Sparkling Violetear

Photographing Nature's Crown Jewels of the Rainforest

by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            The tiny woodstar, dull and colorless moments before, was suddenly transformed into a shimmering palette of metallic reds, greens, and purples as an early morning sunbeam forced its way through the overhead canopy of trees. Mesmerized by the dream, I watched as the minute life-form sipped nectar from the colorful and exotic flowers decorating the forest floor.

            Michael and Patricia Fogden wrote in an article entitled Living In The Fast Lane, “The human eye is not equipped to capture the whirring wing beats and hummingbirds often appear like floating reflections. Vibrant bursts of motion, shining and iridescent, they accent the symphony of hues in nature’s flower garden and give their distinctive hum to the whisper of the breeze.”

            It’s the lure of capturing on film one of those magical moments so eloquently described by the Fogdens that places hummingbird photography in the same category with chocolate addiction. Only by having a hummingbird likeness portrayed in one’s viewfinder do heart palpitations cease.

            The palpitations began to reside when I pinched myself. It was no dream. It was April and I was in Ecuador’s Tandayapa Valley. I was there to photograph Nature’s prized creations — The Crown Jewels of the Rainforest.

The Place

            The Tandayapa Valley, nestled on the western slope of the Ecuador’s Andes Mountains some 5,000 feet above sea level and dominated by lush cloud forests, is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and exotic hummingbirds. Species like the booted racket-tail, purple-bibbed whitetip, violet-tailed sylph, and green violet-ear are common sights. In all, some 35 species of hummers have been recorded in the valley. Not bad when you consider that only a dozen or so hummers frequent the entire United States.

            Although there are a couple of places in the Valley where one can stay, my choice is the Tandayapa Bird Lodge. The spectacle at the lodge’s hummingbird feeders is without equal. It’s not unusual to see — and walk amongst — 20 species in a single day.

            Here’s a sampling of the species that you’re practically guaranteed to encounter —tawny-bellied hermit, green-fronted lancebill, brown violet-ear, green violet-ear, sparkling violet-ear, western emerald, rufous-tailed hummingbird, Andean emerald, purple-bibbed whitetip, empress brilliant, fawn-breasted brilliant, brown Inca, buff-tailed coronet, booted racket-tail, violet-tailed sylph, and purple-throated woodstar.

            Situated on a ridge overlooking the Tandayapa Valley, the lodge is a paradise for birds and photographers alike. Service, good food, and magnificent views of the surrounding valley, to say nothing of an unmatched variety of exotic hummers, await visitors.

            Getting to the lodge is easy. Simply let them know when you plan on arriving in Quito and they’ll have someone meet you at the airport.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Purple-throated Woodstar
The Outdoor Studio

            Hummers are everywhere at Tandayapa — some sip nectar at one of the many feeders lining the patio balcony while others hover nearby, and yet others preen or simply “take five” on nearby branches. It’s difficult to look in any direction and not see dozens of hummingbirds. Finding perched subjects is easy. Sooner or later, however, you’re thoughts will turn to photographing one of the jeweled masterpieces in flight as it sips nectar from a colorful, exotic flower.

            The easiest and most successful way to do this is to setup your own, outdoor studio complete with flashes, backdrop, and flowers.

Camera.  Digital cameras are made for hummingbird photography, particularly those with a 1.5, or greater, conversion factor. The ability to check your results and tweak the settings within minutes of making the image completely eliminates the need of rushing to a lab at the end of day to find out if everything is properly set. Does this rule out using film-based cameras? Absolutely not. Simply understand that there are no nearby labs.

Lens.  Hummers are small. Fortunately, they are also people-tolerant which allows you to get close enough for frame-filling images. This, however, requires a close focusing lens in the 200-400mm category. Six to 10 feet is a typical working distance. If your lens does not focus this closely, an extension tube may be the answer. The bottom line is this; you’ll need a setup that allows you to completely fill the frame with a 4x6 inch object. A teleconverter may be required to obtain this level of magnification.

            Although you can use a fixed focal length lens, you are better off using a zoom lens, particularly with subjects ranging in size from the diminutive 2 1/2 inch purple-throated woodstar to a 7 1/4 inch violet-tailed sylph.

            My lens of choice is Nikon’s 80-400mm VR lens. Sporting a tripod collar, I can rotate the entire setup, switching from horizontal to vertical, at a moment’s notice; plus, I’m can zoom-in the instant a tiny woodstar appears. Canon’s 100-400mm IS lens provides similar advantages.

            I typically disengage autofocus when photographing hummingbirds. Since hummers return again and again to the same flower, simply focus on this spot and trip the shutter whenever one appears.

