It's been a while since I updated this section, and I apologize for that. The past few months have been a bit crazy for me with workshop tours and photography trips for the new coffee table book on which I'm working. But, I'm back and have introduced a video complement to the Behind the Lens section. I hope you enjoy it.

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The green hermit is likely the coolest hummingbird in Costa Rica. The long, curved bill coupled with the slender body and the fanned tail make them a sight to see. They are also very hard to photograph because of their non-territorial feeding behavior. They are trapliners, meaning they have a regular route through the forest but only come by occasionally to feed on select flowers. Upon approaching a flower, they exhibit erratic flight patterns that are much less predictable than those of many other species. So, I was psyched to capture this female with a good pose and at an attractive Heliconia flower.


TECH NOTES: Canon 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-300 mm f4-5.6 L IS zoom lens, Canon cable release, Induro CT 313 tripod, Induro BHL2 ballhead, Phottix radio flash transmitter/receivers, off-brand flashes, f13, 1/200, ISO 320

PROCESSING NOTES: full-frame, standard tweaks and cloning of one catchlight in Lightroom,WACOM BAMBOO tablet for marking up the image in Photoshop -- see video below for how I took and processed the image

Multiple-flash setups have become recognized as the best method for photographing hummingbirds, particularly in tropical forests, where hummingbird abundance is greatest but light levels are lowest. The key to doing multiple-flash hummingbird photography is producing natural-looking lighting (though stylistic studio lighting effects can be cool too!). In these setups, no natural light is hitting the camera's sensor. Think of a Sears portrait studio or a fashion model photoshoot; that's what we're doing out in the woods with multiple-flash hummingbird setups, and it's the short duration of the flash that allows us to capture the marvelous detail in these fast-flying little jewels.

While this type of photography is neither rocket science nor painting the Mona Lisa, it does have its science and art. The science is getting a proper exposure and knowing how to set one's equipment. The art is in choosing flowers, backgrounds (I use 24x36 inch matte paper prints of out of focus vegetation), and proper light positioning for natural-looking lighting. Producing soft shadows with a sense of direction is crucial for a natural look. Hummingbird photos that approximate the flat, frontal lighting one gets from pointing one's shadow at the subject are rarely interesting or appropriate. Tropical forests are characterized by filtered light, and lighting that mimics this setting looks most natural and also produces the micro-contrast that shows off not only the hummingbird's colors but importantly, its feather detail and texture as well.

For the image above, I was happy with the hint of shadow, which makes the light look natural. I was also very happy with the way the curve of the bird is repeated by the curve of the Heliconia inflorescence. This is, of course, a nice bit of luck. I knew I liked the curve of the Heliconia, but I couldn't plan to catch the cool pose of the hummingbird :-)

One final note before we get to the video -- a little pet peeve of mine. I read quite often that blurred hummingbird wings look more "natural" than the sharp hummingbird wings produced by the multi-flash technique. What a puzzling statement this is. How is capturing a discrete natural moment (e.g., freezing a hummingbird's wings with flash) less natural than rendering that same motion as a blur? Should we do away with long shutter speeds in moving water in favor of fast shutter speeds that freeze the water because this is closer to what our eyes can see? Are star trails bad? If we're going down this road, are long lenses that compress perspective and wide apertures that give shallow depth of field "unnatural." In my opinion, using our camera to give the viewer a glimpse into the natural world not possible with human eyes is one of the greatest virtues of nature photography. I think the blurred hummingbird wing argument comes from people who aren't familiar with multiple-flash hummingbird images that look natural!

By the way, I like blurred hummingbird wings too and take plenty of photos to render the wingbeats as such. I just don't think they look any more "natural" than my multi-flash images:-)


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the thought process behind the image. Multiple-flash hummingbird photography is fun and addictive. I’ll be teaching this technique on a number of my workshop tours here in Costa Rica for 2013. These tours offer a great opportunity to get some high-quality images for yourself and to learn how you can apply this technique at home and in other areas of your photography. Be sure to check out the workshop sidebar on the right side of this site; I’ll be posting new 2013 workshop dates over the coming month.

If you have questions or comments, please leave them below, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.