Unrealistic Goals?

Jeff went to Costa Rica to photograph large and colorful birds. I went to photograph the smallest of them all, the hummingbird. These little birds are like jewels with their feathers sparkling in the light as they flit back and forth. They move so fast, that often, all I see is a flash of color.

My goal was to capture this jewel of nature in flight. And not just one, but as many different types of jewels as I could.  Since Costa Rica has over 50 species,  I ought to be able to capture quite a few colorful ones.

As you may recall, I have mentioned that I am not quick with the “click”. My reaction times are just not there. I am more methodical. This is one of the many reasons that I like landscape photography as the scenery does not move. Yet, here I am in Costa Rica trying to capture one of the fastest birds (speeds up to 60mph) with the slowest trigger finger. Are you seeing the humor here? If not humor, perhaps, you envision the amount of frustration that may occur? This was a supreme challenge, but fortunately, I like challenges.

First Challenge: Capture in flight

Hummingbirds often go in for a drink at a feeder or to a flower for nectar,  and then they back out to survey their surroundings (aka hovering) before going in for another lick. Our guide challenged me to photograph the birds hovering in flight. Seriously? The goal here was to capture bird’s eye being sharp, but the wings being blurred. At least, I had a little leeway. Normally, to freeze the motion of a hummingbird the shutter speed needs to be well over 1/2000 of a second. But our guide suggested setting the camera to 1/160 of sec, f5.6 and auto ISO.  The odds of me capturing the bird in flight with this method was just slightly better than finding a needle in a haystack. An hour later, after several hundred attempts, I had plenty of blurred images and photos “empty” of birds. Exasperated, I told him it wasn’t possible for me. He then mentioned that the his hit rate was often a handful per thousand photos.  Having a better grip on the challenge ahead, I refocused, and kept trying. “Click”, “click”,” click”.

White-necked jacobin hummingbird

Buff Bellied Hummingbird

Second Challenge: Capture with flash

I think our guide knew I needed to actually capture humming birds, so we had a morning set aside to photograph them with a flash. We would draw the little bird into our flash setup with a flower dripping with sugar water. My camera would be focused on the flower. The flash would freeze the motion so that I don’t have to try and track the little critter. I can use a lower shutter speed and click via remote when the bird approached the flower. (Flash settings: 1/200 sec, f11, ISO 800)

 The flashes are ready, my remote camera trigger is ready and so is my “clicking” finger. All I need is a bird. I wait. After what seems like hours, a bird flies in to check out the flower – “click”. Wow, I have captured him on the first try. This is easy! My clicking finger is fast enough with the remote and flash to actual capture the bird in flight. There are couple of catches, first although there are many birds, we have only one coming to our flower. We discover our one bird is a bully. Any other bird that comes nearby is quickly chased away. After 3 hours, I have about 500 images of one bird and one image of a second bird.

The backside of the Bully (Talamanca Hummingbird )

Our Bully again (Talamanca Hummingbird)

White-Throated Mountain Gem (Male) – snuck in while the bully wasn’t looking.

When all else fails:  Redefine the goal

Not having much luck with the two options presented, and determined to capture something, I adjusted my goal. I would wait until the birds perched and then photographed them on the perch. I have to admit, it is not as interesting a photo as one of a bird in flight. But when the bird is perched, I often have a moment to focus on him before the “click” so  my “click” to capture rate could be much higher.

Green Crowned Brilliant Hummingbird

White-Throated Mountain Gem

Violet Sabre Winged Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird (Female)

“I may be bland in color, but I am pretty inside” (Talamanca Hummingbird female)

Fiery-throated hummingbird

How is this for a bully pose?

Blue Headed Hummingbird

At the end of the trip, I ended up with a collection of Hummingbird photos that I will enjoy for years to come. But given there were dozens of humming birds that I missed capturing, I might just have to go back and try again.