Tripod.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a tripod is like a good margarita — they both need to be strong. My recommendation is either Manfrotto’s (Bogen) 3221G Tracker edition or their 3221W Wilderness model. An Arca-Swiss B1 Monoball allows not only fast compositional adjustments, its smooth action is a pleasure to use.

Flowers & Sugar Water.  It’s difficult photographing hummingbirds when they won’t come to your studio setup. The secret of attracting hummers is sugar water. A typical feeder mixture is four parts water and one part sugar. I prefer, however, a three-to-one mixture for my studio setups. Given a choice between the two, hummers will throw rocks at a four-to-one concoction.

            Unless you want to photograph hummingbirds in front of a store-bought feeder, you’ll need to find some way to conceal it. The best way to do this is hide the feeder behind flowers; the smaller the feeder, the easier it is to conceal. I typically use a small, tube feeder made by Perky Pets. By properly placement of the feeder, your subjects will appear as if they are feeding from a flower whenever they visit the feeder.

            An alternative to using hummingbird feeders, one that I like very much, is to place sugar water directly in the flower. Although this technique requires “refilling” the blossom after each visit, it’s easily accomplished with the aid of an eyedropper.

            Flowers can make or break your setup. Purchase potted plants, selecting not only those with showy blossoms, but consider color coordination when making your selection. Although you can lure a hummingbird to practically any type of flower, select species frequented by hummers in the area where you plan to shoot. Likewise, don’t skimp; choose a variety of colors and species.

            Purchase your flowers in Quito. The prices are a fraction of what you would pay in the United States. Simply let your driver know what you want and he’ll do the rest. My choice of driver is Renato Carrillo. His e-mail address:  Tell him that I referred you.

Backdrops.  These can range from simple mat boards to elaborate, hand-painted pieces of canvas. I prefer cloth since it rolls into a neat bundle and fits in my duffel bag. A 4-foot square segment allows plenty of working space. For variety, I use a selection of solid color fabrics (sky blue, forest green, brown) and a piece of mottled-green canvas material that I spray-painted myself.

            Unfortunately, cloth wrinkles. What’s more, the woven texture will show in your images. Overcoming this problem is easy. Simply place the backdrop three or four feet behind your subject and the limited depth of field will blur these distractions.

            Regardless of whether you use matt board or cloth, you’ll need something to hold the backdrop in position. I’ve devised a collapsible, four-legged frame made from 1/2-inch PVC. It weighs practically nothing, easily dismantles, and conveniently packs in my duffel.

Hummer set-up with lights, flowers, unbrella, and backdrop.

Lighting. Most hummingbird species flap their wings 30 to 40 times a second; some woodstars reach 80 beats per second. You'll need more than a fast shutter speed to stop this kind of action. You'll need high-speed electronic flask; the kind that allows you to manually adjust flash output. It's the duration of the flash, not the shutter speed that "freezes" the action.

            My Nikon SB-80DX flash units, for example, have a flash duration of 1/1050 second when set to full power. This is nowhere near fast enough to stop the wing beats of these miniature speed demons. By reducing the power, the duration is also reduced. Depending on the species, you’ll need a flash duration somewhere between 1/10,000 and 1/30,000 second to “freeze” the action.

            Flash output can be reduced automatically when using a through-the-lens (TTL) flash and moving closer to your subject; or, by using a variable power unit that allows you to manually adjust the output. I prefer the latter. Not only does this method allow more control, my Nikon SB-80DX flash unit allows me to know the exact duration of the flash. By setting my flash to 1/32 output, duration is 1/17,800 second; at 1/64 power the duration becomes 1/32,300 second. Now that’s what I call fast. Although light output is reduced, I can overcome the problem by using several flash units and moving them closer to my subject.

            It’s important to use flash units having a high Guide Number.

            You’ll need a minimum of three flash units for your outdoor studio — one directed at the backdrop — this will eliminate any shadows, while the other two illuminate the subject.

            Flashes can be triggered using either flash sync cords or slave units. If you elect the latter method, you’ll need a fourth flash — one mounted on your camera to fire the slave units.

            Slave modules eliminate the need of stringing wire all over the place; and they cost less. However, if the possibility exists that you may someday want to photograph hummers relatively close to another setup, I recommend using flash sync cords. Otherwise, whenever a flash is fired at the neighboring setup, it will also fire your flashes.

            I typically place the subject lights one to two feet in front of the subject and the back light two or three feet away from the backdrop.

            One of the features that attract people to hummingbirds are the iridescent colors ranging from metallic green to red, purple, violet, copper, and even sky blue. Capturing these iridescent rainbows require placing at least one of the front flash units as close as possible to lens axis.

