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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...


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