Hummingbirds, a "How to" on photographing them (by a novice)
I make a living doing full time photography, so from that perspective I am considered to be a "professional". My professional side though is with portrait and commercial photography, not birds. With nature and especially birds, I'm purely a novice but in my case a novice with a keen interest in hummingbirds. I have spent my spare time this summer working hard to capture hummingbirds as they go through their intense day to day lives.
I admit to having a fairly high level of frustration capturing these tiny birds. I'm using a mirrorless system, the excellent Fuji X system, relying on the X-T1 and the XF100-400mm 4.5-6.4 zoom. I was especially interested in "inflight" pics with accompanying "at rest" photos of these little dudes perched and idle. I have hundreds of at rest photos, no problem there. Research into hummingbird habits helped tremendously. Inflight photos, not so much. Actually pretty much none. I suspected my failed attempts at getting decent inflight captures was due to the AF system used in the X-T1 mated to the sharp Fuji zoom. I felt resigned to wait for the newer X-T2 I have on order since its said to be the pinnacle of Fuji AF embodied in a camera. I was wrong. I'm sure the X-T2 is what is claimed in sneak previews but I found I didn't need it. The X-T1's AF works fine.
What was needed was improved long lens skills, coupled with an understanding of why the birds do what they do. Besides knowing my subject, I needed to understand the relationship of the size of what I'm shooting, it's speed and movement, how far away it is from me, my particulars for my pictures in term of lighting (plus shutter speed to show motion) and how making the lens as stable as possible is of immense benefit. I can't rely on lens stabilization and shoot hand held for inflight pictures. Others might be able to but I can't. I can hand hold on larger objects, moving slower and more predictable (like bicyclists for instance) further away and get great pics using lens stabilization. Stabilization, while helpful just isn't enough, for me, to do what I wanted. I want to light my birds though and that means using a flash which puts me at 1/180th second with the X-T1 due to flash sync limitations. I want some motion blur but also want to freeze the body so flash helps there besides providing the light that brings out the color in these birds. I've done this before with my Nikon equipment but there I could use high speed sync, AND use higher shutter speeds not possible with the Fuji - yet. So like Matt Damon in "The Martian" I had to science the shit out of the problem. Actually it was more of using the science I had and adapting it to the problem. Thats where long lens technique comes into play. To make this a shorter story, in a (wal)nut shell, I employed bean bags with walnut hulls in them to stabilize my lens, yet give me the movement of the lens and body to track flight and capture a picture. I did try a tripod and monopod but had no good consistent results. Bean bags saved the day! I still had to work out the how to part of using it but that was pretty easy actually. Firmer stuffing made a difference. Using the non-shutter hand on top of the lens made a difference. This helped track and stabilized the rig. Controlled breathing helped. Fuji's wide zone tracking helped. This stuff didn't just all come at once. Once I got it all figured out though, I got this.
Not too bad from my previous results which were blurred inflight pictures.
Now, if you are a bona fide "birder" used to shooting birds, or other wildlife, you might be laughing about now thinking what a rookie. Yeah, I get that. I'm very good in the studio or documenting an event and I have my kit down. I know how that all works but for this, this was a revelation. I spent a lot of time reading about other's methods. I practiced with Fuji's AF zone focus functions. I read more than I ever anticipated about hummingbirds to learn about their habits. I changed my nectar recipe and feeder placement but knowing how they feed and live really helped figure out the placement of my camera, and once I figured out how to stabilize the whole thing (the X-T1 with the XF100-400 and an on camera flash WITH the MagMod Magbeam flash extender is an off balanced and heavy rig!) everything just sort of fell into place. I also sat and watched the birds for hours NOT shooting and found that a wind of 5 mph to 12 mph is very helpful since a bird has to approach the feeders slower (for a hummingbird) and hover longer as they assess the feeder and possible territorial male watching over it. I found that one female, that I could identify, who was allowed to feed but others were chased immediately. I learned this is common since a male will let a female he mated with have access to his territory and feed. Males have about a 1/4 acre territory but do roam so other males will invade but be very cautious in their approach so this behavior coupled with that wind provided more opportunity for pictures of other males. I'm telling you, there is a lot to know but the bottom line is knowing your subject AND adapting your equipment to their habits. I do this in my studio work with my mood boards, interviews and chats before starting a project. I just missed it with these birds.
I will definitely welcome the new X-T2 when it gets here and look forward to trying the high speed sync function for this type of work. I hope the birds haven't started migrating but it depends on how accurate the Fuji ship dates are, if the new flash they are offering to compliment the high speed sync shows up at the same time and if I'm in the first wave of shipments once products start to ship. Thats a lot of "ifs" so I'm content on using the X-T1 for now and actually thinking of just keeping the rig intact. I have lots of other uses for the X-T2. Being a bit happy with myself, I attached the Fuji XFTC-1.4x converter which made the XF100-400 a 140-560mm zoom and applying the 1.5x crop factor, its got a 840mm full frame 35mm field of view! Thats pretty cool and I found the long lens/bean bag setup works pretty well with it. The pics above are using that set up. Problem solved. Life is good. Until the next thing...