Shooting Hummingbirds with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR & Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII Lenses
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Nikon D4 and Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF lens – 1/1600s – f/4.0 – ISO 1000
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that shooting hummingbirds, even if its in your backyard is exceedingly frustrating and certainly requires some practice. If you put in the time though, you can get some super cool shots out of it which (almost) make up for the time, effort and mental anguish required to take pictures of them. We got a hummingbird feeder since they are my mothers favorite bird and had had great success with it all summer. In late summer, the hummingbirds seemed to be most active around our feeder, and having run out of other things to distract myself with I decided I would focus my creative energies towards capturing some hummingbirds. Sounds simple enough right? Well, you work, its not. Thankfully there are many many many good websites with all sorts of helpful hints and tips about photographing hummingbirds. Generally speaking these articles are very good, but you should really read a handful of them before arriving at your final strategy since there was no “complete” guide anywhere that I found. Also it will help to know your camera inside and out, there are many settings that can be tweaked to ensure the best autofocus speed possible (which you will need), and if you are not fully-aware of your cameras capabilities there are also many many resources which can help discover these features buried deep in your menus. For this “project” as it were, I used my Nikon D4, along with an SB-900 flash unit (at times) and initially my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII lens sometimes with my Nikon 2x teleconverter II; later on in the project I rented a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF lens from lensrentals.com which helped me achieve some of the best results of this project. In this article, we will look at the technique, camera settings, and equipment that I used. We will look at images chronologically from my initial captures, through to the cover image.
Nikon D4 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII – 1/1000s – f/2.8 – ISO 2000 @ 200mm
These very early examples were highly ambitious (since I really wanted to get the bird on a solid background) because of the limited equipment, camera settings, and experiences I had. In fact, I am shocked that I managed to capture these images early on. Hummingbirds move exceedingly fast and don’t stay anywhere for terribly long (except for when the are feeding) so even more so then good technique it is very important to have your camera settings optimized for the task, since if you do not then you are throwing away advantages that you have in being able to capture images of them. The images above are crops of photos taken at 200mm’s which is in no way long enough (from my experience) to capture hummingbirds. There are people who use remote setups or people who seem to be able to get inexplicably close to hummingbirds when photographing them, but that is not the way that I found to photograph them.
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII, Nikon 2x TCII – 1/1250s – f/11 – ISO 2000 @ 400mm
As we can see from the image above you can get some somewhat decent shots without too extreme of a setup with the help of a teleconverter. The Nikon 2x TCII teleconverter is excellently paired with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII and I have not found there to be an significant degradation of image quality when using this combination. This somewhat pleasant image above (also the only image I have of a male) is also a crop and comes from one of my first days of shooting the hummingbirds. Here, even though I had the ability to “reach” to 400mm, I had not spent enough time to understand that I can position myself closer to the hummingbirds (even if it scares them away initially) and then sit there and wait and eventually they will get acclimated to me and come back (since apparently hunger outweighs chance of capture / and or death to these guys) because they are always hungry.
taken with Nikon-SB-900 flash unit
Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII, Nikon 2x TCII - 1/1250s – f/5.6 – ISO 2500 @ 400mm
Now we are a few days in to my great outdoor (backyard) adventure and I have done some research and a lot of small tweaks have been made to my setup. Firstly, as we can see, now I am using a Nikon SB-900 flash mounted on the camera for some fill light to allow me to use a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the hummingbird. Of course, this brings in its own set of challenges while I tried to balance flash power (fairly low power settings) with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to get enough light on the background as well. Overall, I would say that flash is not your best bet for photographing hummingbirds, especially from a plastic feeder. Flash will obviously illuminate everything and this can be a major issue when you have a glossy red feeder which also happens to be positioned in front of a cast-iron fence which means that there will be a shadow behind the birds. But more about this later. For now, we will focus on the camera settings I eventually used with my Nikon D4 to make the following images possible.
