How to Photograph Hummingbirds (5 Simple Tips)

Hummingbirds are amazing little creatures. They are the only birds capable of flying backwards, their wings beat between 15 and 200 times per second, and they look unbelievable. However, their blazing speed and small size make them extremely difficult to photograph – unless you know a few secrets, of course!

In this article, I share my top hummingbird photography tips, including:

  • The slowest shutter speed you can use for sharp photos
  • The adjustment that will ensure always precise focusing
  • An easy way to dramatically increase your number of Guardians
  • Much more!

Read this article, practice these techniques, and with a little patience, I promise you, too, will capture some great hummingbird shots.

So let’s go, starting with my first tip:

1. Learn how hummingbirds behave

Understanding your subject is a key part of any type of photography, but it’s absolutely essential if you are photographing hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are fast, they’re nimble, and they don’t respond to commands – so if you want to be in the right place at the right time, you need to know these little birds like the back of your hand.

hummingbird photography

That said, you don’t need to become a PhD-level expert in hummingbird behavior. I would recommend learning a few basic facts to get started:

  • What is the name of the species you would like to photograph? If you’re not sure, do a Google search and find out what hummingbirds live in your area.
  • Where are your local hummingbirds often found? What is their habitat?
  • What time of year are they most active?
  • What is their diet? Where do they get their sweet nectar from?
  • What do they sound like? It is useful to know both their song and the sound of their wing beats.

Once you know the basics, start making a list of possible locations for hummingbird photos (based on habitat types). You might also consider contacting local birders or checking sightings on eBird.

hummingbird photography

And be sure to always keep active hummingbird months in mind. Nothing is more frustrating than finding the right habitat and waiting to realize you’re a month ahead!

In my experience, learning to recognize the song of your target species is very helpful; their small size and fast speed make them hard to notice if you don’t look in the right place. About 80% of the time I only find a hummingbird because I first heard its song and then started to look around more carefully.

2. Choose a location and wait

Once you have a few target locations in mind (based on habitat preferences and hopefully sightings from other birders), you’ll need to position yourself and just wait. Look for the right flowers, set up your tripod (yes, I encourage you to use a tripod!) and start watching and listening.

It will take patience. Sometimes you will sit for hours and come home with nothing. After all, in bird photography there is never a guarantee of success. But when things come together and you capture a great shot, all the failures are worth it!

hummingbird photography

While you wait, be sure to adjust your camera settings so you have the best chance of a successful shot (see my recommended focus modes and shutter speeds below!). Note that ideal settings can change throughout the day depending on light quality and intensity, so regularly check your aperture, shutter speed, ISO and (if using) exposure compensation.

And if you can find additional behavioral information about your target hummingbird species, use it! When I photographed this Anna’s Hummingbird, I relied on a combination of luck and knowledge:

hummingbird photography

You see, I was sitting on a rock along one of my favorite streams in the San Gabriel Mountains when I noticed a group of hummingbirds swooping down to the water, taking quick sips, then retreating to a nearby tree. I watched them from about six meters away, but I was unprepared and only had a 200mm lens, so I knew I had to get much closer if I wanted a full frame shot.

Luckily, I had gained a sense of how these hummingbirds behaved and knew that while they initially retreated from approaching humans, if I waited they would return right away.

So I decided to get a lot closer. It scared them off at first – but after about 10 or 15 minutes they came back and continued to drink from the stream, and I managed to take a few pictures!

3. Use the right focus modes

Focus modes these days vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and camera to camera, so I can’t give you an exact focus setting that will apply in all the situations. However, I have a few essential tips:

First, when in doubt, just put your camera in single-point AF-area mode, make sure the center point is selected, and when a hummingbird enters the frame, constantly move your camera to keep this central point above his head. (You’ll need to leave some room around the hummingbird so you can crop for better composition, but that’s okay.)

hummingbird photography

Second, make sure your camera is set to its continuous focus mode. This is often referred to as “AF-C” or “AI-Servo”, and it will ensure that your lens constantly refocuses even as the hummingbird moves. So while the hummingbird can move forward and backward, as long as you hold the center AF point over its head, your lens will maintain perfect focus.

If you’re using a camera with higher-level AF capabilities, it’s worth experimenting with tracking and even special bird’s-eye AF options. But hummingbirds are tiny and hard to spot – even for cameras – so if your smart AF modes aren’t working, just follow the suggestions I’ve shared above.

4. Use a super-fast shutter speed

Hummingbirds flap their wings at extremely high speeds, so if you want a super-sharp shot, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed to match.

To freeze (or almost freeze) the wings, set your camera to 1/2000s and higher (1/4000s is even better). Working at such a fast shutter speed is often difficult unless you’re shooting in extremely bright light, so it might be worth bringing a flash. An alternative is to increase your ISO to 400, 800 and beyond, but this will degrade image quality, so make ISO settings carefully.

You can also aim to freeze the hummingbird’s body and eyes, but let the wings fade, like this:

hummingbird photography

If that’s your goal, you can get away with shooting at 1/800s, although higher is always better. (For reference, I used a shutter speed of 1/800s to capture the image shown above.)

Of course, if the hummingbird is perching rather than flying, you can reduce your shutter speed even further, but be careful: as soon as the wings start flapping, you’ll need to increase that shutter speed.

hummingbird photography

(It can also be helpful to know how fast your target species can flap its wings. This ranges from 15 to 200 times per second, and for slower hummingbirds, you can get away with a slower shutter.)

Some additional configuration tips to keep in mind:

  • I encourage you to use manual mode or shutter priority mode when shooting; this way you can specify the shutter speed you need and use your ISO (and, if you’re in manual mode, aperture) to adjust exposure if necessary.
  • Start with a low ISO, then increase it if necessary. It is better to capture a sharp and noisy image than a blurry but high quality photo.
  • Make sure the opening is narrow enough to keep the hummingbird’s entire body in focus (and the hummingbird’s wings, if possible). A good starting point is f/5.6, but you can widen or narrow the aperture as needed.

5. Take lots of pictures

My final hummingbird photography tip is simple:

When a bird flies past your lens, take as many shots as possible.

You see, when working with hummingbirds, the only way to guarantee a good shot is to simply pull. If you only capture one photo when a hummingbird appears, you often won’t get anything usable; your lens may be out of focus, you may be using too slow a shutter speed, the exposure may be wrong, etc.

hummingbird photography

Set your camera to its highest burst mode and don’t be afraid of losing photos. If you think you have a good opportunity, don’t be afraid to fail. Shoot quickly; ask questions later!

To get some of the photos for this article, I took over 400 photos in 10 minutes, and only had a handful of keepers. Hummingbirds move so fast that most of my shots were out of focus, and some didn’t even have a hummingbird in the frame.

Hummingbird Photography: Final Words

Hummingbird photography is not easy; it involves a lot of skill, patience and luck. But if you know the habits of hummingbirds, follow these tips, and put in the effort, you’re bound to be successful!

Now your turn :

What kind of hummingbirds do you want to photograph? What’s your plan? Share your opinion in the comments below!

About aauthor: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer and computer scientist. You can usually find it hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Mojave Desert, both located in the beautiful state of California. You can read more of his articles on nature photography at naturalist photo.

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