Sunday, November 13, 2011


Article and Photos: Leopoldo"Leo" García-Berrizbeitia


Photographing hummingbirds requires the same workflow that one uses for any kind of photography. It involves the three Ps: Preproduction, production and postproduction. If you think these words define a professional workflow, and that the regular, run of the mill photographer, does no have to deal with this sort of things, well, you are in for a surprise.

Whether you take pictures with a cell phone, a compact camera, a bridge camera or a DSLR ,for fun or profession, you will require the following:

·      A working camera.
·      A source of memory (Memory cards)
·      A source of power (Batteries)
·      Sufficient knowledge on how to operate your camera (An owners Manual)
·      A source of light
·      Knowing where you are going to take your pictures
·      And having a general idea what to expect from the object of your    picture talking.
·      Where to download your pictures and process them
·      A printer or printer services where you print your pictures or a place where you may want to post them for public view

If you take pictures in social events like birthdays, family gatherings, parties, time at the beach, visits to theme parks and so on, you will need to prepare yourself by getting all the adequate stuff to make this happen. And each situation will require extra batteries and memory cards, full knowledge of how your cell phone camera or compact camera work, so you would not have anything to falter your photo activity. Well, this is part of preproduction, this is the state of readiness which is the best way to get the best results, and the better you workflow, the better the results.


Know you equipment: You can take pictures of hummingbirds at feeders with just any camera. Cellphones, compacts, and DSLR will get you great rewards photographing these little birds, who visit feeders in areas where humans are in constant view.

I am guiding photowalks in natural parks where my clients come from all walks of life that include children, teenagers, housewives, seniors and serious amateurs. This brings me to help people to make their pictures from cell phones, IPODS, compact cameras, and DSLRs. As each item used to make a picture, has its pros an cons, each one has their respective PPP. However, there are plenty of things that are commonplace. The one that I find as one of the keys for a great photo is know your subject.


Hummingbirds hold the world’s smallest birds and vertebrate titles. This may seem unimportant, however, as far as natural wonders is concerned, to be able to flap your wings from zero to 30 wing flaps in fractions of a second, is a feat that can challenge the wildest imagination. They are the only birds capable of hovering back and forth, sideways, up and down, and as I have detected from my photos, move their wings independently to achieve unconceivable flying feats. They are found in the Americas from Canada down to Chile and Argentina, where there are 337 known species of these feathered jewels and the most diverse country in hummer species is Equator in South America. Venezuela, where I live, has 104 species and in Jardines Ecológicos Topotepuy, my current place of work, we have recorded and photographed 10 species in our 8 acres of gardens and cloud forest lot.

Venezuela’s hummingbirds can be found from the coast up to 12.000 feet above sea level, thus covering every thinkable neotropical ecosystem. As a nature photographer on a tight budget, who knows the wonders of traveling light, photographing these little birds with two zooms a 24-105 and a 70-300 has placed me in one of the nicest challenges in my life, both, as naturalist and nature photographer, and it is…becoming one with nature. This may sound, poetic, unprofessional or unbelievable, however, I cannot emphasize more on this subject, when people ask me how to make good nature photos.

As for wildlife and nature photography is concerned, long-term dedication to a subject can either make you or break you. So challenging oneself to the discipline of long term studies of nature really pay off. You may ask what does this practice have to do with photographing birds at feeders, well, why would you invite an important client to dinner? The best way to get acquainted is up close to your subject. So, I will try to convert you into a SIT AND WAIT predator and then,  I will take you through the paces of becoming an active-pursue predator, hopefully, you will enjoy both skills and apply them to your favorite place or animal.

To be seduced by a flash of colors flapping on your face, as you walk through the forest its easy, however, to have a tiny bird check you out by flying from your face down to your feet, and up again, while its feathers change from black to ruby, emerald and aquamarines as it flashes by you, is a different story. So lets get into photography.


Snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and birds of prey have hunted this way for millions of years. And crocodiles are a good example. They know their territory very well, they can study their prey for days, and even months, they use stealth to get close or move away; they can make a long-term assessment of availability, time and space of their target species and these simple things has enabled them to lived on earth for 250 million years! So, what can we learn, from the sit and wait hunters…


Phenology, this is the science that studies the relation of climatic change and seasonality with plant and animal’s biological clocks. This is a crucial part to learn. It happens in an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly bases, dictating

what happens in our surroundings and the response of everything that makes up the area as well. During this stage, study the light where the feeding stations are, what spots are easier to conceal you, and how can you get the best out of your gear in each situation. Make sure you learn who comes first to the feeding stations, what spots they like best, if there is a pecking order (dominance / subordination hierarchy) “who is who” at your place of study, and make a mental or a pictorial storyboard as a tool. This knowledge is crucial for a well-adapted sit and wait hunter.

As many of us do not have the funds to buy every lens in our brand’s product line, the next best thing is, to learn your prey and its habitat. Feeding, drinking and resting places, most be important goals to research in your study plan, therefore, one has to make time to learn all of this to become a successful image hunter. Only then, you will increase the CLICKs that will become keepers.


There are two kinds of feeding stations: one is nature’s own, and the other, the man made kind. Both are very effective to approach wildlife. As all living animals are creatures of habit, and feeding, is key to survival, the best way to a hummer’s heart is through their stomach. In fact, this works for most animals. So one can give nature a hand or cheat it, ¿How?  By becoming an unlikely provider of food services to your photography objects. So, does that mean, that I have to become a chef, and run a catering service, YES it does; specially, if you will become a food supplier to the animal you seek to photograph.

If your client is a sweet tooth, you better know your deserts. 70% of the hummer’s food is nectar, the remaining 30% is small insects and if you can become a dedicated caterer, you will become a master of hummingbird photography.

4 parts of clean water to one part sugar in the feeding bottle is the best known recipe for the hummer feeder, however, what about protein. Well, first you need a clean mayonnaise bottle, recycling a small plastic one is great. If it is crystal clear, paint it a midtone green or brown, so it can be hidden well. Then you can get over ripe fruit (bananas work best) and make a puree out of it, do no eat it. It’s for the hummers. Place it inside the jar and take the latter close to the hummer’s bottle. What you have done is to make a fruit fly breeding ground. When fruit flies smell the sweet banana paste, they will make the jar a nursery and soon, you will see, how they mate and lay their eggs on your banana paste. Once they start emerging from their pupae state, they will fly out, and the keen eyed hummers, will se the fly activity very close to their drinking spot, hell, they will learn, that they can go to the bar, and then to the restaurant in the same spot. Once they spot the flies, they will switch from drinking to eating very often, and you will have. A very successful feeding station. The hummers will fly to the jar, flap their wings to stir the flies out of the jar and pick them at will. They learn to do this quite fast.


Becoming a hummer’s “part of their place” or one weird creature that roams around their habitat, with things hanging on our bodies will be very important for your goals: Yes, you have to become a creature that does not feed on hummers and does not compete with them for their food source.

The sit and wait hunter, does just that, it waits until its prey is within striking distance to attack, however, predators do not have it easy, as for every 10 attacks there may be one that is successful, and this will happen to you as well. You will run through a few memory cards until you get the method just right.

Photographing hummers at the feeders is the easiest way to start. Currently, the use of feeding areas, water sources and blinds are an acceptable practice for photographing wildlife, these methods are a great step in the right direction to learn and prepare oneself for the big challenge, to find and photograph wild animals in their habitat.