            “Ghosting” can be a problem when using flash to freeze wing movement in bright daylight. Ghosting is nothing more than a double exposure, one of which is the result of the flash and the other, a moment later, caused by ambient light. You can overcome this dilemma by making sure that flash output is several stops brighter than ambient light.

            One the surface it might seem that increasing the output of each unit would eliminate the problem; and to a limited degree, this is correct. It’s important, however, to remember that whenever you increase flash output, you also increased flash duration. After a point, it’s no longer possible to freeze wing movement.

            It doesn’t take long before you begin to realize that there is a delicate balance between flash output and duration when attempting to freeze wing movement.

            The difference between the ambient light and that produced artificially by the flash units must be great enough so that a perfectly exposed picture will result when using artificial light; and, in its absence, an image that is completely black.

            Added to this equation is the need for an aperture small enough to provide sufficient depth of field — f/16 being an absolute minimum.

            There are a couple of innovations that can help you achieve a good balance. Most importantly, locate your outdoor studio in the shade. When this is impractical, use an umbrella to block the sun’s rays. I prefer Photoflex’s 30-inch Convertible Umbrella. Another way to increase flash output and combat the problem of ghosting is to add additional flash units. Likewise, simply moving the flash units closer to the subject will sometimes eliminate the problem. Last, but not least, use a high flash sync speed.

            Here are a couple of things worth remembering when working with flash. Anytime you double the number of flash units, you double the flash output. This translates into a gain of one f/stop. Likewise, when you move the flash units closer to your subject and cut the distance in half, you gain two f/stops.

            Selecting flash units in today’s market can be a daunting experience; the choices are mind-boggling. You can purchase top-of-the-line units made by your camera’s manufacturer, or you can buy manually operated flashes.

            If flash sync cords are better suited to your particular needs and/or you plan on using flash for applications other than hummingbird photography, then I strongly recommend that you consider the former. However, if hummingbird photography will be your only pursuit and you’re absolutely certain that slave units will not be a disadvantage, then Vivitar 283 flash units are a good, economical choice. This particular model sports a respectable 120 Guide Number based on ISO 100 film. You’ll also need a Vivitar VP-1 Varipower Module and a Wein PN Peanut Slave for each unit. These units plug directly into the flash. The Varipower Module allows you to manually set the flash duration.

            In addition, you’ll need a light stand for each strobe. Manfrotto (Bogen) stands have been the industry standard for years. Reasonably priced and precision-made, they are difficult to beat. I use Model 3373, which collapses to 19-inches for easy packing. An SP-Systems Multi-Bracket Clamp not only connects my flash units to their respective stands, the clamp also allows easy up and down positioning of the flash.

Determining Exposure.  Once the lighting, backdrop, and flowers are in place, it’s time to determine the correct exposure. You’ll need a flash meter when using multiple, manually adjustable flash units.

            First, however, set your camera’s flash sync speed and the flash duration of each flash unit. Next, place your flash meter next to the flowers, trigger the flash, and take a reading. Move the flash units as required, taking a reading each time, until you come up with the desired f/stop. Repeat this procedure for the backdrop. The reading should typically be the same for both subject and backdrop. However, I often use different settings for different effects.

            A Minolta Auto Meter IIIF that I’ve had for years works wonders. Not only does it function as a flash meter, it serves double duty as an incident light meter.

Miscellaneous Items.  A Manfrotto (Bogen) 2935 Articulated Arm is, without a doubt, the handiest piece of equipment in my inventory. Mounted atop a light stand, the arm allows me to suspend my hummingbird feeder behind a flower and out of sight.

            A comfortable chair and small table round out the perfect outdoor studio. Everyone knows the chair provides comfort during the long hours of hard work. But small table? Hey, a person needs something on which the set their bottle of Cervesa. After all, that too provides a certain measure of comfort.


            So you’ve decided to go. My advice is to go whenever your heart desires. Hummers inhabit the Tandayapa Valley year ‘round; and, since the valley literally straddles the equator, the climate hardly ever charges.

            Although it’s not necessary to travel to South America’s Tandayapa Valley to apply the techniques outlined in this article, you’ll certainly have more photo opportunities, particularly if your quest is Nature’s Crown Jewels of the Rain Forest.

Green Violetear
Fawn-breasted Brilliant

Find out more about Tandayapa Bird Lodge on their web site:

For hummingbird photography workshops at the lodge
that include professional backdrops and setups:
Exotic Rainforest Hummers

© Weldon Lee/All Rights Reserved

You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .