily perusing of great photos on Flickr, I have to ask, 'How much of what I see is done with lighting and is 'in camera', and how much is Photoshop'? What's a good ratio 'guestimate'? Am I pulling my hair out over lighting never to achieve some of the great photos I see because they're being manipulated?
don't get me wrong, I enjoy photoediting, but I'm looking for some clarity as to what is what here.

February 13, 2009 12:08 AM  
Blogger wayne mah said...

Great shot of the hummer David... I really like the lighting effect and details in the feathers. Can't believe you had so many speedlights.

We probably were in the same place in Costa Rica where all those hummingbird were... unfortunately, I did not do the Strobist thing and left my flash back in the hotel room.

Instead, I used ambient lighting for my photo... so the background really shows up.

50 mm | 1/1000 sec | f 2.8 | 400 ISO

So, even at 1/1000 there is a lot of blur in the wings and body, but I managed to get the eyes reasonably sharp. Next time, I'm gonna bring my flashes...


February 13, 2009 12:26 AM  
Blogger David said...


Those are Pat's pictures!


It varies with every photo, but I try to get as close as I can with light. That said, Photoshop is a powerful tool and a significant part of the digital imaging process.

I echo what APE's Rob Haggart said -- I do not rely on PS to make photos, but it is a fact of life that *most* every photo published in, say, a magazine has had some post production, for a variety of reasons.

It is part of the process. If you ignore it you are shortchanging yourself. That said, Photoshop does not turn bad photos into good ones.

February 13, 2009 1:12 AM  
Blogger Chris Brashear said...

I had fun with a similar technique photographing these funky moths in Kazakhstan. Check it out: password "chris". 300D with 420EX Flash. Ambient light was very low and the flash was set to auto, camera at 1/200 F22 Canon 50mm F1.8 lens, with a Tiffen +4 Macro filter (budget setup!)

February 13, 2009 2:08 AM  
Blogger tontonsam said...

I was looking at this and it felt very familiar.
not long ago i found Frank, he makes quite an impression if you see his work...

February 13, 2009 2:52 AM  
Blogger Ronalds Šulcs said...

this is really cool. I like the close-up shots the best. U can see all small details.

February 13, 2009 5:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I always remember an old digital artist telling me "you can't polish a turd" very true.

February 13, 2009 6:47 AM  
Blogger Keith Tharp said...

Very cool, love seeing the set-up. For me the shots with a little background are a nudge above the isolated on black. Though those are super neat in their own way.

February 13, 2009 7:28 AM  
Blogger Barnacle said...

great stuff!!
shooting hummers is one of my favorite pastimes.

February 13, 2009 8:37 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

This is a great article. Whilst I don't have any hummingbirds to practice on, I am interested in how you mentioned "overpowering the ambient light" to create the black background. Is this just done by trial and error, or is there an easy way of working out your necessary settings? I'm fairly new to this strobist stuff!

February 13, 2009 8:59 AM  
Blogger Heipel said...

Those shots are beyond remarkable, many of them seem to capture the very personality of the wee birds.

I gotta buy a couple more speedlights :)

February 13, 2009 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Brad C said...

I bet Emily had a blast. On our honeymoon in Jamaica, my wife and I went to the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary and fed hummingbirds and finches. It was just a nondescript house in the mountains outside Montego Bay, so it isn't a major tourist attraction. We were the only people there, and we stayed for about a half hour.

The proprietor gives you some bottles of nectar for the hummingbirds, and seed for the finches. He would call out to get the birds to come to the porch, and eventually you would hear faint humming sounds and see tiny birds darting thru the trees. You look down, and a humming bird is sitting on your finger.

Here we are at the sanctuary in 2003. Apologies ahead of time for the use of built-in flash.

February 13, 2009 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Ray K said...

Beautiful work, I remembered the Fuller article and had to try the technique recently. I think the birds know cats live here. The whole explanation is on my blog. Suffice to say I am really jealous of anyone's bird photos and plan to keep trying. Thanks David.

February 13, 2009 10:28 AM  
Blogger Steven W. Hopkins said...

You should have your wife sing and see if the birds around the neighborhood will come clean your house and make her beautiful dresses. Because that happens sometimes.

February 13, 2009 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ever felt the heat from an up-close flash head? I'm surprized that bird wasn't quick-roasted!

February 13, 2009 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Advertising Photographer Portland said...

Great photos. It reminds me that I have been meaning to go out and shoot birds at my grandfather’s house.


February 13, 2009 1:12 PM  
Anonymous Alexander (Hamburg) said...

DH wrote: "Pat used a normal, 1/250th sync because it was sharper than the pulsed flash of the higher-speed FP sync method."

As far as I understand FP-sync, it wouldn't have worked at all to freeze the wing motion. One problem being that it only goes down to 1/8000s instead of 1/25000s. The other problem being that while the opening of the shutter travels down, the more or less continuous light would have shown kind of a "sequence" not a frozen moment. I guess.


February 13, 2009 4:12 PM  
Anonymous Wedding Photographer France said...


For Mike - yes there is a technique to overpower ambient. Put you shutter at the fastest your speed sync allows (1/250 sec...), ISO 100 and your flashes at their highest ratio (full power).

Take a shot, look at your screen and see how burnt your subject is. Dial the aperture down, take another shot and repeat until it looks nice.

If you have a very black background and you're at f11 or f13 feel free to dial your flashes down 1 or 2 stops so that you'll be able to take more consecutive shots (and spare your subject!) - of course then change your aperture the same 1 or 2 stops.

Sounds complicated but after a while it's almost second nature and you'll end up guessing the right settings straight away.

I've learnt all this less than a year ago and can now do this while speaking to the bride and groom.


February 13, 2009 4:14 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Seizing upon a comment I saw posted elsewhere, last week I put aside my fancy Nikons and pulled out a D40 to play with high speed shutters and SB-800s running on manual. Use a piece of paper to break the electrical connection between the aft two pins in the hotshoe and the flash and I have gotten shutter speeds upto 1/2500 at 1/4 power before flash duration became a limitation. At the low powers being used here, shutters to 1/4000 are probably quite possible and this would be a perfect application.


February 13, 2009 5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Terminal. It's "Grand Central Terminal." The end of the line.

February 13, 2009 5:45 PM  
Blogger aries67 said...

When I first saw that amazing flash setup I thought there was no way any birds would come near that black protruding monstrosity (from a birds perspective anyway!). There must have been something seriously tasty in that feeder bowl!!!

February 13, 2009 6:34 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

I don't have any nikon lights. I have a 580ex, two 285hvs, and two old white lightning studio strobes.
If I used the studio strobes from farther away, seems like I'd get more birds to the feeder.
My question is, how does one know the flash duration of say, a random studio flash vs. a 285hv ? Would I need to dial power on everything all over the place by trial and error to get the flash duration the same?

February 14, 2009 2:16 AM  
Anonymous Fotografi said...

Impressive! Great picture and grat set up!

February 14, 2009 6:56 AM  
Anonymous Russ Wigh said...

Good Stuff Pat

I have been working on this for three years and the breakthough for me was when I learned of Linda Robbins, featured on Art Morris' website. I am sticky on realistic backgrounds, so I use a fabricated sky blue background that I will soon change for even more realism, and now 8 speedlights. Here is my page of comments which seem to concur with most of what I read.

More importantly it leads to Linda's stuff - which after viewing you will be either inspired, intimidated or both. By-the-way I have no affliation whatsoever with eith Morris or Robbins.

February 14, 2009 11:08 AM  
Blogger JRJohnson said...

Thanks for posting Pat's technique. Fantastic images. I have a few questions, if Pat would be willing to share some more info... How does this work at such fast shutter speed if synch speed is 1/250? I would think you would have to use FP, else not get a full frame lit. How was the shutter triggered - cable release, or electronically, etc? Finally, in general, what aperture was used with the set-up? Thanks again for the any further details...

February 15, 2009 9:55 AM  
Blogger said...

JRJ: if you click through on a couple of those pictures and look at the 'more information' link, you will see his aperture and shutter speed for each. When I checked a couple, he was using F9 at 1/60. I believe that the flash speed David is talking about is strictly the speed of the flash, not the shutter speed with it.

Also, regarding Grand Central:

February 15, 2009 2:38 PM  
Blogger Pattison said...

Right. The shutter speed is mostly irrelevant. The idea is to provide enough light with the strobes to expose the subject for a very short time. The less ambient light gets to the sensor, the less motion blur. Thus I stop down the aperture as far as I can and still keep the subject exposed.
I've had no luck with AFP. Blur. Hate it. I would love to figure out how to make AFP work so I could work with the sun instead of against it.
Remote shutter release.
Thanks for your questions and interest.
Pat Hunt

February 16, 2009 12:14 AM  
Blogger Renato Rocha Miranda said...


One doubt: if Pat had used FP mode on his SBs to lit the birds, he would still not be able to freeze the wing´s movement, is that correct?
In this case, the result would be like a "high shutter" Muybridge´s experiment?

Best regards from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


February 18, 2009 1:54 AM  
Blogger paul said...


Typically with studio flash, like the WL, T1 duration (the length of the strobe flash you're essentially concerned with for exposure and stopping motion) gets longer as you dial down the power.

if you go to and search around, you'll find all sorts of technical info from the designer of the White Lightnings.

February 19, 2009 11:03 AM  
Anonymous organicsyes said...

Wow! Amazing photos:) Your sister, Elizabeth, passed on your blog to me. Love it!

February 23, 2009 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Hide said...

I've been shooting hummers in flight for the last several years and basically,I've learnt from asking some pros about the setup,going through many trials and errors,adding more flashes and more trials and errors.

I use a SB800/600 and 3 SB 26s and I love Nikon flash system. I use my D300, 300 f/4-afs,a tripod.
My usual settings for the camera are:

F/9-10, 1/250s, iso 250-400.
I did some hummingbird high speed flash shoots in SE Arizona and I'm going there this summer again.


July 08, 2009 9:43 PM  
Blogger albert said...

Those are some amazing shots! Have you heard about those people that feed hummingbirds by putting nectar in their palm? By the way, what feeder is that? It looks like a Perky-Pet. They just came out with those Top Fill models, which I've been checking out. Maybe I'll eventually feed them out of my hand.

Here's that new feeder I was referring to:

April 04, 2010 6:28 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home