·      To differentiate females, males and juveniles from each other.
·      Learn each bird by its personality, yes, they have different personalities.
·      Be aware of the pecking order, and how it affects the birds that visit the feeders.
·      How hummers behave between different species, or other animals such as bees, wasps and butterflies.
·      Where are their favorite perches are located
·      How long do they stay at the feeding station
·      Where are their flyways
·      Where do they hover and how log is the hovering time.
·      How does the light change throughout the day at the feeder
·      How can you prepare your shoot at the feeding station

Here are two photos of the Violet Fronted Brilliant. The male is in the left side and the female on the right. One can get photo-IDs to start learning about each species of hummingbird. Males of this species are difficult to photograph in its full radiance, as its feathers look black most of the time. However, once the proper light hits its beautiful feathers, its full radiance comes to shine. Therefore, learning how light moves throughout the day at the feeders, is what will make you pictures a success or a failure. So bird watching at the feeders is a great exercise.

Another important aspect about animal social behavior is territoriality. The unseen territories, display arenas, perching sites, and dominance/subordinate aspects of hummer conduct can help the photographer a lot. Its best to read and learn about your subject before approaching any kind of wildlife. You may be very eager to just get out and DO IT, well, most of us are, but it pays to learn as much as you can about hummers to get the best results photographing them.

The following picture is an aerial combat between Brown Violetears. The issue of the dispute has to do with territory and who is boss. Pay close attention to the birds’ body language:

 Both birds have their bills pointing at each other, indicating a serious threat in this behavior. Their tails are fanned, and their wings have a full forward flap, making a forward charge come to a full stop. Thus, downsizing, a frontal attack, to a stand off. This is a great strategy to prevent mutual harm. In territorial disputes, there are imaginary boundaries where both birds exercise individual ownership. As both birds are determine to stand their ground, they stop at a fine line, which keeps them, from a physical confrontation. Full body contact fights can result in broken feathers or harm to both birds, therefore, keeping these situations at bay is best.

The photo above is a confrontation between a Brown Violetears and a female Violet-Fronted Hummingbird. Intra-species territorial disputes are common at the feeders and flower patches. The degree of aggression varies within species.

The sound that hummers make with their wings may change with their mood, and they make an effective sensorial cue for its co specifics. Verbal communication is part of this repertoire, so learning their vocalizations helps one get ready for a memorable picture. Their repertoire includes territorial, feeding, warning, fear, and aggressive calls.


As I you may expect, taking pictures at the feeders may be a put down, as the bottles are always on the way. Well, here is where thinking digital comes a long way. I hate to have the bottles in the way, but they are a necessary evil. So what you do is as follow:

1) Prefocus on the bottle
2) Place your lens in manual focus
3) Choose that flight path that is nearest your prefocused area
4) Use the flashgun/strobe at 250th syncronization (to stop wing motion)
5) As the bird passes bye, shoot the hell out of it! If the flash allows multiple flashes better.
6) Shoot as many pictures as you can.

At processing time:

1) Choose the pictures that will enable you to crop the bottles out
2) Adjust your composition with your crop tool
3) Save the image

Here are some before and after examples:


Well, I hope you enjoyed the reading and follow the blog for the next article HOW TO BECOME AN ACTIVE PURSUE IMAGE HUNTER FOR HUMMINGBIRDS.

Take care and keep in touch.

Leopoldo "Leo" Garcia


Ruman said...

Actually I’m not wildlife photographer but interested in it. This is very useful article for bird photographers specially hummingbird. Nice blog.... :)

Rosie Nixon Fluerty said...

This is an excellent resource - would you mind if I linked to it as I know I have readers that love to photograph the hummers .......just a pity we don't get hummers here in Scotland.

BTW welcome to NBN

andrea said...

An excellent technology, it is a pleasure to follow this blog to be able to learn, a new photographer as I, the photos are precious and this intensity in the colors me apasiona,

aaanouel said...

Excelente artículo Leopoldo.

(now from Costa Rica).

Inca Land Adventures said...

great information thanks very much for shiring it

Oliviakelly said...

Olet todella auttanut useita yksilöitä kuten minä, jotka ovat etsineet Internetissä ohi melko kauan löytää yksityiskohtaista tietoa tästä tietystä aiheesta. Kiitos tonni.

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