I realized early on that my camera was letting me down, I certainly wasn’t doing myself any favors by not taking advantage of everything it has to offer. I mean, come on, its a Nikon D4 theres no way a little bird can get the best of it right? On the stock settings, yes, yes it can. But with some tweaking its possible to give yourself that extra little advantage. One of the more important minor little details that should be noted is that you should / can put custom settings into “Custom Settings Banks”. I have my “Normal” settings on A and then I created a custom settings B for “Action”. First we will start simple, It was recommended to me, to do something that I normally do not like (though some people love), I moved my autofocus control from being a half press of the shutter button to being the “AF-ON” button on the back of the camera. This allows for autofocus to be controlled via my thumb, and lets the shutter button be simply used for its namesake. This is extremely helpful since if you rely on locked autofocus to take the picture, then you will almost never get any pictures of hummingbirds. For me the best solution was to pair “Continuous High” (CH) shooting mode with this first AF tweak, which allowed me to get 10 fps continuous shooting for as long as I needed. I found that using “AF-C” with “d-21″ (21 point AF) to work best. This setting is accessed by the “AF/M” button on the left side of the camera. Within the menus, “AF-C priority selection” was set to “release”. “Focus tracking with lock” on was brought down to “1 (Short)” I did this because I found that while its good to have a little bit of stickiness in the autofocus, I was better served by having the camera constantly refocusing allowing for the slight variations in movements of the hummingbird, which especially when shooting at f/2.8 can be the difference in the world between sharp and out of focus. Luckily with modern cameras like the Nikon D4, it is possible to use high ISO’s and get very clean results, while you cannot be too aggressive with this especially if you are going to consider cropping anything, you can safely push into the ISO 3200 range with very good results (with the best coming at around 2000 IMHO). With these settings, I found the cameras AF performance was excellent, when light permitted I shot stopped down to give my self some extra DoF, however I found that even at f/2.8 the camera was highly capable. At this point all thats left to do is to throw the camera into manual mode, confirm exposure and begin shooting.
taken with Nikon-SB-900 flash unit
Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII, Nikon 2x TCII - 1/500s – f/11 – ISO2000 @ 320mm-400mm
The example above was a good example of an image taken with the Nikon SB-900 flash because I shot low and the background was only the trees behind the hummingbird. In these next examples we can see where some distracting issues arise. We see that the hummingbird casts a shadow on the cast iron fence behind it which is, in my opinion, heavily distracting. Another thing to consider is that in my situation the feeder was a red glossy plastic and this meant that it was reflective and would show the flash. The flash is very good however at allowing you to freeze the hummingbird in flight providing good fill flash especially during the day. I purchased a Better Beamer flash extender for testing since I thought it might help by pushing more light down range. It acquits itself of its duty admirably, though I found that it was not terribly necessary for my application. It was useful at times however, since it vastly magnifies the light coming out of the flash allowing for lower flash settings, and thus faster re-cycle times from the flash. The flash is pretty good at keeping up with the camera, however you are more or less stuck shooting in Single (S) mode but you can shoot as fast as your fingers can manage and the flash should keep up for a while.
Nikon D4 and Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF lens – 1/1600s – f/4.0 – ISO 1000
Moving along back to our cover image, which while somewhat heavily photoshoped retains all aspects of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR lens which is an absolutely insane $9,000.00 giant of a lens. Its everything you would expect it to be and more. From various conversations I had on the forum, I determined I would try renting the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR lens since it had the largest aperture and best close focusing distance of a Nikon super-telephoto lens. I had found from my use of the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII lens with the 2x TC that 400mm was pretty much where I needed to be to get great images. So, I went to lensrentals.com which is my preferred rental house (no affiliation) I have had no problems from them and when I have had questions their staff has always been super helpful and responsive, once your cleared to rent their more expensive items your good to go and can do so freely and without an delay in your shipments. Their prices seem to be no better or worse then any other online rental houses out there and so, I am happy with them and see no reason to go anywhere else, personally. Of course, for my smaller (physical size) needs, I prefer K&M Camera however schlepping myself all the way into the city and lugging around a 10lb lens didn’t sound particularly attractive in the height of summer heat. Theres really no way to get around this, the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR is a superior professional lens which delivers the ultimate in performance. Other lenses I considered were the Nikon 600mm f/4 ED VR AF lens as well as the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens which but with minimum focusing distances of 15.7′ (4.79 m) and 19.36′ (5.9 m) respectively they didn’t seem to offer enough extra pull to be worth the extra focusing distance. I may be wrong, this may be naive of me, but it was my gut feeling. I do plan however to test out these other two lenses and see whats what next spring and summer since shooting hummingbirds was good fun and a great excuse to cradle some superior glass for a week.
