Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

April-Mid May 2007

Question of the Month

How many flashes do you need for effectively lighting hummingbirds?

As I write this, I'm taking a break from the nearly week-long packing job required for suiting up for our Arizona Hummingbird High Speed Flash Photo Tour and our Arizona Digital Complete Nature Photo Courses. Since we supply all the flash equipment and Mary cooks both lunch and dinner for both the tours and courses, our 8' bed F250 truck is filled to the brim with gear - flash, camera, and kitchen. While Mary can address the kitchen paraphernalia, I'll limit my response to the flash equipment.

A basic electronic flash setup for hummingbirds should have at least two flashes, and preferably three or four. A two flash system is certainly a compromise, but could be used if that's all you have. One flash obviously has to be aimed at the hummingbird, and the other flash aimed at the background so that the bird does not appear to be photographed at night. A single flash, illuminating the bird, would result in a flash-exposed bird, that's probably brighter than the background, and the background could end up appearing black. Having a flash aimed at the background (generally some type of artificial background like matte board or a photo) maintains the 'reality' of the bird flying during the day.

A better system is a three flash system, with two flashes aimed at the subject and one at the background. So, what's the difference between having one flash directed at the hummingbird, or having two? One flash can produce sharp shadows on parts of the bird, depending on the bird's pose or the position of its wings. Two flashes reduce or eliminate these distracting shadows, as the two flashes can function as either two Key flashes, or a Key and Fill flash. The third flash is still directed at the background to avoid that night-time effect.

A four flash system also works, and here one has the option of using that fourth flash in one of several ways. The fourth flash can be used as a background flash, too, to insure that the background is evenly illuminated. This isn't especially necessary, because careful placement of a single background flash will even illuminate a background.

The fourth flash can also be used as a BACKLIGHT, where the flash is position behind the bird and aimed at the bird to create a rim-light or hair-light. This can set a bird off from the background, and with brightly exposed edges, the look can be attractive or striking.

The fourth flash can also be aimed at the subject, so that the hummingbird is struck by three front flashes. If this is done, the third flash can be positioned to try to maximize the chances of catching a reflection from the bird's iridescent gorget. Sometimes this works, but it depends upon the birds' position for the gorget's reflection to be caught by the flash.

On our hummingbird shoots we typically use a three or a four flash system, using that fourth flash in any one of the combinations discussed above. Although we illustrate, and teach, this material in our Arizona-based courses, our ADVANCED - Digital Nature Photo Course covers this material in depth. If you're interested in flash photography and mastering flash, this would be the course for doing so.

If you're interested in taking hummingbird photos, it might be more prudent to do a hummingbird workshop or tour rather than making the sizable investment to buy the necessary gear. If you're interested in just getting some great shots, and not doing this long-term, this makes perfect sense, especially when you learn what's involved in the setup. Here's one of our typical setups:

4 Hotshoe Flashes, either Vivitar, Sunpak, Nikon, or Canon. Lowest price possible - $80 each, or $320 for a kit of four. Highest price, $300 or so for a Nikon or Canon, or $1,200 for the kit.
Batteries for the flashes - Lowest price possible AA batteries (4) for a few dollars, but the flashes won't fire a flash series for very long. We use Quantum Turbos so that we can fire flashes rapidly, as the recycling is fast. Cost: $370 each, plus flash cables, or about $600 per flash setup.
4 Bogen Articulating Arms and Bogen Super Clamps for holding the flashes. Price: $90 per arm, or $360 for the four sets.
1 Wimberley Plamp for props or flowers: $30
PC cords, Slave Units, Multi-PC blocks - depending upon how you rig up your flash system, figure at least $100.
Backgrounds and Frames - At least $10 for matte board, a photo, or a frame.
Knowing how to set all this up - Priceless, or a lot of hard work and experience.

Our hummingbird shoots involve 5 complete flash setups, so we're looking at the above equipment times five, which is why our truck is filled to capacity when we head out for these shoots. If you're interested, we'll be doing this shoot again next year, and although we don't have the exact dates setup for either the Hummingbird Photo Tours or the Arizona Digital -Complete Nature Photo Course, they will occur in April and early May. Both are extremely popular and fill rather quickly, so if you're interested you may wish to inquire at our office now to get onto our 'first alert' list so that you can be contacted as soon as those dates and prices are set.


Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

Do You Need a
Big Printer?

Can a Wimberley Head be used with small lenses?

Is a Trip to Antarctica
Worth it?

 Film or Digital?
Why you should shoot film!

What is the best shutter speed for panning running mammals?

 What is Reality?
Adobe's powerful LIGHTROOM Program

 Is there an easy way to level a camera for panorama shots?

 Why is Yellowstone the best for wildlife photography in the US?

Apertures for Macro

 Why must you have
at least 2 digital backups

 Wildlife Models
Is there anything new
to shoot?

 Is the New Wimberley head worth having?

  What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Can you match the Histograms?
 How do I keep track of Digital Files?

  Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is DEC? 

How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day?  

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?

  Does the Visibledust cleaning system really work?

What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

How long will film be around? 

  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

 What is the Difference?

 How do we meter White?

 How can you save your shoulders?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

How would you meter these images?

 What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

Which Mountain Park is better for wildlife - Denali or Torres del Paine?

What is the best Car Window Mount? 

  How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?

 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?

 What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 Which binoculars do we just love to use?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?

 How Easy is Whale Photography?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?

What Film Lab do we use, and why? 

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites? 

How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

What is the Most Important thing you can do before a Workshop?

How did I shoot the gliding Sugar Glider?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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