By Jim Chamberlain
Hummingbirds are some of the most interesting and photogenic critters on the planet. I normally like to photograph big animals like whales, bears, eagles, moose and elk. I always wanted to learn how to get those images of hummers that show them frozen in time and space, their wings sharp and focused. I have tried to do that at aviaries and in the wild with some mild success but felt I needed to learn the techniques and equipment needed to capture those amazing images.
In 2021, I joined a PhotoScape to Northeastern Arizona to learn these techniques. A four-and-a-half-hour drive from Phoenix brought me to the small and remote town of Eager, AZ in the foothills of the White Mountains. Why Eager? Apparently, hummingbirds migrate, especially the more colorful species such as the Rufus, Broadtail, and Calliope. Their migration route leads right through the area around Eager during the summer months. They even have a Hummingbird Festival here during normal years. My PhotoScape was in early August.
The location of the workshop was ten miles outside of Eager at the Sipe Mountain Wilderness Area. The drive from Eager is short but half of that is down a lonely dirt road into the heart of the Sipe area to an old homestead that is now the Visitor Center and Museum. I saw several elk grazing along the hillside as the sun illuminated them in the early morning. The photographer/ instructors were Lisa Langell and Kim Gray. They had created a mini-hummingbird refuge at the Visitor Center complete with canopies, hummingbird feeders, and multiple flash units.
Over the three long days of photography which combined working each of the four different stations, I was able to practice a variety of techniques. Colored backgrounds, High Key, and Low-Key images were captured using the techniques demonstrated by Lisa and Kim. I was amazed at their battery charging station inside the visitor center where they had dozens of rechargeable batteries being re-powered to keep up with the need of the multiple portable flash units that were being used. Each station used up to five different portable flash units set at low power to not disturb the birds. These units were triggered by a remote control each photographer would place on the camera at each station. I use a 70-300 telephoto lens for almost all of my images. I shot hundreds of images and was amazed at the results of using the techniques Kim and Lisa taught me.
Two photographers were assigned to each station, and each took turns on the shutter so as to have the flash units fire for one camera at a time, ensuring good exposure and frozen action. The action was almost non-stop. Once the feeders were in place, flashes turned on, the background chosen, the potted flowers placed and the photographer waiting to release the shutter, the birds wasted no time in challenging us to capture their antics. Pairs of birds buzzed around us like miniature fighter planes maneuvering against a feathered opponent. Luckily, intimidation was the bird’s only weapon. Patience is necessary as these little speed demons can dart in, feed at your feeder and dart out so quickly that many of your images will be wasted. However, I was taking so many images on three shot burst mode that my odds improved with each day of experience.
The first day we worked on using different colorful backgrounds and different potted flowers provided by the instructors to produce images covering a palette of colors and flower shapes. Day two focused on High Key photography where you used a white background and overexposure to create an artistic image of the hummers that emphasized the flowers and the birds’ colors. The final day was used to teach and practice Low Key photography. Like it sounds, it is the opposite of High Key. Here you use a black background and reduce the number of flashes to three or four to create an image that appears to have been taken at night.
I was allowed to set up my own station to practice the Low-Key technique. I moved the flash units to where I thought they would provide me with the type of image I was seeking. I even brought my own Thistle flower to use as a prop. The key is to position the bird feeder, filled with nectar, at such a position that you can capture the bird in flight near your flower, so it appears it is feeding on the flower not the feeder. Lisa will teach how to post process these images so you can actually change the position of the bird to feed at the flower. I chose a different technique in which I put nectar right onto the thistle and moved the feeder out of the frame.
Luckily for me, the birds cooperated. I was able to capture hummers feeding directly from my thistle. I was thrilled. The hundreds of captures I made over three days would take me a couple of weeks to post process, but the results were stunning. I had definitely taken the best hummingbird images I had ever attempted. Thanks to Lisa and Kim this workshop is one of my favorites and I can apply the same techniques in my backyard to capture nature’s fighter planes in action.
Arizona Highways is offering two chances during the summer of 2022 to capture these colorful birds and learn the techniques I have described. They are both in August where the heat is less in Eager than in other parts of Arizona. There are only a few seats left to have this amazing experience with these amazing birds. Don’t miss the chance.
Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes