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BEHIND THE LENS – Hummingbirds at Sunset (or not)

 

I absolutely love backlight on any subject. Even hummingbirds, with their stunning colors, can make great subjects for backlit photos. Nonetheless, there are two big problems when trying to shoot tropical hummingbirds with backlight. First, they are found in the forest so the sun doesn’t really penetrate in great beams that provide that dreamy rim light we all love. And second, it’s usually cloudy, particularly right at sunset when the magic happens!

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green-crowned brilliants at sunset

Green-crowned Brilliants at Gesneriad flower, Costa Rica

Canon 5D, Tamron 80-200 mm zoom lens, tripod, cable release, 3 flashes, sunset background, orange gels on flashes, f/14, 1/200th, ISO 500


About 7 years ago, I decided to try to make my own sunset hummingbird shots by applying some pretty heavy variations to my standard multiple-flash hummingbird setups. Since I hadn’t been able to shoot hummingbirds this way with natural light, I tried to simulate what I thought hummingbirds would look like at sunset. The image above was the result, and I was pretty happy with it. The colors look right, and the rim light is good, though perhaps just a bit uneven.

Thought I liked the result, I was busy shooting other subjects and largely abandoned the multi-flash sunset technique until I went to Ecuador 3 years ago. I had a different sunset background but applied basically the same strategy, placing colored gels over my flashes to warm up the light. Just for fun, I decided to add a fourth flash (also with a colored gel) to give just a touch of fill to the front of the hummingbirds. Below are a few of the results from that brief session.


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Buff-tailed Coronets at native Canna flower, Ecuador

Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400

booted racket-tails fight at a Canna flower in Ecuador

Booted Racket-tails at native Canna flower, Ecuador Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400
Booted Racket-tails at native Canna flower, Ecuador

Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400


Violet-tailed Sylph at native Canna flower, Ecuador Canon 5DIII, Canon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 L IS zoom, Induro tripod and ballhead, cable release, 4 flashes, f/13, 1200th, ISO 400


Recently, I had the chance to photograph perched hummingbirds right as the sun set in the highlands of Costa Rica. There was only about a 5 minute window to shoot with this amazing light. I set my exposure by spot-metering the background for the three shots below. I was working in manual exposure mode, so I made sure that the meter read about 2/3 stops darker than middle-tone. That would give me rich colors in the sky and would also protect highlights from blowing out if I was lucky enough to catch a shot with the birds’ wings out.

Magnificent hummingbirds as sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica  Canon 7DII, Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom lens, handheld, f/6.3, 1/400th, ISO 400


Magnificent hummingbird as sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica

Canon 7DII, Sigma 150-600 mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary zoom lens, handheld, f/6.3, 1/400th, ISO 400


Magnificent hummingbirds immediately before sun sets over cloud forest, Costa Rica.  Canon 1Dx, Canon 600 mm f/4 lens, tripod, f/5.6, 1/6400th, ISO 100


I was very happy with these images and was also pleased to see that my earlier sunset simulations were pretty good imitations of the real deal 🙂 I hope you’ve enjoyed this little post. Next time you see the sun setting, get out there and shoot some gorgeous backlight!
TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING SUNSET HUMMINGBIRDS WITH FLASH

Use colored gels on your flashes
If using frontal flash as fill, keep the dosage low. The backlight should be stronger!
Think about lines for composition
TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING SUNSET HUMMINGBIRDS WITH NATURAL LIGHT

Use a tripod (even I took 2 of the shots above handheld, a tripod would have made my life easier!)
Pre-focus on a predicted spot
Keep it simple but still look for compositional lines
Choose shutter speed to freeze or blur wings to taste
Shoot in burst mode
Use a lens hood
Be careful with your eyes!
Before sun hits the horizon, include only your subject with backlight
When the sun hits the horizon, start to include it in your picture

 


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About the author Gregory Basco

Like many nature photographers, I started my career doing something else. A political scientist by training, my research focused on the politics of the environment in Latin America. I researched environmental politics and ecotourism in Costa Rica and worked here for a number of years as a conservation professional, having first come to the country in 1992 as a Peace Corps volunteer. I now dedicate myself full-time to my own photography and my Costa Rica photo tour company. I work out of my home office in Costa Rica’s central highlands, where I live with my wife, twin boys, our dogs and cats, and various hummingbirds and songbirds that visit our backyard feeders. Visit Greg’s galleries, store, and workshops at Deep Green Photography.

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