Nikon D4 and Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF, Nikon 2x TCII - 1/320s – f/5.6 – ISO 1600 @ 800mm
I found using the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF lens with the Nikon 2x TCII provided some challenges, which I assume would have been improved with the Nikon 2x TCIII which, if I had realized existed, I would have rented along with the lens. The 800mm focal length, slapped onto the 400mm f/2.8 worked decently well. Of course with a TC there is no change to the minimum focusing distance of the lens, so I cannot comment whether the change in minimum focusing distance (touched on above) would have changed my opinion. Especially when working at a relatively close distance, putting on the 2x TC can be a bit jarring at first since you are so zoomed in, even from what I got acclimated to when shooting at the 400mm focal length. Everything happens faster, which is a little hard to get used to especially when you have a limited number of a seconds with your subject per feeding session. The above images show some flaws when using the 400mm + 2x TC combination at 800mm. We see the background has become beautifully out of focus which is very nice, however there are some clear signs of the degradation of image quality here. It also might have been better for me to rent some of the smaller Nikon Teleconverters like the 1.4x or 1.7x TC’s. Previously I had never really understood a reason for these smaller TC’s existing. Now I do, since they would allow for less “pressure” (in terms of IQ) to be put on the set up while still providing a full-resolution zoomed in focal length.
Backyard, with the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 ED VR AF
In conclusion, shooting some hummingbirds in the backyard sounds like a somewhat simple task, however as I found there are a lot of small complications which need to be overcome and experienced to finally be able to adapt to. Especially in the beginning, though frankly throughout the process, I was frustrated and upset a number of times because of a lack of success. This was in no way helped by the fact that hummingbirds are a bunch of fat little jerks who felt it necessary to chase each other away from the feeder (instead of just sharing). This meant that my time with a subject near or at the feeder was in the > 10 seconds range for the majority of the time. Though, thankfully at times, especially later in the week things calmed down and I was able to get a solid 20+ seconds with a few subjects. However, when you consider I’m shooting at 10fps thats still a lot of frames racked up. Because of the difficulties of focus and micro-movements of the hummingbird though this meant a number of these shots were not keepers. While I attempted to wait until the camera confirmed focus via the dot in the viewfinder, at times I would be able to sense when it was close to focus and begin firing away. And while I say all of these things which might make it sound like I was just blasting away whenever something roamed near the lens, this is not true. I would call them “controlled bursts” based on the movements of the hummingbird. If you spend enough time staring at them you will find there is a pattern to their movements. In fact, you can even hear the pattern of their movements with enough time spent out there with them (and you have to put in the time to get the shots). Initially they will hover somewhere around 20-30 feet away from the feeder to size it up. I didn’t even bother attempting to capture them at these times since it is difficult and will screw you if you also want to shoot them near the feeder since moving yourself takes time, and sudden movements scare the hummingbirds. So basically what I was left with was when they were close to the feeder, and while they were feeding. The shot of them feeding would be cool if it was an actual flower, but since its a plastic flower there isn’t much magic to that. I would wait, with my eye just above the viewfinder until one was in the 1-2 foot away from the feeder range and begin shooting while it dipped in to the feeder and as it moved backwards to swallow the nectar. When the bird comes on “near approach” to the feeder is probably the best time to get shots since at least for this set up it was where they would be out of the view of the fence; though when they moved slightly back to swallow provided some good moments as well. All and all this was a nice end of summer experience for me allowing me to soak up some gorgeous afternoons by spending 3-5 hours a day outside waiting for hummingbirds, which maybe would come every 15 minutes, though sometimes more, sometimes less. It should be noted that mornings and afternoons are (apparently) when they are most active, and since I’m not a morning person, I opted for the afternoons. Considering I don’t generally get outside that often it was a nice change of pace. This is in no way a physically intense photographic activity, in fact its the opposite, I was sitting in a comfortable chair for the majority of the time (except for when I opted to change angles for some variation early on). It is a mentally taxing task considering everything you have to prepare and execute in a small amount of time. As I have said though, it was highly rewarding and I plan to do it again next summer at some point since its good fun for the afternoon.
More examples can be viewed on my flickr page at flickr.com/brianhirschfeldphotography
backyard with PhaseOne IQ180, Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO, Extension Tubes, and Nikon SB-900
Hey! do you know what totally does not work as a set up for shooting hummingbirds? You guessed it! the Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO lens and my PhaseOne IQ180! While it does not work for this nature set up, you can read about how it works for some less extreme stuff in my Field Report on the Mamiya 300mm f/2.8 APO and Mamiya 500mm f/4.5 APO lenses from Costa Rica. As an aside, you can shoot the Nikon SB-900 mounted on the PhaseOne 645DF. While you have to manually control the power setting, the camera will trigger the flash. I had the cable attached to the flash from a pervious use and did not bother to take it off, it was not used in this failed set up. In case your wondering why it failed, well, for starters it was an f/4.5 lens, and then this is brought down significantly with the use of ALL THREE extension tubes (and the lack of serious high-ISO from the PhaseOne IQ180), and finally, oh you know the fact that its a manual focus lens. I figured “well people shot everything with manual focus lenses before, how hard could it be right?” well the answer is exceedingly; exceedingly difficult.