The Hummingbird Project 3: The Hummingbird Studio

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Hummingbird season will soon draw to a close, as most of the mini-birds generally leave the northcoast by the end of January. One bird is still drinking at the feeder. All day he hangs out on some nearby branches and guards the feeder from other birds. There have not been as many birds to chase off these last few weeks. Soon he will have the feeder all to himself.

When I first began photographing the hummers, I was using three flashes. Beginning this year, I added a fourth flash. My hummingbird studio, when set up, looks like this:

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There are three flashes in front, another slightly to one side and a little behind where the bird will most likely be whizzing his wings. The feeder serves as bait for the bird. The camera is about seven feet away.

The primary reason for the flashes, as I explained in an earlier post, is not necessarily to provide more light, but to freeze the wings. Flashes emit light for a fixed duration, usually somewhere between 1/700 of a second and well over 1/10,000 a second. To freeze the wings of a hummingbird in mid-flight, you need at least a flash duration of over 1/5000. To attain that, you need a flash that you can adjust manually. Many flashes, particularly the cheaper ones, don’t allow for manual adjustment. There are, however, a few budget flashes that do so. And there are also a few older, used flashes that allow for this as well. Three of the flashes I use in my hummingbird studio are old Sunpak flashes from the 1980s: two 433Ds and one 444D. In terms of features and flash power, the 433D and the 444D are identical (they are also identical to the 383D as well). They each have five manual output settings: full, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, and 1/16. Each setting corresponds to one stop in terms of exposure. The lower the amount of light, the shorter the flash duration. At full power, these two Sunpak flashes have a flash duration of 1/700 second. I have turn the flash down to 1/8 to get a flash duration of longer than 1/5000 seconds. That’s not a lot of light, which is why the flashes are placed close to the feeder:

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The advantage of flashing at only 1/8 power, beyond the short flash duration, is that the flashes recharge very fast. If you emit the flash at full power, it can take almost ten seconds for the flash to recharge. At 1/8, the flashes are ready to go in less than a second, which allows for quick, repeated shooting.

The flashes are triggered by radio signals. On the camera is the trigger mechanism, which slides into the flash hot-shoe. Four receivers are attached to each flash, mounted on a flash stand. When the shutter is activated on the camera, the trigger sends a radio signal to the receivers, which causes the four flashes to burst simultaneously. The Cowboy trigger and receivers are platform agnostic: they work with any system that uses standard hotshoe flashes (i.e., Nikon, Canon, Pentax, but not Sony). This means you don’t have to worry about which brand the Sunpak flash was originally designed. All three of my Sunpak flashes were designed for Nikon cameras.

I used Cowboystudio triggers and receivers. The cost for a trigger and four receivers is about $70. The four stands cost about $45. The three Sunpak flashes cost between $25 and $40. The fourth flash, the Pentax AF280T, cost $40. All four flashes combined cost in the neighborhood of $140, brining the total for hummingbird studio to about $255. Unless you find cheaper used flash stands on ebay, you’re not likley to set up a four flash hummingbird studio for less than this. Most flashes with manual output, whether used or new, will cost more than $40. The Sunpak flashes I used are the best value you can find in terms of photographing hummingbirds. They are powerful, adjustable, and inexpensive.

Also required is a 300mm lens that focus at least to six or seven feet. Obviously, a prime is preferable, as a 300mm prime is likely to be considerably sharper than a zoom lens that reaches out to 300mm.

The last requirement is the feeder:

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There are a number of ways that this setup could be improved: a better background, better props around the feeder, etc. That will perhaps be my focus for next years go at the hummers. In the time being, I will have to settle for what was achieved with this years setup:

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