Humming Bird, Panasonic GX8 with flash

Back Yard Humming Birds

Trying to get a decent shot of back yard humming birds has been an exercise in frustration for me.  It’s something I’ve been working on for several years now.

As far as gear  goes, I’ve used Canon DSLR’s (40D and 60D) and 70-200mm f/4 and f/2.8 lenses.  Lately I’ve been using M43 gear including my Olympus E-M5 and now my Panasonic GX8.  Lens choice for M43 is usually between my Panasonic 45-200mm or Olympus 75-300mm.  Neither of these lenses are considered fast, meaning they have a variable aperture with the 45-200mm being faster at f/5.6 vs the 75-300 at f/6.7 at the long end of their zoom range.

So, what does all of that aperture and f-stop stuff mean?  A faster lens, one with an f/2.8 aperture at full zoom will let in a lot more light than one like mine that is f/5.6 at best.  This means you can use a faster, action freezing shutter speed at a lower ISO setting.  Since I don’t have that advantage, I have to get creative to make what I do have work.

One of the things I tried in order to get a decent shutter speed is to increase the ISO.  With my Panasonic GX8 and Oly 75-300mm combination, I start the ISO at 800 and have gone as high as 1600.  While this does increase the sensors sensitivity to light, it can also introduce noise.

With an ISO as high as 1600, I was able to get a shutter speed of 1/800th to 1/1000th of a second. This seems like it should be enough to freeze a humming bird in flight but my results were hit and miss.

Here’s an example:

It’s not a bad shot, but compared to what I’ve seen on various websites and online forums I know it could be much better!

After some very useful information from one of my favorite online forums, and doing a little research, I learned that some folks have excellent results by using flash. This was something I hadn’t considered before. I have a Yongnuo 560III flash that I have only used from time to time and this seemed like a good opportunity to put it to work.

There isn’t an exact science to setting up the camera. I lowered my GX8’s ISO from 800 down to 400, and set my shutter speed for 1/200th of a second, and aperture at 300mm is f/6.7. This was just a starting point and I made some adjustments based on a couple of test shots on a wandering butterfly. One important note is how I set up my flash. The 560III is strictly a manual flash, no TTL or ETTL. Because of this, I needed to determine how much to adjust it’s power output. My starting point was 1/8 power, and once again I adjusted it based on my test shots, but never more than 1/4 power. One of the benefits of keeping the power output of the flash low is that it will recycle much quicker and be ready to fire another shot within a few seconds.

And now for the results:

As you can see, using flash allowed me to capture the humming bird in flight, and increase the color and detail of this tiny little bird. Even with a much lower shutter speed that when I was shooting in natural light with a hight ISO, I was better able to freeze the action using flash.

While I am pleased with the progress I’ve made, there’s still some work to do. One of the problems I’m having is trying to accurately follow these little speedsters as they flit from flower to flower. There are times when the camera will lose focus, and by the time it comes back, the humming bird is gone. I think this just proves that I still have to keep practicing! In the future, I’d like to try and set up the flash off camera, on a stand and a little closer. I may have to disguise it so it doesn’t spook the birds. And just to increase my odds, I got another humming bird feeder. Personally, I like to capture the birds around the flowers and not have a feeder in view, so I have it there mostly as an attractor.

I’ll close this post out by saying that I am in no way an expert on this subject. If anything, I am humbled by both the humming birds and some of the photographers whose I work I’ve seen and admired online.
If you’re curious or want information from a real pro, check out this website – Gerlach Nature Photography. I plan on picking up one of his books for more insight and how-to information. If you have any tips, tricks, or comments, head over to my Facebook page – Up At Dawn Photography and leave them.  Sorry for having you jump over to Facebook, I’ve given up on comments here on the website, there’s just too much spam to deal with.

That’s it, now get out there and do some shooting!