Hummingbird Page


"The problem with my mimosa."

Some Humor for hummer watchers who have no ego.




How to freeze a hummingbird's wings.

This is where most beginners to either photography or hummingbird watching trip up. I have seen quite a few usenet and photography forum posts that begin with the following:

"I was trying to freeze a hummingbird's wings today with my new camera. I set the shutter speed to 1/1600 and got several shots but they came out a little dark and the wings were still a little blurry . . ."

I have also seen comments on photographs that I have posted that begin with:

"Wow, you must have used a really fast shutter speed . . ."

OK, here's the secret. It isn't a high shutter speed that freezes a hummingbird's wings, it is flash. Let me repeat:


Now that I have that out of my system, let me explain the math. The wings on a rubythroated hummingbird beat at approximately 50-60  beats per second. With a wingspan that varies between birds from 3-4 inches or so, that means that the wingtips travel from front to back about 6-8 inches, more or less. This means that the wings travel between 300 and 500 inches per second. So a 1/1000 second shutter speed will catch a wing movement of about 1/2 inch or so, i.e., a complete blur. Of course, the 1/2 inch distance is not always true because the wings don't actually move at a constant speed. Instead, they move through one beat, stop (or slow down greatly) and then move in the opposite direction, but you get the idea. In order to see detail in the wings you would need a faster shutter speed than you will find on most any good SLR. Catching the wing near either end of a beat will help a lot too.

There are many hotshoe flash units out there that have flash durations as short as 1/20,000 second on their lowest power setting. There are few 35mm or digital SLR's with a shutterspeed as fast as 1/8000 second. Thus, using the flash to freeze the wings yields much better results. When a hummingbird is not in direct sunlight and a small aperture is used the flash becomes the only relevant light source and the flash duration makes the shutter speed meaningless. In fact, the shutter speed will be set at the flash sync speed which, on a 35mm or digital SLR, will likely be as low as 1/200 second. 

Even a very short flash duration won't always completely freeze a hummingbird's wing during the middle of the flap as the following photograph shows.

Flash duration of about 1/15,000 second. Notice how the wingtips are still blurry!


So, how do you get detail in the whole wing? Maybe you think of "freezing" the wings of a hummingbird as simply being able to see the wing without fine detail. Well, this is actually possible at a shutter speed as slow as 1/1000 second provided you catch the wing at the forward or rearward extension when the wing is changing direction.


This photograph was taken with shutter set to 1/1600 second with wings at full rearward extension.

If, when you say "freeze" the wings, you mean show the wings as depicted in the photo above, then it can be done with a fast shutter speed. However, even the photo above was taken with a dedicated flash on the "high speed sync" setting. What you will most likely find, when you use a 1/1000 shutter speed or higher, that you will end up with a dark photograph unless the bird was in full sun when the photo was taken.

If you truly want frozen wings with wing detail, then you need multiple flashes (at least three) on their lowest setting and you need to be lucky enough to have the flashes fire at the point where the wings are at the end of a beat.

Four (4) hotshoe flashes, pc sync and 1/200 shutter speed at f/11 near dusk. Full bird in inset.

If you want detail like in the above photograph, then shutter speed really is irrelevant. At ISO 100, f/16 at 1/200 second shutter speed in the shade, early morning or late evening, everything in the photo will be dark except what the flash units illuminate. Therefore, if the flash duration is only 1/15,000 - 1/20,000 second, the shutter can be on 1/200 and the wings will be frozen as above if you catch them at the right point. Of course, for this method, you will want the bird out of direct sunlight. If the bird is illuminated by direct sunlight, you will get ghost images of the wings created during the time when the shutter was open but before and after the flash fires.

Simpler Explanation. Some have trouble with the above paragraph and don't understand the relationships of shutter speed and flash duration to exposure. Perhaps the simplest way that I can explain this is to say that the way that the camera was set up for the above exposure, had the flash not fired, everything in the image would be essentially black. The hummingbird was the only thing that the flash illuminated in the image so the bird is only shown during the time that the flash was on, or about 1/20,000 second. Even though the shutter was open for 1/200 second, nothing but what the flash illuminated shows in the image so the shutter speed really was not a factor in the above image.

The final point I have is a question. Do you really want to freeze the hummingbird's wings? I have seen comments of those who advocate freezing the wings to the effect that a photo of a humming bird is more realistic if you can see the wings clearly. I've never understood this. When you are watching a hummingbird fly, the wings are a blur. Why not let them be a blur in your photograph. When a hummingbird is hovering in one position, the body is still enough to get fine detail with a shutter speed of 1/500 or slower. With fewer flashes that are diffused, you can capture much more color than you can with non-diffused flashes. You get fewer specular highlights (i.e., shiny areas) and the bird can literally drip with color. To this day, I feel that the following photograph is my best hummingbird shot, and the wings are a nearly a complete blur.

Shot taken with two dedicated flashes in E-TTL mode, each reflected with a white umbrella.

Even if you are satisfied with blurry wings, I understand the desire to get a few shots with fine detail in the wingtips. Those shots can look very impressive. I hope this page has been helpful.


  © Copyright 2005 Eric J. Miller. All Rights Reserved.