How to improve your hummingbirds Photography using HSS

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HSS stands for High Speed Synchronize (Multi-flash Photography) And of course Hummingbirds are one of the bucket list item for most bird photographers and a truly beautiful jewel in flight. While seeing one is extremely easy in Neo-tropical countries like Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador etc. making- great images in flight is not always easy. One needs to have specialized equipment to achieve the results.

The wings of hummingbirds beat 200 times per second. Shutter speeds that we use for fast moving subjects last between 1/250 to 1/1000 of a second. This is not fast enough to freeze the wings. 1/2000 and 1/4000 of a second are not even fast enough to get sharp pictures and to reveal the detail in individual feathers. Some cameras go up to 1/8000, but even if this were fast enough to get tack sharp pictures of hummers, the light entering the lens is so reduced that you would be forced to shoot with a large lens aperture and a high ISO—neither of which are ideal solutions to get clean shots like the images below.

The technique that most wildlife photographers use involves a multi flash setup. However, it's not straightforward at all. The typical duration of flash i.e. the length of time that the flash tube is illuminated during an exposure—is typically about 1/1000th of a second when used on manual. However, when the power output of the flash unit is reduced to 1/16th power, the flash duration becomes much shorter—about 1/16,000th of a second. This is fast enough to freeze the wings of hummingbirds.

Below are the steps I use to get tack sharp images –
My typical setup consists of 5 major elements –
Five flash units -
2 in front
1 from top
1 on the bird at 90 degrees
1 pointing the BG (background)

A large print of foliage printed on a card is placed behind the flower to act as BG of the image. Since the aperture used in shooting humming birds is so small everything is usually in focus. A smooth BG ensures pleasing results.

A wireless transmitter sits on top of the camera to trigger the strobes. I use the Yongnuo YN E3 RT

A flower or branch is clamped to a support. The same sugar water that is used in feeders is placed into the flower so the hummingbirds hover above the flower to drink.

At 1/32th power (all the flash units are set to the same power output), the recycle time is very brief—about 1/2 second or even less. This allows the photographer to shoot more frames than on higher power.

Lock focus around the flower and switch lens to manual focus.
It takes a little bit of practice to get the flash power right and after some minor adjustments things will work out.