When I was a kid, gardening was always something my mom enjoyed. I never really understood her fascination with dirt, shovels and plants, but I knew that hanging around with her was the perfect way to find night crawlers, pill bugs and all sorts of other tiny critters. I’ve always loved photography and nature but never really combined the two interests until spring 2004. My girlfriend Michele and I made a decision that would change our springs and summers forever: We dug up half our yard for a hummingbird and butterfly garden.
Six years later, we’re officially obsessed. What started as a small garden with a few coneflowers, bee balms and butterfly bushes now boasts dozens of native perennials and nectar-rich annuals – all perfect hummingbird flowers. Our first summer was exciting, and we felt fortunate to see two hummingbirds at one time in our yard. Every year since, our traffic has increased. Attracting hummingbirds is so rewarding; we love to watch these fliers flitting around the yard from bloom to bloom.
I love hummingbird photography because hummingbirds fascinate me. There is no other creature on the planet like them, with their tremendous speed, precise aerial maneuvering, fierce determination and incredible iridescent glimmer, all on that diminutive feathered frame. They are truly a wonder of nature. Setting out to capture all that attitude and beauty in your own backyard is both a challenge and a joy. When it comes to taking pictures of hummingbirds, I’ve learned that it’s not just about being good with your hoe or your camera. The two go hand in hand. Here are my tips for a creating a hummingbird-friendly backyard and capturing stunning shots at the same time.
Bud’s Five Favorite Hummingbird Flowers
Every hummingbird garden is different due to range and climate. Learn which plants grow in your area, and plant a garden that blooms from spring through fall with nectar-rich hummingbird flowers. In the Midwest, these are great choices for attracting hummingbirds.
Bee balm (Monarda didyma) The Jacob Cline cultivar has clusters of bright-red tubes of nectar from May until August (with deadheading). It’s a showy perennial that’s easy to grow, and this cultivar resists mildew.
Trumpet honeysuckle (Loncera sempervirens) It’s available in red, orange and yellow blooms with names like Alabama Crimson, Blanche Sandman and Major Wheeler. This vine blooms the entire season.
Salvia (Salvia spp) There are too many to list and we love them all. Lady in Red is one of our favorite annuals because it’s easy to grow from seed.
Cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) This annual blooms all summer and grows rapidly. The plant is very easy to propagate from cuttings, which you can overwinter indoors.
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) This Midwest native perennial blooms from August until the end of October, coinciding with the ruby-throated hummingbird’s fall migration.
Bud’s Hummingbird Photography Tips
Know your camera. There are a variety of cameras on the market today that will allow you to get great images of hummingbirds. But what’s most important is that you take the time to understand your equipment’s capabilities, as well as its limitations.
Find support. Tripods are great, but the fast and elusive nature of a hummingbird’s flight makes it hard to use one. Instead, I always carry a small towel or beanbag and use it to support my camera. The crook of a tree, windowsill or deck railing can do the job, too. Find a solid surface that works for you.
Create the right environment. After attracting hummingbirds to your yard, make sure you have enough perches for them to land, preen and rest. If you don’t have many natural perches, make more with dead branches. Next, try to establish your hummingbird area so that the sun is to your back when you observe them. This will allow you to capture greater detail in the feathers.
Be patient. When photographing a hummingbird, pay attention to its behavior. After a while, you can often anticipate where it will go next. It takes time to earn their trust so they will come around when you’re outside. Position yourself close to the blooms that get the most visits, and then wait for the hummingbirds to come to you. Wait until they get used to you before you bring out your camera and start snapping away.
Water entertainment. Hummingbirds love water, especially on hot summer days. Try setting a sprinkler or mister near a perching spot. It won’t take long for them to find it and provide some outstanding entertainment! Just make sure you protect your camera from the moisture.
Fruit fly bliss. Try placing some rotting fruit in a small container to attract fruit flies. Insects can be a large portion of an immature hummingbird’s diet, and it’s intriguing to watch one probe a piece of fruit in search of tiny bugs.
Hover perfection. Using an inexpensive single-port feeder, you can easily capture a hummingbird hovering in midair. Bud suggests limiting the number of feeders available when attempting this. Position yourself so that the hummingbird is in the same plane of view when it backs away as it is drinking. Snap the shot with a high shutter speed. It may take a few attempts to get the timing down, but you’ll master it with practice.
Perfect perches. Some of my favorite hummingbird photography involves capturing the birds stretching and preening. “They are amazing little contortionists and it’s difficult to fully appreciate the range of their flexibility until you take the time to observe one going through its routine,” he says. “If your camera allows you to adjust the shutter speed, set it for 1/500th of a second or faster. Hummingbirds move fast, even when they’re resting.”